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Looking ahead to football season

As TSSAA sports teams resume offseason work after the two-week dead period on Monday, here’s a look at a few things we’re keeping track ahead of the beginning of preseason camp related to high school football in Jackson and Madison County this season.

What coach in Jackson has been with his team the longest? Darby Palmer at Jackson Christian. Palmer became the dean of Jackson football coaches this year after Trinity Christian’s Blake Butler left to go to Evangelical Christian in Memphis this past offseason. The Eagles have been on an upward trajectory since his first couple seasons leading the program.

How will University School of Jackson navigate moving up a class? USJ dominated their region last year – going 6-0 by an average of 47.5 points per game. But when the TSSAA reclassified all of its schools based on enrollment last November, the Bruins moved up a class to Division II-A. They’re back in the same league now with some of their old rivals like St. George’s and ECS, who is coached by former TCA coach Blake Butler now.

Will JMCSS schools have a better showing in 2023? Liberty finished 2022 0-10 with a 14-point loss to McNairy Central being their closest game. North Side went 1-9, having scored 57 points all season and 39 of them coming in their lone win over Liberty. South Side went 3-8 with wins over its Jackson rivals and another one over McNairy, giving the Hawks enough wins to get into the playoffs before being eliminated handily by eventual state runner-up Pearl-Cohn. Jackson Central-Merry played as an independent team in its second season back from being shut down and went 3-5, ending the season on a two-game win streak. If the teams are to combine for more than seven wins this year, that will depend on other factors in the next few questions.

How will JCM do in Region 6-2A? A look at the Cougars’ region foes this year looks like a who’s who of West Tennessee traditional football powers. Games against Camden, Milan, Adamsville, Huntingdon, Peabody, Riverside and Gibson County will determine if they make the postseason in November. Peabody made it to the state quarterfinals last year and has won four championships in the last decade. Huntingdon made it to the state semifinals last year. Who eliminated the Mustangs? Riverside, who was two points short of winning its first-ever state championship a week later. Adamsville had a dominant run about a decade ago for a few years but has since been a consistent playoff team, and a similar statement can be made about Camden. And in many fans’ eyes, Milan is the measuring stick for football programs on this end of the state. All of them except Gibson County were in the playoffs last year. And all playoff teams except Camden and Milan won at least one playoff game.

Can North Side or South Side break into the top four of Region 6-4A? One of the teams will definitely have a region win when they meet in October. With six teams in the region, they need to win twice to have a shot at the postseason. Chester County has been on the rise since hiring Dewond Johnson away from Lexington to coach the Eagles. The other three teams – Hardin County, Lexington and South Gibson – are three of the more consistent big-school teams in the region. The Indians and Hawks have their work cut out for them.

Can Liberty break through to the playoffs in Region 7-3A? The Crusaders have worked this offseason to build depth to give themselves a better shot at competing on both sides of the ball. In their region, there are three consistent teams that will be the teams to beat to compete for a home game in the first round – Covington, Dyersburg and Westview, who’s two years removed from a state championship. After that, the Crusaders have to compete with four other programs who have been sporadic when it comes to wins and losses in the past few years with Bolivar, McNairy Central, Ripley and Scotts Hill in the league. Liberty is one of those schools opposing coaches are leery of because of the athleticism in the school, so the Crusaders are viewed as dangerous if they can turn things around this year.

Can Jackson Christian break through and win the second state championship in Jackson history? The Eagles came close last year, falling in the state semifinals to eventual state runner-up Nashville Christian. They finished second in the region last year to USJ, who’s now in Division II-A, so unless another school brought in a ton of talent, the Eagles will probably be viewed as the preseason favorite to win the league. Probably the biggest obstacle between Jackson Christian and a region championship is on Windy City Road.

Can Darren Bowling lead TCA to immediate success? The Lions finished third in the region last year fell to Jackson Christian by a touchdown in the game that determined the region runner-up and ultimately who got to host a first-round playoff game. Bowling is known for his success at Union City running an old-school type of offense, but he said he’s spent a few years in his career spreading the offense out when the personnel lends itself to that type of play. They appear to be the most likely choice to challenge Jackson Christian for the region championship. Their matchup comes in the final week of the season on the final Thursday in October.

Along with Bowling, will the four new coaches in Jackson be able to make immediate positive impacts on their programs? Bowling probably has the most eyes watching the Lions to see what they will do this fall because of his past success. But North Side coach Woodrow Lowe Jr. has made quick gains in the past when he coached at Bolivar. He developed the Tigers from a cellar dweller in their region to a region championship contender in less than two seasons. The new coaches at South Side and USJ have first-time head coaches leading their respective programs and different challenges facing them. USJ’s is the new region against bigger schools.

Can South Side head coach Lester Narcisse put everything together to help the Hawks succeed in Year 1? Narcisse inherits a team that finished 3-8 last year. That team is in a tough region with multiple teams fielding players with NCAA Division I scholarship offers. He took over the program in June, which didn’t give him a lot of time to meet the players before TSSAA’s two-week dead period. When the teams return from the break, they’ll have six weeks to prepare for the season. The fact that Narcisse embraces that challenge and likes the attitude of the players during the sudden transition as school got out for the summer means the Hawks have their backs against the wall, but he believes he’s got a chance if he has a team full of guys willing to stick it out like he’s seen so far.

Who will win the Commissioner’s Cup? The Commissioner’s Cup is the trophy given to the JMCSS team that finishes with the best record in games against other JMCSS teams. 2018 was the first year it was implemented, and North Side won it the first three years. South Side has won it the last two. JCM officially enters the fray this year, so teams will have to play three games in the competition for it. Those six games happen on Aug. 18 (JCM at Liberty), two on Aug. 25 (JCM at South Side and Liberty at North Side), Sept. 1 (Liberty at South Side), Sept. 29 (North Side at JCM) and Oct. 6 (North Side at South Side).

What are some other things to watch this season? TCA will play five straight games on the road after three games at home and before finishing with two at home. JCM doesn’t have a home stadium yet, so the Cougars’ home games will be played at Liberty, North Side and South Side depending on who has availability each week. The private school teams can have their own version of the Commissioner’s Cup as they all play each other gain even though USJ is no longer in the same region. Those three games are Sept. 1 (USJ at TCA), Sept. 8 (USJ at Jackson Christian) and Oct. 26 (Jackson Christian at TCA). Week 1 will be a great chance for fans to see their favorite Jackson teams as all teams play in Jackson except North Side, as the Indians open their season at Crockett County. Week 2 is similar with everyone except Jackson Christian (at Peabody) in town. Five are in town in Week 3. Week 7 will be the fewest games in Jackson in the regular season with North Side at JCM and Jackson Christian hosting FACS. Everybody else is either off that week or playing on the road. Week 11 only has two games with Jackson Christian at TCA on Thursday, Chester County at North Side. South Side is out of town, but they’re at South Gibson in nearby Medina.

Brandon Shields, brandon@jacksonpost.news

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