LINCOLNTON, Ga. - Every football program starts a season with certain expectations. At Lincoln County, those expectations are very specific.
The Red Devils are expected to win their opener Sept. 1 at McCormick.
They'll be expected to win their annual hatefest with Washington-Wilkes on Sept. 15.
They'll be expected to clinch the region title at home against Twiggs County on Nov. 3.
They'll be expected to win their playoff opener on Nov. 17 to give coach Larry Campbell his 400th career victory.
After that, they'll be expected to advance to the Georgia Dome and a week later win their 14th state championship - opponents, dates and times to be determined.
"If we do anything besides win the state championship, the season won't be complete," said senior quarterback Brandon Barden. "It won't be right."
So, Region 7-A and Class A football for 2006 can be summed up as simply as that, right? Lincoln County has just about every critical player back from last year's state championship team, so why not give the engraver a head start?
"We've got sense enough to know they don't come that easy," said Campbell. "One injury here or there can mean a difference in Class A football. We've had years we've thought we'd have a pretty good football team and it didn't turn out that way, and years like last year when everything kind of molded together."
After 34 years piling up 389 victories and 10 state titles in Lincolnton, even Campbell concedes that the 2005 season stands out as his most satisfying. After going 0-3 for the program's worst start in more than 50 years, the Red Devils swept the rest of the slate - including a once-in-a-lifetime state title showdown at home with their biggest rival, Washington-Wilkes.
"I've never seen a team from Game 1 to Game 15 get any better," Campbell said. "I don't know who could have beat 'em at the end of the year, where at the start of the year I think everybody could've beat us."
After that horrid start, Campbell committed completely to a new style of his double-wing offense that caught some people off guard. But it was really his team's refocused attitude after a miserable 36-16 defeat against Greenbrier that carried the Red Devils to the title.
"We really challenged our kids after the Greenbrier loss, which was one of the most embarrassing losses we've ever had - simply because we quit," Campbell said. "Boy did they respond. They became leaders and we couldn't run them off the field. It ended up being a superior season."
The senior-laden Red Devils have a wealth of that superior skill returning, with 80 percent of its rushing yardage, 76 percent of its rushing touchdowns and every bit of its passing game back from last year's title team. The two most explosive playmakers are Darell and Rontae Norman, though they have plenty of help.
"We have probably nine or 10 running backs who can get the ball and probably start at any other school around here," Barden said. "It's unreal."
Barden, who has verbally committed to play for Atlantic Coast Conference power Virginia Tech, will be back underneath center. Barden's rugged style accounted for more than 500 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns, including all three in the state championship game. When called upon, Barden made big plays passing with 857 yards and nine more touchdowns in only 44 completions on the year.
All this success despite a double-wing offense that doesn't particularly suit Barden's talents.
"At first I didn't really like it, but in the system we're in the quarterback gets to run the ball a lot and I like having the ball in my hands," Barden said.
Campbell wants to make sure he gets some playing time for backup junior Austin Goldman, who will take over when Barden graduates. When Goldman is in, Barden will be used at receiver and tight end as well as his alternate role as outside linebacker.
"Brandon prefers to play the receiver position and Austin is good enough (to play more at quarterback)," Campbell said. "But nothing takes the place of experience in big ballgames."
With Washington-Wilkes returning to Class AA, Lincoln County will have new rivals in a spread-out Region 7-A. The foremost challenge will be Twiggs County.
None of that will lower the high bar firmly set in Lincolnton.
"There's a lot of expectations around town," said Barden. "A lot of people are putting pressure on us. I think we're doing pretty good right now. If we keep our heads on right, there should be no reason for us not to be back where we were last year."
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
CLASS A PRESEASON POLL
Team (1st-place votes) Pts.
1. Lincoln County (9) 90
2. Bowdon 72
3. Johnson County 65
4. Hawkinsville 56
5. Bremen 50
6. Twiggs County 45
7. Savannah Country Day 40
8. Clinch County 31
9. Turner County 7
10. Landmark Christian 5
Others receiving votes: Commerce, Portal, Gordon-Lee, Social Circle, Jefferson, Seminole County