Coach: Bruce Miller Last Season: 12-3, won Class AAAAA state championship Key Player: There may have been no more productive player in the country last season than five-star dual-threat quarterback Deshaun Watson. The 6-foot-3, 188-pound playmaker is committed to Clemson and returns to lead the Red Elephants. Last season he completed 70 percent of his passes for just over 4,000 yards and 50 touchdowns. He added another 1,400-plus yards on the ground and scored 24 more touchdowns. The supporting cast and opponents alike often were frozen watching him win games. Why it's in the top 25: It all starts with Watson and his playmaking ability. In a talent-rich state, he was simply the best player on the field most every Friday night and he carried a younger roster to the title game. Gainesville had only 20 seniors on the roster and will be replacing only two players who went to play at the next level -- receiver Caleb Hayman is at South Alabama and defensive back Fred Payne is at Western Carolina -- so there should be plenty of players who remember what it takes to win. Why it isn't higher: Besides Watson, only junior safety Lewis Cousins and linebacker Devan Stringer have Rivals.com profiles, meaning that the quarterback will be doing a lot of things on his own again this year. There have been plenty of examples of one outstanding player carrying his team to a state title and a nationally ranked season from power states and non-power states, but it is hard to put a team like that too high in the preseason without seeing what else is around him.
The Bottom Line: Gainesville added a game against always tough Buford (Ga.), and that should be a test. Within the regular-season slate, a rematch against Cumming (Ga.) West Forsyth is a revenge game and an obvious must-win for rankings forecasting. The season closes with Flowery Branch (Ga.) High and the playoffs. It would be easier to make a determination of where this program belongs if it were in the highest classification, but it will be tested in AAAAA.
Top 100 countdown
No. 24 St. Xavier, Ohio
Coach: Steve Specht Last Season: 6-5, lost in Division I first round Key Player: Senior quarterback Nick Tensing returns to lead a unit that figures to be better and more diverse than the St. Xavier norm. Tensing is not quite a dual-threat player, but he is mobile enough to make plays with his legs when needed. His arm is his most true weapon. He completed nearly 61 percent of his passes last season. He will have Ryan Frey returning as his most reliable receiver and a player opponents will need to respect. Why it's in the top 25: There are few teams who would get serious consideration for a top 25 placement coming off of a five-loss season that ended in a first-round elimination, but St. Xavier is an exception. The team started five sophomores on defense last year, which is unheard of for a program with the depth of St. Xavier. The expectations have been significantly elevated entering the season with a quarterback, a top receiver and a BCS-caliber running back returning. C.J. Hilliard has committed to Iowa. He will be the star of the offense and a player who expects to surpass the 1,000-yard mark. Why it isn't higher: It is the goal not to allow past results to dictate placement in the preseason rankings, but since its undefeated season in 2007 the program has averaged nearly five losses per year. That is becoming more of a trend than an aberration. The team has shown to be defense-first and offensively limited. Until it shows on the field to be the complete package that had undefeated seasons in 2005 and 2007, there is a seed of doubt that it will get back to the top 10. The Bottom Line: Like most every season at St. Xavier, the schedule is brutal. From the first game against Indianapolis (Ind.) Ben Davis through contests with Brentwood (Tenn.) Academy, Indianapolis (Ind.) Cathedral, Indianapolis (Ind.) Warren Central, Cleveland (Ohio) St. Ignatius and Louisville (Ky.) St. Xavier, as well as its regular games with the other members of the Greater Catholic League, this schedule is a death march before the Division I playoffs start. An undefeated season would set up a national championship celebration with few detractors surfacing.
Top 100 countdown
No. 23 Gateway, Pennsylvania
Coach: Don Militzer Last Season: 9-2, lost in WPIAL playoffs and did not qualify for states Key Players: The Gators will feature two players, and both are leaders on their sides of the ball. Safety Montae Nicholson and receiver Delvon Randall are the keys to the success of the team. Nicholson is the keystone of the secondary in which all four starters likely will play at the next level, and his physical play will set a tone. Randall can do a little bit of everything. He will play on both sides of the ball, and he is an explosive playmaker who can score every time the ball is in his hands. Why it's in the top 25: In a Quad-A grouping that is hard to predict, Gateway is the clear leader in talent. The entire defensive backfield is either committed or getting looks. Nicholson is a four-star, Anthony Davis and Randall committed to Temple, and Cameron Gray is starting to get calls. Brenon Thrift is a linebacker committed to Temple, and he will be a force in stopping the run. If the defensive line can muster any amount of production, it will increase the effectiveness of the secondary. Why it isn't higher: Gateway could be a Molotov cocktail just waiting to hit the ground and explode. The administration at the school ran off longtime coach Terry Smith. While reports are that the team is coming together and playing well, the problem is that at any time the bottom could fall out. There is no guarantee that if Smith were still at the helm the team would have been ranked higher, but it would have more confident footing at the bottom of the top 25. The Bottom Line: The team opens with incredibly winnable games against two of the more lifeless programs in the area, Latrobe (Pa.) Greater Latrobe and Vandergrift (Pa.) Kiski Area, so good vibes can be built quickly. The early-October showdown with Wexford (Pa.) North Allegheny will be a challenge, and closing the regular season with Harrison City (Pa.) Penn-Trafford and McKeesport (Pa.) High could be tests. This team has the talent to be undefeated entering the WPIAL playoffs. As long as it doesn't get down on itself, it could finish December unblemished as well.
Top 100 countdown
No. 22 Cass Tech, Michigan
Coach: Tom Wilcher Last Season: 12-2, won Division I state title. Ranked No. 81 in RivalsHigh 100 Key Player: Junior quarterback Jayru Campbell is in his third year starting and has two state titles to his credit. Campbell is a dual-threat player who is the pulse of the offense. The program always has a stingy defense at his back, which leads many to believe he is primed for another state title run. If he can three-peat, the legend will grow and he could be one of the best ever to come out of the state. Why it's in the top 25: Having a steady hand on the offense is excellent, but the real strength is the defense for the Technicians. The linebacker group features Deon Drake, Gary Hosey and William White. Drake is committed to Michigan State, while Hosey is committed to Eastern Michigan. White lead the team in tackles last season and is an uncommitted three-star player who is BCS-bound. The secondary starts with four-star Ohio State pledge Damon Webb and includes quality players Phillip Parham and Tre'Von Claybourne. The defensive line features 6-foot-4, 230-pound Brian Sanders, a two-star player committed to Bowling Green. Why it isn't higher: The offense is a question as to how it will fare against upper-echelon defenses. There is no question that on defense this group could slow some of the best offenses in the country, but it may get put into tough spots by turnovers. The Bottom Line: Cass Tech is in a similar boat as Gateway, Cleveland (Ohio) Glenville, and Moultrie (Ga.) Colquitt County. They are talented programs that always seem to lose a game they have no business losing. Cass Tech separates some because it will rebound and win state titles, but it is odd to see it take setbacks. This season, it has what may be one of the easiest schedules among the top 25 teams. There is a strong chance it will not see another ranked -- or nationally relevant -- program until three rounds into the playoffs. That schedule could prove to be a glass ceiling to its rankings.
Top 100 countdown
No. 21 Mallard Creek, North Carolina
Coach: Mike Palmieri Last Season: 12-2, lost in Class 4A semifinals. Ranked No. 72 in RivalsHigh 100 Key Player: Quarterback play is so important, and it will fall to second-year passer Emiere Scaife. Scaife has committed to Appalachian State, although he had hoped a Duke offer was in his future. The 6-foot-1, 209-pound player is more of a pocket passer than an athletic dual threat. He has an interesting throwing motion. The offense was simplified last year, but now it will be on Scaife to turn it loose and lead the team to a title. Why it's in the top 25: This group returns 17 starters and a lot of hardworking high school players. The defensive line returns Ball State pledge Ikeem Allen, Davion Cunningham and several talented underclassmen -- such as Thomas Faulkner and sophomore Josh Brown -- who will allow emotional leader Stephan Askew to move from defensive end to linebacker and shore up that group. The secondary has Toledo commit Cameron Mattison and N.C. State commit Jaylen Samuels joining talented juniors Amari Henderson and Nafees Lyon to form a stellar group. Why it's not higher: This again comes back to the quarterback. While Scaife is a solid player, he isn't one who can put a team on his shoulders and win games in a shootout. The offensive line returns three starters, so there should be a comfort level, but the team has to replace four-star receiver Marquez North, who is at Tennessee, as well as Jorian Jordan, who went to The Citadel. Mallard Creek may not have the firepower to stay with more balanced teams ahead of it.
The Bottom Line: This will sound familiar. Like Cleveland (Ohio) Glenville and Monroeville (Pa.) Gateway, the talent is not equating to titles. Mallard Creek has lost in the semifinals to eventual title winners the last two years -- once to Greensboro (N.C.) Page and once to Matthews (N.C.) Butler -- and this year it enters as the favorite. The season opens with games against Dillon (S.C.) High and Butler, and then it figures to be a breeze into the playoffs, where the final ranking will be determined.