Region realignment may not strike some high school football fans as the most interesting topic - it's the nature of the game with teams moving in and out, up and down, every two years.
However, the Georgia High School Association's latest wave of classifications has created the possibility of some climactic endings to the season. It has also made for more competition with more teams battling for the same four playoff spots. Region 8-AAA jumped up to 13 schools from its previous nine in 2009. Locally, Region 6-AA, 8-AA and 8-A also increased in size.
"I think the GHSA did as good and as fair of a job as possible with realigning the schools and creating balance for playoff purposes," East Hall coach Bryan Gray said.
Less than half of the area schools were not moved to a new region for the 2010-2011 school year calendar. Habersham Central (8-AAAA), Buford (6-AA), Jefferson, Banks County and Union County (8-AA) and Commerce (8-A) are staying put where they were last season. Towns County and Lakeview Academy are still in Region 8-A and playing non-region schedules.
For everyone else, it's a brand new landscape for football. The old Region 7-AAA - with the exception locally of Flowery Branch and East Hall - has moved into 8-AAA. The Falcons have jumped up to Region 8-AAAA. The Vikings are now in Region 8-AA.
For many, a subdivided schedule will be nothing new. What is new, however, is the region play-in game at the end of the regular season.
In the case of Region 8-AAA and 8-AA, the region play-in game creates a wildcard system of sorts. Each subregion champion faces each other for the region title. The winner takes the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, the loser gets No. 2.
To determine the third and fourth spots, the No. 2 seed from one subregion plays the No. 3 seed from the other side.
Each team not involved in playing for a playoff spot will play the corresponding team from the other side of the region to have a 10th game.
"Since we have more than 10 teams in region and you can't play everyone on the schedule, this is the best way to do things," Lumpkin County coach Tommy Jones said.
In Region 8-AAA, this new alignment leaves the door open for a region championship game between Gainesville and North Hall - each the winner of three region titles in 7-AAA since 2004. These two schools play during the regular season at The Brickyard, and would also play a region title game at North Hall with that side of the subregion holding home field advantage for the play-in game.
Region 8B-AAA, the South subregion, includes Gainesville, Johnson, Monroe Area, West Hall, Oconee County and Walnut Grove.
Region 8A-AAA, also known as the North subregion, houses North Hall, Chestatee, Lumpkin County, White County, Franklin County and Stephens County.
North Hall coach Bob Christmas feels his subregion is considerably harder this season than last after picking up Franklin County and Stephens County, and dropping Gilmer, Creekview and Pickens. All along, he's been more in favor of playing a straight region schedule instead of any subdivision.
"It is what it is now, and I'm totally fine with the system we have in place," Christmas said.
Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said that one of the biggest challenges playing in a freshly drawn region is seeing so many new schools. In the past, Miller points out that coaches could essentially carry over a relatively similar gameplan from season to season with games against the same schools. Now, a lot of that goes out the window with so many new opponents.
Still, playing schools on an even playing field with similar enrollment figures makes all the changes worthwhile for the coach of the Red Elephants - last season's Class AAA state runner-up.
"The only thing I don't like is that if you are a team that makes it to the state title game, then the region play-in game is like another playoff game on top of the other five," Miller said. "There's going to be a lot of adjustments this year."
The region play-in system is the same in Region 8-AA.
Gray is a huge proponent of having the third team in the subregion still in the hunt for the playoff spot. More teams will be on track to earn that spot in the region play-in game to qualify for the playoffs. He said that it will have a trickle down effect to keep fans at more schools interested longer and help boost draw at the gate.
East Hall's coach added players are more inclined to stay focused and interested in the team if there is a possibility of getting into the playoffs. Gray said schools would fall off the playoff radar in the old Region 7-AAA once they lost two subregion games.
"The way it is now, it makes you push all the way to the end of the year," Gray said. "It builds a lot of excitement."
East Hall is in the same subegion with Dawson County, Rabun County, Fannin County, Union County and Banks County.
The other side of the region includes Elbert County, Jackson County, Jefferson, Hart County, Oglethorpe County, North Oconee and East Jackson.
Gray says that dropping down in classification doesn't make things easier.
"It is going to be a very challenging region," Gray said. "Our side has a bunch of strong physical teams, and the other side is very athletic."
Also a big fan of having the region play-in game is White County coach Gregg Segraves. According to Segraves, he joined Gray in pushing for the region play-in game during the days playing together in Region 7-AAA. Segraves said that last season only magnifies why the region play-in game was a good idea for his program. The Warriors finished 7-3 in 2009 and were shut out of the postseason due to loses to North Hall and Creekview.
"Having this region play-in game makes things so exciting," Segraves said. "It's really going to make things a coin flip and exciting for the fans to watch all the way through Week 9."
Chestatee coach Stan Luttrell said that his program has been in the situation of that third-place finisher in the subregion more than once. Now, he says that third-place finisher getting to play for a playoff spot in Week 10 is good for the region.
"I think this helps us all out," Luttrell said. "Even if you're struggling, you still get to play the team that matches up in the last week of the season.
"The way this came out is the fairest way possible."
Gray says one idea he'd like to see the GHSA pass in the future is moving to six classifications - like Florida - instead of the five our state has in place. He says that there is still too much disparity in school size with schools in Class AA - the largest just over 1,000 students (Pike County) and the smallest just a shade over 500 (Greene County) - to all have the same amount of talent to pull from.
Buford High coach Jess Simpson is also a fan of subdividing in Region 6-AA for the fact that it allows for tough out-of-region games to open the season. This year, the three-time defending Class AA state champion Wolves open with games at Gainesville and Carver-Columbus.
Region 8-AAAA didn't grow in size from last season, still sitting with 11 teams, but it did pick up Flowery Branch. In this region, teams play a straight region schedule and the top four programs advance to the postseason.
Falcons coach Lee Shaw knows it will be a battle playing in the same region with 2009 state finalist Clarke Central, state semifinalist Rockdale County and defending region champ Apalachee.
"I expect this region to be extremely tough," Shaw said. "Just like Region 7-AAA has made a name for itself these last few years in the state, I believe Region 8-AAAA made a statement this year as well."
One school that is used to being re-classified is Jackson County. As recently as 2007, the Panthers played in Class AAAA, spent the past two years playing in Class AAA, and are now in Class AA. Students have been drawn away from the Jackson County district since East Jackson opened three years ago.
Jackson County coach Billy Kirk said that playing a region play-in game is the best-case solution to an imperfect system.
"With an uneven number of teams, you really have no choice," Kirk said. "But the good thing is that everything gets settled on the field."