Aug. 23—After an offseason full of coaching changes, new faces emerging and familiar players continuing to boost their stock, football season is finally here.
In looking at this season's schedules and wide-open regions, there are more must-watch matchups than ever among local teams.
With plenty of exciting matchups set for every team in the area, here are a few games that should be circled on every local football fan's calendar this season.
Alexandria: at Southside, Oct. 20
—Last season's matchup between the Valley Cubs and the Panthers that saw Alexandria win 54-47 was nothing short of a thriller. In fact, it set the Southside program record for most points scored in a game by both teams. If Alexandria can pull away from Southside in a loaded Class 5A, Region 6, it should give the Valley Cubs a huge leg up in the race for a playoff spot.
Anniston: at Jacksonville, Sept. 15
—After last season's thriller of a matchup, this cross-county rivalry should make for one of the best games in the state. Both teams have the talented position groups for plenty of fun matchups across the field, highlighted by the Golden Eagles' talented passing offense led by Jim Ogle and Ky'Dric Fisher going up against Jayden Lewis and a loaded Anniston defensive back room. If Anniston can pull away from the Golden Eagles for a second straight season, the Bulldogs would be in a solid position in Class 4A, Region 4.
Cleburne County: vs. Munford, Sept. 22
—There's plenty of noise surrounding who will make it to the playoffs in Class 4A, Region 4, and one of these teams is certainly in the mix to nab a spot. Cleburne County is looking to lock up its first playoff spot since 2015, and Munford will be looking for its second consecutive. The Tigers are on a quest to make a splash this season, and a win over Munford would certainly be a huge step in the right direction.
Donoho: vs. Wadley, Sept. 15
—In his second season at the helm, Jeremy Satcher's next goal is a winning season. In last season's matchup against Wadley, Donoho fell in a 44-12 away matchup. Now, an improved and more in-tune Donoho team is set to host the Bulldogs in an important Class 1A matchup that should determine some playoff spots. In the Falcons' quest to lock down their first winning season since 2019, an early-season win over Wadley would certainly propel the team in the right direction.
Glencoe: at Hokes Bluff, Sept. 8
—If Glencoe wants to make an impression this season, taking down Hokes Bluff would certainly be a key place to start. Last season's 21-14 loss was the closest game in the Yellow Jackets' seven-game losing streak to the Eagles. Glencoe is hoping for an improved 2023 campaign, and a win over a crosstown rival would provide a much-needed morale boost this season.
Jacksonville: at Handley, Sept. 8
—The stakes are as high as they've ever been in Class 4A, Region 4, and this is one of the games that could drastically shape the playoff picture. Last season's battle of high-octane offensive play saw the Tigers leave Jacksonville with a 54-41 victory in hand. With both teams improved and finer tuned, there's no doubt that this year's edition of the Class 4A, Region 4 showdown will be another must-see matchup.
Ohatchee: at Hokes Bluff, Oct. 13
—Last year's matchup with the Eagles proved to be the key game in Ohatchee's bizarre turnaround season. Now, with Ohatchee hoping for its eighth straight playoff game, the team's matchup with Hokes Bluff will be as important as ever with the high stakes in Class 3A, Region 6. There's plenty of interesting matchups on Ohatchee's strong schedule, but a statement win over Hokes Bluff would help get the team in a solid position.
Oxford: vs. Clay-Chalkville, Oct. 20
—Even without the implications of this being a key region game, this could make for one of the best showdowns in the state regardless of class. Still, this is a matchup that could mean the difference for an Oxford team that has the talent to make some noise in Class 6A. The Yellow Jackets have been impressive in the preseason, and a win over one of the state's top programs would be a huge boost for a high-octane Yellow Jackets squad.
Piedmont: vs. Anniston, Sept. 28
—As much fun as a Thursday night matchup is, this showdown between two Calhoun County contenders would be a must-see game no matter what day of the week it's played on. Last season's edition of the restored matchup between two historic programs saw Anniston take home a narrow 30-28 victory. Not only would this be Piedmont's first win over Anniston, but it would be a signature win crossed off on the team's loaded schedule.
Pleasant Valley: at Locust Fork, Oct. 6
—This matchup should be labeled as a "must-win" for the Raiders. Last season, Pleasant Valley's heartbreaker loss to Locust Fork turned out to be one of the more important games in the Class 2A, Region 6 playoff race. With Pleasant Valley heading into this season with a new mentality, this year's edition of the matchup is a must-win for the Raiders who will hope to clinch their first playoff bid since 2010.
Ranburne: vs. Thorsby, Oct. 20
—This season's Ranburne team heads into the season with more confidence in the team's depth and an invigorated spirit for more wins. Last year's matchup with Thornsby to push the Bulldogs farther out of the playoff picture may have something to do with that spirit. With Thornsby set to travel to Ranburne for a late-season matchup, a win could put the Bulldogs in the playoff picture or even in a position to host a playoff game. This season's Class 2A, Region 4 playoff order should be one to keep an eye on, and the Bulldogs' matchup with Thornsby will be key in deciding that finish.
Saks: vs. Randolph County, Oct. 6
—Alphonso Freeney wants to make a statement in his first season back in Calhoun County, and this matchup will be one to mark down. Last season's overtime thriller between Saks and Randolph County turned out to be key in earning home field advantage in Class 3A, Region 4. With the Wildcats boasting a tough schedule yet again, this midseason region game will be an important one for both Saks and all the teams vying for one of the playoff spots in Class 3A, Region 4.
Southside: at Moody, Oct. 27
—Both of these teams are much improved, and there's no doubt that this should be one of the most fun matchups in the state. Southside will have one of the toughest stretches in the area with matchups against Alexandria, Leeds and Moody to close out play in Class 5A, Region 6. A win over Jake Ganus' much-improved Moody team would give Southside not just an edge in the playoff hunt, but put the Panthers deeper into the conversation for the Class 5A title.
Spring Garden: vs. Coosa Christian, Sept. 1
—After pitching a shutout against Coosa Christian in last year's regular season, Spring Garden's playoff run was ended in the second round by the Conquerors. While the Panthers have won the last seven regular season games against Coosa Christian, this matchup has quickly festered itself into a very fun Class 1A rivalry that players and fans enjoy.
Weaver: vs. Beulah, Oct. 27
—While Weaver's 2022 campaign didn't go as the Bearcats hoped, the team ended its season on a positive note in Class 3A, Region 4 play win against Beulah. With the Bobcats set to travel to Weaver this season, this game could not just serve as the region finale, but be a deciding factor in the region picture if Weaver finds its stride.
Wellborn: at Dadeville, Sept. 22
—With Wellborn on a quest for its first region title since 1995, the Panthers' first true test in Class 3A, Region 4 will be a trip to the reigning region champ. Dadeville will enter this season as one of the teams to watch, with the Tigers' season ending with a second-round, overtime playoff loss to Thomasville. If Wellborn leaves Dadeville with a victory in hand, the Panthers would have a much-needed statement win in their gauntlet of a schedule.
White Plains: at Cleburne County, Oct. 13
—Since 2014, White Plains is 1-6 against Cleburne County. The Wildcats' lone win against the Tigers came in 2019, which also marked the last time White Plains finished above the bottom two in its region. Needless to say, this would be a huge win for Blake Jennings and company. While it would help set White Plains up favorably in Class 4A, Region 4, a win over the Tigers would give the Wildcats a much-needed boost at one of the later points in the season.
Sports Writer Thomas Ashworth: 256-236-1551. On Twitter: @ThomasAshworth0.