1 Last season: 11-2 (lost in N.C. 4AA quarterfinals)
Fact Checking: No. 18 in rivals.com preseason national poll...No. 1 in Sweet 16 for third straight year....In past five years, Butler is 64-5 with two state titles.
Must-see star: LB Peter Kalambayi had more than 15 high-major Division I offers and ESPN ranks him a 4-star (out of 5) college recruit. Hell attend Stanford and comes off an Associated Press all-state junior year, when he had 79 tackles and six sacks, despite missing two games with injury.
Why they can win it all: Butler is deep and loaded at the skill positions and has a defense that could be among the states best. Plus, losing a shot at a three-peat last year should restore a little hunger.
Why they might not: The offensive line is a big concern. Two starters (RT Joseph Moody, C Michael McCaughtry) return and McCaughtry is moving from left guard. QB Riley Ferguson is one of the best in the nation, but hell need time.
Our prognosis: Butler is talented and established enough to fill any holes. Freshman Benny LeMay, a 5-foot-10, 195-pound running back could be an instant impact player. Whatever issues the Bulldogs might have on offense early, the defense should make up for it. Get ready for a deep postseason run.
MALLARD CREEK MAVERICKS
2 Last season: 13-1 (lost in state 4AA semifinals)
Fact Checking: No. 73 in rivals.com preseason national poll. Mallard Creek also returns 46 lettermen and 15 starters
Must-see star: WR Marquez North is ranked as high as No. 13 among all high school players. At 6-3, 205-pounds, he has 4.4-second speed and can turn a game on offense or special teams. The most dangerous open-field player in the Carolinas.
Why they can win it all: Every year the Mavericks seem to take a step closer to the championship game. Last season, they reached the semifinals for the first time. Theres plenty of size, college recruits and talent.
Why they might not: Mallard Creeks schedule never seems to help them. The Mavericks start the season with No. 1 Butler but might not face another serious test until late November.
Our prognosis: This could be Mallard Creeks year. Butler figures to be in the way and you never know when a surprise team like 2011 champion Greensboro Page might pop up, but the Mavericks are in great position to win it all.
ROCK HILL SOUTH POINTE STALLIONS
3 Last season: 14-1 (S.C. 3A champion)
Fact Checking: Moving back to 4A after two years in 3A. South Pointe has reached two straight state finals....In the past six years, South Pointe is 41-17 and that includes a 3-8 season in 2006.
Must-see star: QB Devin Pearson was the S.C. 3A Player of the Year by the S.C. High School Sports Report. He moved from defensive back to quarterback in the middle of the year and led his team to a state title.
Why they can win it all: Team scored 30-plus points in seven straight games to end the season and ranks No. 70 in the rivals.com national poll
Why they might not: Sophomore DT Zeke Rodney had 99 tackles and 17 for loss, but will need a lot of help. South Pointes defense allowed more than 20 points seven times last season. Gone from that team are a starting defensive end, two linebackers and two of four defensive backs.
Our prognosis: Along with nationally ranked Goose Creek, the Stallions look like the class of the state. Theres more than enough talent to plug in any holes.
4 Last season: 12-4 (N.C. 3AA state finalist)
Fact Checking: Crest has reached two straight 3AA state finals and has had 115 players in workouts this summer. A big test will come in the season opener Aug. 17 against Cleveland County rival Burns.
Must-see star: DE Dane Rogers (6-4, 250) has committed to Clemson and hes one of two big stars in Boiling Springs. LB Quinton Patterson has committed to N.C. State.
Why they can win it all: Defensively, Crest will be a problem. Rogers and Patterson are as good as youll find in the area and Crest returns three of four defensive linemen.
Why they might not: Crest needs to develop offensively. The Chargers will work in four new offensive linemen.
Our prognosis: Crest will find guys to block and Shaquan Ussery and Jerry Currence, who both nearly rushed for 1,000 yards last season, could top four figures this season. Crest will score enough to have a shot at a third straight title-game appearance.
PORTER RIDGE PIRATES
5 Last season: 14-1 (N.C. 4A finalist)
Fact Checking: 13 starters and 21 lettermen return and the junior varsity was 9-1. Theres a power brewing in Indian Trail.
Must-see star: RB/DB Chris Duffy, an Associated Press all-state star, ran for 1,100 yards and 22 touchdowns. He also had 55 tackles and five interceptions. He has offers from Tennessee and East Carolina.
Why they can win it all: Eight starters are back on defense - including defensive end Avery Worsham, who has offers from Duke and Charlotte. It will be tough to score consistently on the Pirates, as no team in the area has a better home-field advantage. If the Pirates get home field in the playoffs, watch out.
Why they might not: Porter Ridge needs a QB. Nick Vagnone might switch from linebacker, or the Pirates might go with sophomore Isaiah Hicklin or junior Zach Danielson
Our prognosis: Porter Ridge coach Blair Hardin will figure out the quarterback position and the Pirates will be a major problem in the 4A class.
WEST ROWAN FALCONS
6 Last season: 13-3 (N.C. 3A finalist)
Fact Checking: 14 starters are back from a team that won 11 straight games to reach a fourth straight state title game. West Rowan lost 38-6 to Havelock in the finals.
Must-see star: LB Logan Stoodley had 180 tackles (not a typo) and three interceptions last season. He returned one for a touchdown.
Why they can win it all: Always strong on defense, West Rowan has added South Point transfer Bubba McLaughlin (6-2, 240), and three starters in the secondary are back.
Why they might not: West Rowan will work in a new QB and a new feature back. It might take awhile for QB Tyler Stamp and RB Desmond Jackson to get going.
Our prognosis: With four starters back on the offensive line, the skill guys will have enough freedom to develop and the defense will carry West Rowan early. Come playoff time, West Rowan will be ready to chase a fifth straight championship appearance.
CHARLOTTE CATHOLIC COUGARS
7 Last season: 13-1 (N.C. 3AA Western regional finalist)
Fact Checking: Catholic has lost two games the past two seasons - to rival Crest. The Cougars return 20 lettermen, nine starters, but must replace 1,000-yard rusher David Herlocker.
Must-see star: Junior RB Elijah Hood rushed for a school-record 1,982 yards and 35 touchdowns last season.
Why they can win it all: Catholic is hungry and the tradition-filled program seems to reload every year with a legit shot at a title.
Why they might not: Herlocker will be tough to replace and for a team that runs 95 percent of the time, losing nearly half the offensive line - including All-American Mark Harrell (Notre Dame) - is a tall ask.
Our prognosis: Even after all these years, Catholics Wing-T offense still causes opponents problems because they dont see it much. Catholic is well-coached, talented and capable of meeting Crest late in the playoffs. Again.
A.L. BROWN WONDERS
8 Last season: 12-2
Fact Checking: Thirty lettermen return, but only nine starters. Good news? After a road game at Shelby Aug. 16, Brown has four straight home games. That should help the Wonders get off to a great start.
Must-see star: WR Keeon Johnson has size (6-3, 205) and speed. Hes committed to Virginia.
Why they can win it all: Brown was an offensive juggernaut last season under coach Mike Newsome. Newsome, in his second year, should again have that offense clicking behind Johnson and tailback Khalif Phillips (5-10, 185), who rushed for 1,632 yards and 24 touchdowns last season.
Why they might not: The western half of the 3AA class is stacked. To get to a title game, A.L. Brown will likely have to go through Catholic and Crest.
Our prognosis: Expect another top-notch regular season with a big home game with 4A Porter Ridge Sept. 7 and the bell game with Concord Oct. 26. Everything after that, in the playoffs, is about matchups and home field.
9 Last season: 10-3
Fact Checking: Independence, which dominated N.C. football from 2000-08, won three games in 2010, when it lost 40 players to nearby Rocky River.
Must-see star: DB Jack Tocho (5-11, 177) has committed to N.C. State. He had 48 tackles and five interceptions last season. He returned two for touchdowns.
Why they can win it all: The Patriots seem to be getting their old mojo back. Coach Bill Geiler is predicting big things after a second-round playoff appearance last season.
Why they might not: Theres no tougher playoff draw in the state than the West 4AA and Independence would have to run a gauntlet to get to the finals (against teams like Richmond, Butler, Mallard Creek).
Our prognosis: New QB Jason Connella will move from tight end and will lead a normally pass-happy offense. We think the old Indy is back, and that means the Patriots can play with anyone.
SOUTH POINT RED RAIDERS
10 Last season: 10-1
Fact Checking: South Point lost 27 seniors from last seasons team, which was upset in the first round of the N.C. 3AA playoffs.
Must-see star: Senior RB Devan Robbins was all-conference last season when he averaged nearly 10 yards per carry.
Why they can win it all: The Red Raiders punishing run game will always cause teams problems, and theres enough lineman back to cause opposing defenses to worry.
Why they might not: South Point needs a QB to run its read option and thats key to making the offense work, but with guys like junior FB Tyler Bray (6-0, 180) returning from an 82-carry, 776-yard season, the wins will come.
Our prognosis: South Point will make the playoffs again and is unlikely to lose again in the first round.
11 Last season: 13-2
Fact Checking: N.C. 3AA semifinalist has won two straight conference championships.
Must-see star: LB Darius Lowe is a three-year starter who made all-conference as a junior. Hell be the teams feature running back this year, too.
Why they can win it all: Burns came close last year and with seven starters back on offense, theyll be a factor again.
Why they might not: Only three starters return on defense
Our prognosis: With plenty of young talent at his disposal, and proven winners like 6-3, 295-pound defensive end DeMarrian Petty, coach Matt Beam has enough tools to be a team no one wants to play in November.
12 Last season: 8-5
Fact Checking: 14 starters and 26 linemen return, including nine offensive starters. Three players have committed to major colleges: QB Carlis Parker (Virginia Tech), RB Tristan Mumford (East Carolina) and DB Breon Borders (Duke)
Must-see star: DB Marquis Willis had 58 tackles, three interceptions and 11 pass breakups.
Why they can win it all: The Greyhounds have a wealth of speed and talent. Offensively, theyll be as tough as anyone in 3A.
Why they might not: Statesville is working in an entirely new linebacking core and a regular-season finishing stretch of three road games in four weeks could be tough for playoff positioning.
Our prognosis: This is a team to watch. Statesville could be dancing deep into the postseason, simply because opponents cant keep up.
13 Last season: 5-7
Fact Checking: New coach Keith Wilkes is a state championship coach from Winston-Salem who says this is as talented a team as hes worked with.
Must-see star: RB/LB Larenz Bryant is rated as high as a five-star (max) recruit by some national recruiting services. He has committed to South Carolina. Bryant had 154 tackles, seven sacks and two interceptions last year.
Why they can win it all: After a 1-6 start last season, Vance won four straight must-win games to make the playoffs. The talent is there. Vance was in the semifinals two years ago and getting OL Kirk Donaldson (6-4, 260) back from Davidson Day after a year there will help immensely. He was a big part of the semifinal run in 2010.
Why they might not: Like Independence, Vance will have to travel perhaps the states toughest road to a championship round
Our prognosis: The Cougars could be a huge spoiler team and well find out how good they are early with back-to-back games at home against Independence and Butler Aug. 30 and Sept. 8.
14 Last season: 10-4
Fact Checking: After going 6-7 in 2010, the Spiders bounced back with a big year in 2011, which included a five-game win streak at midseason.
Must-see star: QB B.J. Beecher is 6-foot-7 and 205 pounds. He threw for 2,957 yards and 36 touchdowns last season
Why they can win it all: Beecher has receivers Alan Asbury and Bravone Howard back and Concords passing game can light up the scoreboard, even in the playoffs.
Why they might not: The Spiders experienced heavy losses to graduation on the offensive and defensive lines and lost an 1,800 yard rusher.
Our prognosis: Concord will play many high-scoring games, but with six starters back on both sides of the ball, the Spiders can make a legitimate playoff run.
PROVIDENCE DAY CHARGERS
15 Last season: 10-2 (NCISAA Division I state champs)
Fact Checking: Chargers return 19 of 22 starters and won their first state championship since 1986. The schools stadium has new artificial turf and a new field house.
Must-see star: Senior all-state defensive back/receiver Byron Fields caught 27 passes for 585 yards last season. He also led the team in solo tackles (27) and interceptions (5).
Why they can win it all: Many of the other contenders are retooling and Providence Day could be assembling one of the best teams in school history.
Why they might not: The Chargers get overconfident and get upset by one of their local rivals (Country Day, Latin, Christian).
Our prognosis: If Butler and Mallard Creek are heavy favorites in 4AA to get to a final, Providence Day is equally as heavy a favorite in the private schools. Back-to-back championships is a real possibility.
SOUTH IREDELL VIKINGS
16 Last season: 13-1
Fact Checking: 15 starters and 27 lettermen return
Must-see star: DL Julius Bowe (6-2, 270) was all-conference last season. He had 84 tackles, three sacks and two fumble recoveries.
Why they can win it all: 10 defensive starters return from a team that lost once last year.
Why they might not: The offense, which returns five starters, takes awhile to keep up with the defense.
Our prognosis: A bona fide state championship contender in the 2A class with what could be one of the areas best defenses in its class.
Langston Wertz Jr.