Add together a few outstanding teams, a handful of very good squads and a multitude of star players, and you'll get what should shape up to be a terrific season in Class AA.
As is the case in many years, Aliquippa is the team with the target on its back. The Quips had their way with opponents last season en route to winning the WPIAL title, so the fact they return the majority of their top players might strike fear into many of their foes.
The Quips will be challenged, however. South Fayette's aerial assault should carry the Lions far. Washington boasts one of the area's top rushing attacks. Beaver Falls could be undefeated when it plays the Quips in their Midwestern Athletic Conference finale.
And teams such as Shady Side Academy and Greensburg Central Catholic might also be good enough to make a strong run toward Heinz Field.
Then you have the star factor. There could end up being at least 10 seniors playing in Class AA who go on to play collegiately at the Division I level. Aliquippa and Beaver Falls might have three each, possibly more.
Aliquippa's Dravon Henry and Washington's Shai McKenzie are two of the most highly recruited players in the state, and both carry offers from some of the elite programs in the country.
All in all, this year's crop of Class AA talent is as good as it has been in recent years.
The Bucs went 8-2 last season and earned a share of the Allegheny Conference championship, but reaching those heights again this season will be difficult after the graduation of running back/linebacker Cole Bush.
Bush, a three-time all-conference selection, was a do-it-all standout who ran for 1,794 yards and scored 33 touchdowns last season. Clairton's Tyler Boyd and Washington's Shai McKenzie were the only WPIAL players who found the end zone more often.
Big things are expected from senior quarterback Cody Wolfe, who replaces 1,000-yard passer James Liput. Wolfe has a proven target in senior Nicholas Pattock. Last season, Pattock led the Bucs with 24 catches and 387 yards.
It's likely one player won't replace Bush's production, so the Bucs will rely on a group of running backs led by senior Mitch Pollino and junior Ryan Sowol. Pollino was second on the team in rushing last season with 284 yards and four touchdowns.
The Bucs lost to Mount Pleasant in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs.
For the second year in a row, the Wildcats have a new coach. The team hopes this coaching change nets it more wins than the previous one did.
Dom Pecora, who went 7-12 the past two seasons at Southmoreland, was hired to help turn around a program that, after making consecutive WPIAL playoff appearances, went 1-8 last season. After winning at Summit Academy to begin the season, East Allegheny dropped its final eight games.
"I think [the players have] responded great," Pecora said. "Since I got this job, we haven't missed one day with them. Hopefully them seeing me and the staff every day, they understand football is a 12-month-a-year commitment."
East Allegheny should do well offensively. The Wildcats averaged 20.2 points per game last season and return three-year starting quarterback Kyle Whipple (6-1, 175, Sr.), who has passed for more than 2,100 yards and 25 touchdowns the past two seasons combined.
The team's option offense will also include running backs Taizjon Brown (5-8, 160, Jr.) and wide receiver Praise Gainer (5-8, 150, Sr.). Gino DePaoli (6-1, 210, Jr.) and Sam Mikolay (5-11, 240, Soph.) are two of the top linemen.
Improving on defense will be one of the keys, as East Allegheny allowed an Allegheny Conference-worst 34 points per game.
Greensburg Central Catholic
Quarterback Chase Keller is aptly named. When opposing players try to tackle him, they often have to chase him down.
Keller (6-4, 195, Sr.) is one of the top returning dual-threat quarterbacks in the WPIAL. A season ago, he completed 57 percent of his passes for 1,378 yards and 15 touchdowns, while adding 577 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. Division I schools are showing interest.
"We expect a lot from him. We need his leadership and ability to manage the offense and to build on his accomplishments from last year," coach Dan Mahoney said. "He's a threat with his arms and legs."
The Centurions return six starters on both sides of the ball from a team that finished 6-4, placing fourth in the Interstate Conference. Two of their regular-season defeats were by a combined three points.
Inside linebacker Nate Stone (6-1, 220, Sr.) will be the rock of a Centurions defense that is coming off a season where they surrendered only 13.6 points a game. Stone, who is getting Division I looks, will also play running back and slot receiver. Mahoney called Stone the "glue" of the team. The Centurions have another excellent linebacker in Seth Warburton (5-9, 195, Sr.).
The running game will also include Tyler Balla (5-9, 185, Sr.), who rushed for 309 yards and six touchdowns, and Eddie Kilkeary (5-8, 195, Sr.).
Two of the team's top linemen are Nick Ireland (6-0, 270, Sr.) and Jake Wallace (6-0, 260, Jr.).
Coach Roy Hall's Jayhawks entered last season as one of the most experienced teams in Class AA, but that's anything but the case this season.
The Jayhawks must reload and grow up quickly after losing their top five rushers -- including Jordan Edmunds and Shavonta Craft -- and starting quarterback Seth Miller.
Hall said the Jayhawks have about six returning starters and only 11 seniors.
"We have a pretty solid starting 11, but after that it's pretty slim," Hall said. "The key thing is staying healthy."
Quentin Rickard (5-8, 175, Sr.) is the likely starter at tailback, while Damone Morton (6-3, 185, Sr.), Zack Altieri (5-10, 165, Jr.) and Terell Canady (5-8, 160, Jr.) will also see carries in a rushing attack that likes to spread the ball around. Morton was the team's leading receiver last season with 12 catches for 297 yards and five touchdowns. Julian Batts (5-11, 160, Jr.) will take over at quarterback.
Other key contributors include tight end/linebacker Michael Wise (6-3, 210, Sr.) and two-way lineman Matt Howard (6-1, 250, Sr.).
Last season, the Jayhawks went 10-2 and earned a second-place finish in the Interstate Conference. They made it to the WPIAL semifinals, where they fell hard to eventual champion Aliquippa, 56-0.
The Vikings are flying under the radar heading into the season, but don't mistake the lack of hype as being a weakness -- this team has the potential to be very good.
A big reason for the optimism is the return of a key group of players led by running back Tyler Mellors (5-7, 170, Sr.). Mellors was the fifth-leading rusher in Class AA last season with 1,490 yards and set a school record with 25 touchdowns. He rushed for 496 yards and scored five touchdowns the first two games alone.
Five other offensive starters are back, including quarterback Ryan Gumbita (6-4, 2-5, Sr.), who passed for 789 yards and seven touchdowns. Gumbita, Mellors and two-way tackle Eric Klejka (6-0, 280, Sr.) were named to the All-Interstate Conference team last season.
Coach Bo Ruffner expects significant contributions from running back/linebacker Brett Fess (6-1, 180, Sr.), running back/defensive back Ryan Ballew (5-8, 155, Sr.) and two-way lineman Jessie Leonard (6-0, 250, Sr.).
The Vikings went 8-3 a season ago, with each of the losses coming to WPIAL semifinalists Jeannette, Washington and Aliquippa. The Vikings averaged 37.5 points per game.
Demetrius Houser played a big part in the Vikings stunning turnaround season a year ago, and his ability to do the same this season could be paramount to the team gaining similar success.
Houser (6-1, 200, Sr.) rushed for 1,193 yards and 15 touchdowns, both team highs. Houser made the most of his 129 rushing attempts, averaging close to 10 yards per carry.
The only other Valley player to run for more than 100 yards was Jaden Walker (481), who graduated.
"He's got that natural ability, stuff you can't teach," coach Chad Walsh said of Houser. "He has two speeds, and once he kicks it into second gear, he's gone."
Even Walsh likely didn't see Valley doing what it did in his first season last fall. Coming into the year on a 22-game losing streak and without a win in two seasons, the Vikings won their season opener against Deer Lakes and went on to finish 6-4. They placed fourth in the Allegheny Conference and made it to the WPIAL playoffs, where they lost to Beaver.
A few of the top skill-position players are back, including quarterback Ty Matthews (6-2, 220, Sr.). Also returning are fullback Dylan Clarke (5-9, 195, Sr.) and slot back D'Aundre Johnson (5-10, 150, Soph.).
The Vikings return three senior starters on the offensive line -- Marcus Davenport (6-2, 185), Dylan Rockwell (5-10, 215) and Terrell Fields (6-0, 190).
The football program has seen a steady incline since Mark Crovak took over as coach in 2010. In his first season, the Cougars went 0-9 and finished ninth in the Interstate Conference. In 2011, they went 2-7 and finished seventh. Last season, the Cougars went 4-5 and placed fifth.
Said Crovak: "We're still climbing the ladder."
A season ago, the Cougars were 0-5 against playoff teams, but 4-0 against teams that did not make the playoffs. A continued ascent might depend on the team's ability to beat teams such as Jeannette and Mount Pleasant.
Tyler Donahue (6-0, 170, Sr.) is a three-year starter at quarterback who also doubles at safety, passing for more than 1,000 yards each of the past two seasons. As a junior, Donahue passed for 1,255 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Donahue has two of his favorite targets back in running back/receiver/safety Clay Waldron (6-0, 205, Jr.) and receiver/defensive back Joe Pleva (6-0, 165, Sr.). Waldron had team highs of 26 receptions for 405 yards and eight touchdowns. Waldron also rushed for 345 yards.
Among the top two-way linemen are seniors Chandler Daniel (6-4, 245) and Jake Brundage (6-1, 230).