DIVISION I underwent a significant makeover during the offseason, when it absorbed Division II and grew from 10 teams to 20 as part of the NHIAA's decision to reduce football from six divisions to three. Eight teams will qualify for the playoffs this year, four more than last season.
Here's what hasn't changed: Exeter and Pinkerton Academy of Derry, teams that have met in the last two Division I championship games, are still at the top of the food chain.
Exeter, which must replace its entire offensive backfield, will be trying to win its third consecutive Division I title. Exeter's strength will be the front seven on defense and its offensive line, where five players who played significant minutes last season are back. That group includes junior center Neil Vorster, who was a Division I All-State selection as a sophomore."The kids have been competing hard, in the offseason and in the preseason," Exeter coach Bill Ball said. "We have to fill some holes and we will. There are a lot of kids here who want to be No. 1, and that's a good thing in an athletic environment."
Pinkerton has the state's top offensive threat in senior running back Manny Latimore, who rushed for 1,504 yards and 29 touchdowns last season. The Astros also have one of the state's top defensive players in senior Matt Madden, who suffered a knee injury in Pinkerton's final regular-season game last year and missed the playoffs.
"Based on his senior year it's possible that Manny will be one of the best running backs we've ever had here," Pinkerton coach Brian O'Reilly said. "Matt Jordan, Ryan Mihalko, Joe Segretti - the list goes on. Those guys had phenomenal senior years. If Manny has the kind of senior year that we fully expect of him, then that's a possibility.
"What do I expect from Manny this year? Everything. Here's something for opposing coaches: You better pay attention to Manny Latimore."
Nashua South and Concord are among the teams that may be capable of preventing a third straight Exeter-Pinkerton championship game. South, which lost to Pinkerton in last year's semifinals, has the state's top QB in senior Trevor Knight, who has committed to play for the University of New Hampshire.
"This will be one of the stronger, faster teams we've had," said Scott Knight, Trevor's father and South's head coach. "It's just a matter of being healthy."
Concord went 6-4 and missed the playoffs a year ago, but returns nine starters on each side of the ball. Concord coach Eric Brown said it's too early to mention his team in the same breath as Exeter and Pinkerton.
"We have a lot of prove," Brown said. "We thought we were going to be pretty good last year and we didn't prove it against the better teams. When it shakes our we'll see where we fall."
Winnacunnet of Hampton and Bedford are two former Division II teams who may have enough talent to be postseason teams this year. Winnacunnet, which beat Bedford in last year's Division II title game, must replace most of its offensive line, but returns quarterback Ing Hao Veasna and wide receiver Alec Boucher.
Bedford had 125 players turn out (including freshmen) and returns eight offensive starters and six on defense. Every member of last year's starting offensive line is back.
"We've had a good preseason," Bedford coach Kurt Hines said. "There's competition at every position."
Bishop Guertin of Nashua, Keene and Manchester Central are three other teams that appear to have postseason potential. Keene defensive lineman Alex Parenteau is among the state's top defensive players; Central added former Campbell running back Jesiah Wade, who led the state in rushing last season (2,204 yards); and the key for BG may be keeping senior running back C.J. Boykin healthy. Boykin is one of the top big-play threats in the division.
"It's going to be a tough division," BG coach Travis Cote said. "Every week is going to be a dogfight. As long as we stay healthy we should be right there. I think we should be in that first roud (of the playoffs), and who knows after that.
There are sure to be some surprises this season as well, but O'Reilly said you can expect so see the usual suspects playing in November.
"Exeter will be good," he said. "I'm not even going to call Concord a darkhorse because I think it's pretty clear they'll be good. And then there's South with Trevor, and Central. I don't know about the new teams because I haven't played them yet, but I'm sure Bedford will be good. Every year it's the same old, same old."