Here we go, into Week 0 with some preseason rankings. Feel free to discuss, criticize and otherwise mock; that's what I'm here for. But also realize that before anyone has played a meaningful game, these are a real shot in the dark. In fact, the only spot I'm really sure about is No. 1, and that's because you don't take a defending champion with 15 returning starters and start them somewhere else.
Without further ado, here's your first Central Section Top 25 of the season.
1. Bakersfield (13-0, 5-0 SWYL, won Div. I championship) — I'm not the most qualified quarterback critic of all time, but one thing Asauni Rufus might already do better than Chris Hannible is throw the deep ball. If that's the case, Kevin Hayes and Jermain Ervin are going to feast on one-on-one coverage, because defense have to respect the heck out of the Bakersfield run game.
FIRST GAME: Friday at Ventura
2. Fresno-Edison (10-2, 5-0 CMAC, lost in Div. I semifinals) — If you had to pick a preseason MVP of the Central Section, most would probably go with Tigers quarterback Khari McGee, who leads a solid group of returning starters in Ricky Manning's first year as coach. It's always difficult to foresee how a coaching change will affect a veteran team, though.
FIRST GAME: Friday at No. 4 Clovis
3. Clovis North (9-3, 3-2 TRAC, won Div. II championship [moving to Div. I]) — The Broncos picked the right year to move up to Division I. A year after they streaked their way to the D-II title, Clovis North brings back 10 starters, including quarterback Christian Rossi and tight end David Wells. That combo and a great defense could mean a Tri-River Athletic Conference title.
FIRST GAME: Friday at Atascadero
4. Clovis (10-2, 4-1 TRAC, lost in Div. I semifinals) — In a way, last year was a missed opportunity for a proud program that had a shot at a section title, but in another way, this program looks like it's back on solid footing for years to come. The Cougars, who will miss the services of running back Yoon Connor, who decided not to play football this year, host Edison this weekend in the section's game of the week.
FIRST GAME: Friday vs. No. 2 Fresno-Edison5
5. Fresno-Bullard (10-3, 4-1 CMAC, lost in Div. I championship) — Don Arax has built the Knights program into one of the section's most consistent, so even without the services of offensive stars Ian Taubler (UCLA), Demetrius Warren (Sacramento State) and Stephon McCray (Arizona State), the Knights firgure to be in the mix again.
FIRST GAME: Friday at Paso Robles
6. Garces (11-2, 4-0 SEYL, lost in Div. II championship) — There is plenty back on both sides of the ball, and a new spread offense better uses athletes like Dominic Frasch, Angus Bellue and Jake Sweaney. Two non-league games will be huge tests; the first is this weekend on the road.
FIRST GAME: Saturday at San Luis Obispo
7. Fresno-Central (8-3, 4-1 TRAC, lost in Div. I quarterfinals) — For all of the success the Grizzlies had last year, they had a hard time getting over the hump: In three games against elite compeititon last year, Central was 0-3 and scored 14 total points. Still, you'd be foolish not to list the always-talented Grizzlies as a D-I contender, particularly after they lit up Bullard in a scrimmage last week, their first action under new coach Justin Garza.
FIRST GAME: Friday vs. Hanford
8. Liberty (8-3, 4-1 SWYL, lost in Div. I quarterfinals) — While the rest of the section seems to be trending towards a more open, balanced offensive style, the Patriots are going to be even more run-and-play-defense than ever: Corbin Jountti is a workhorse back, and nine starters return to a defense that should be stout.
FIRST GAME: Friday at Delano
9. Fresno-Washington Union (14-0, 5-0 NSL, won Div. IV section championship, won Div. III state bowl championship) — I might be in the minority here, but I don't think the Panthers will be crippled by the loss of a terrific senior class, specifically quarterback Chris Cain and wide receiver Deontay Greenberry. You don't win state titles without program depth, and Washington still could be a title contender now up in Division III. They get plenty of respect from me to start, anyway.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 31 vs. Atwater
10. Kingsburg (12-2, 5-1 CSL, won Div. III championship) — Similar story here. The Vikings bring back only seven starters from last year's team, but we've been through this before with Kingsburg, and this is a program that hasn't dopped off — at all — for three years running. Now, however, the Vikings must make their move in Division II, which is already stacked with teams like Garces, Visalia-El Diamante (down from D-I), Memorial and Tehachapi.
FIRST GAME: Friday at Tranquillity.
11. Tulare Union (10-2, 7-1 EYL, lost in Div. I quarterfinals) — For some reason, the Redskins get kind of lost in the shuffle when it comes to top returning teams in Division I. But this was a 10-win team a year ago that gave Edison a big scare in the quarterfinals and returns 11 starters, including quarterback Oscar Reyes.
FIRST GAME: Friday vs. Visalia-El Diamante
12. Ridgeview (12-1, 4-0 SYL, lost in Div. III championship) — The Wolf Pack loses a ton, especially along the lines, but Kamari Moya-Cotton is among the section's best quarterbacks and there are plenty of athletes waiting for their chance to shine. Deep D-III playoff run likely coming again.
FIRST GAME: Friday at No. 14 Frontier
13. Clovis West (3-8, 3-2 TRAC, lost in Div. I first round) — Anyone who does a set of preseason rankings is going to have trouble placing the Golden Eagles. You need to respect Clovis West's track record, but I had them preseason No. 1 last year, and that was obviously a huge overstatement. There's not a ton coming back, but CW can't be this bad two years in a row, can it?
FIRST GAME: Friday vs. Merced
14. Frontier (5-6, 1-4 SWYL, lost in Div. II quarterfinals [moving to Div. I]) — Here's another enigma. I think the Titans will be really good; in fact, in my mind there's a significant chance they're Bakersfield's biggest challenger in the SWYL. But they lost so many close games last year and have such a difficult schedule this year that I'm gunshy in predicting a big year. I am leaning towards picking them to beat Ridgeview in Week 0, however.
FIRST GAME: Friday vs. No. 12 Ridgeview
15. Stockdale (2-8, 2-3 SWYL, no playoffs) — With D.J. Martin last year, the Mustangs were 4-1 (on the field) with the only loss to Bakersfield. This is a different team, but Stockdale's offense has a real chance to be dynamite. If the defense can hold its own, we'll forget about that two-win season really quickly.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 31 at Stockton-St. Mary's
16. Wasco (11-2, 4-1 SSL, lost in Div. IV championship)
17. Dinuba (11-1, 6-0 CSL, lost in Div. III semifinals)
18. Tehachapi (10-2, 5-0 SSL, lost in Div. II semifinals)
19. Visalia-Mt. Whitney (8-4, 5-1 WYL, lost in Div. III quarterfinals)
20. Tulare-Mission Oak (9-3, 6-2 EYL, lost in Div. IV semifinals)
21. Fresno-Memorial (8-4, 2-3 CMAC, lost in Div. II semifinals)
22. Centennial (6-5, 3-2 SWYL, lost in Div. I quarterfinals)
23. Mendota (12-0, 4-0 WSL, won Div. VI championship)
24. Fresno-Sunnyside (6-5, 2-3 CMAC, lost in Div. II quarterfinals)
25. Hanford (9-3, 6-0 WYL, lost in Div. III quarterfinals)
Dropped out (from last year's final rankings): No. 18 Madera South, No. 23 Porterville, No. 24 Delano