PETTICOAT JUNCTION --- South Carolina's football landscape has changed considerably since 2000-2001.
That's when Silver Bluff ruled the roost in Class AA, and the Bulldogs were perennial state championship contenders.
Fast forward to this year, and the realignment of the South Carolina High School League has dropped some traditional football powers into the Class AA ranks.
"It's been real interesting," Silver Bluff coach Al Lown said. "We were one of the top three AA schools in 2000-01. Now we've dropped in enrollment, and we're around No. 15 or 16."
Silver Bluff hasn't won a state title since 2001, but it has been one of the top teams in its region. Now, the Bulldogs will have to deal with the likes of Strom Thurmond, Dillon, Timberland, Cheraw and Manning if they want to make a run at a state title.
"AA has changed dramatically for us," Lown said. "When I first started coaching, if you could beat Barnwell or Pageland Central, you could win state."
That doesn't mean Lown and the Bulldogs are ready to give in.
Silver Bluff returns 12 starters and a veteran group of players off last year's team that won the region championship.
"I'm pretty excited about this year. We only had five seniors last year. This year we've got more senior leadership," Lown said. "Our schedule's a lot tougher. We might have a better team, but not win as many games."
Silver Bluff takes on Aiken, South Aiken and Midland Valley -- all bigger schools -- in the first four weeks of the season. But that's not unusual for the Bulldogs, who like to test themselves early in the year.
"We make no bones about trying to win state. There's certain things you've got to do to get there," Lown said. "You've got to play tough people. You've got to find out about yourself early. We'll see how it works out."
With seven returning starters, Lown thinks his defense will be pretty solid. Top players include linebackers Kendrick Garnett and Bradley Allen and defensive backs Jamal Beal and Frederick Garnett.
Silver Bluff's explosive Wing-T attack on offense will feature the Garnetts at running back. Austin Pollock is the starting quarterback, but he will be pushed by freshman Cordrea Tankersley.
Lown says the run-oriented Bulldogs will run the Wing-T from the shotgun formation and throw the ball more.
"Our offensive line is really inexperienced. We're struggling right now, but I've got a great coach, Keith Radford, working with them," Lown said. "So we'll try to do some things differently, throwing the ball more than we have in the past."
If the offense does stall, Lown knows he has a solid performer in kicker/punter Kyle Mackey. He made five of seven field goals last season, including a 43-yard attempt, and made 36 of 37 point after touchdown attempts.
"We have an excellent kicker in Kyle Mackey, who we feel is all-state caliber at kicker," Lown said. "We're really solid on special teams."
Reach John Boyette at (706) 823-3337 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
SILVER BLUFF BULLDOGS
COACH: Al Lown (15th season)
CLASSIFICATION: SCHSL Region 5-AA
LAST YEAR: 8-4, won Region 5-AA and lost to Pageland Central in the second round of the Class AA Lower State playoffs
STARTERS BACK: 5 on offense, 7 on defense
NOTABLE: Brothers Frederick and Kendrick Garnett, both seniors, combined to rush for 1,249 yards and 16 TDs a year ago.
BOTTOM LINE: Silver Bluff won back-to-back state titles in 2000 and 2001 but hasn't made it past the second round of the playoffs since. There's reason to hope the Bulldogs will go farther this year if a difficult schedule doesn't create injuries and crush spirit.