(Smoky Mountain Conference) – With talk of conference realignment and consolidation in the near future, Smoky Mountain Conference traditionalists may only have a short time to savor the old ways before things get crazy.
The Andrews Wildcats broke the Robbinsville Black Knights 3-year-streak of Smoky Mountain Conference Championships with their undefeated regular season in 2022, but the Wildcats will look much different in 2023 as they seek to build a new tradition in The Valley.
Both Andrews and Murphy secured victories over Robbinsville a year ago, but now the Black Knights will have a shot at revenge; they look revitalized heading into the 2023 season.
The 2017 State Champion Cherokee Braves will have a new look this season as Tim Hawkins takes over as Head Coach and will implement the Option offense into a Cherokee team that seemed dormant at times last season when they had the football.
Swain County will look to take the next step under 2nd-year Head Coach Sherman Holt as he and his staff strive to re-implement the winning culture that surrounded Swain County not so long ago.
The father-son duo of Chad and Taylor McClure are anxious to lead the Hayesville Yellow jackets to their first back to back .500 or better seasons for the first time in 17 years.
What do the computers think of the 2023 SMC season? Let’s break down some win total projections and make game-by-game predictions for the upcoming season. The win total is set by a computer algorithm for just the regular season, and the predictions are made by myself and our FYN writers. The “Make Or Break” game is the game that will set the team either above or below their win total.
Over/Under: 7.0 regular season wins
Wins: Rosman, at East Henderson, New Faith Christian Academy, at Hickory Hawks, Cherokee, at Hayesville
Losses: Mitchell, at Robbinsville, at Swain
Make or Break: Murphy
Key Departures: Austin Martin (RB/LB), Donovan Bateman (QB/DB), Isaac Weaver (RB/DB), Drew Martin (OL/DL), Cole Anderson (WR/DB)
Key Players For 2023: Everett Tatham (QB), Tyler West (OL/DL), Dalton Rose (OL/DL), Eli Aguilar (RB), Colton Rose (OL)
While Andrews lost a ton of talent to graduation, they have some straight up “dudes” returning in 2023. The offensive line talent that the Wildcats have returning will be huge for a team that loves to pound the rock- and the playmakers in the backfield like Eli Aguilar and Samuel Preston will be electric. The biggest hole I am seeing in the Wildcats is at the linebacker position. With Drew Martin, Andy Tatham, and Austin Martin all lost to graduation, that is a key position group that is totally decimated. Luckily for the Cats, they have some favorable matchups at home in 2023, including a game against cross-county rival, Murphy, that could make or break them hitting their win total this season. Good quarterback play from Everett Tatham combined with good play calling from a new OC, should mean another successful year in Valleytown.
Over/Under: 3.5 regular season wins
Wins: at Cosby (TN), Rosman, at Mount Zion Christian Academy
Losses: Smoky Mountain, at Chocktaw Central (MS), Robbinsville, at Andrews, at Swain, Murphy
Make or Break: at Hayesville
Key Departures: Chase Calhoun (RB), Tso Smith (QB), Kaden Trantham (WR/CB), Xavier Otter (DE)
Key Players For 2023: Luke Climbingbear (LB), Mato Grant (DB), Michael Driver (RB)
Cherokee will be in a transition year this fall as new Head Coach Tim Hawkins comes in for his first year at the helm. A loss of talent due to graduation and transfer is not going to be the only thing that impedes the Braves success in 2023, the travel alone is going to take a toll on the Gold and Maroon. A trip to Cosby, Tennessee and Philadelphia, Mississippi in non-conference play is going to be followed up by a 3-game conference road trip to Andrews, Swain, and Hayesville in the middle of conference play. If the Braves are able to keep their heads on straight down the stretch, they might be able to catch Hayesville lacking on the road as the Jackets host Cherokee in between bigtime matchups vs Swain and Robbinsville.
Over/Under: 6.5 regular season wins
Wins: at Towns County (GA), at Madison, at Georgia Force Christian (GA), North Georgia Falcons, Cherokee
Losses: Pisgah, at Murphy, Swain, Robbinsville
Make or Break: Andrews
Key Departures: Avery Leatherwood (DE/TE), Kyle Lunsford (RB/LB), Logan Caldwell (QB/DB), Jeremy Graves (LB/OL)
Key Players For 2023: Taylor McClure (LB/RB), Dawson Devane (FB/LB), Lane O’Dell (OL/DL), Michael Mauney (WR/DB), Tate Roberts (QB)
Hayesville is another team in the SMC bitten by the graduation bug. They lost the likes of Logan Caldwell, Avery Leatherwood, Kyle Lunsford, and Bryan Davenport to graduation last season. While the Jackets return All-SMC Athlete, Taylor McClure, and a ton of talent on the line (Dawson Devane, Lane O’Dell, Kasey Payne, and more) it will be interesting to see how the offense flows as they roll out a new quarterback for the first time in 4 years. The Yellow Jackets end their season with the defending SMC Champion Andrews Wildcats at home in The Nest, and that game could be the deciding factor in whether they finish with back-to-back seasons over .500 for the first time in 17 years. Every week in the SMC is a dog fight, but that game at the end of the year will definitely be one to watch.
Over/Under: 7.0 regular season wins
Wins: at Franklin, Commerce, New Faith Christian, Hayesville, at Andrews, at Cherokee
Losses: Smoky Mountain, Fannin County, Robbinsville
Make or Break: at Swain
Key Departures: 9 defensive starters, a good portion of the Offensive Line, and senior leader/QB Cole Laney (Wyatt Simmons (DB/WR), John Ledford (LB/RB), Mason Cook (RB), Ty Laney (RB/LB), Kyle Willard (OL/DL), Mason Thrasher(OL/DL), Jeremiah Dickey (OL/DL), Cam Grooms (WR/DB), Jonathan Hamby (OL)
Key Returners: Hunter Stalcup (RB/DB), Rickie Queen (OL/DL), Brayden Killian (DE/TE), Kadence Leatherwood (LB/G), Brody Orton (G/DE)
If you attended the Murphy High School graduation this May, you saw most of the starters from last year’s football team walk across the stage. The Bulldogs are facing a huge rebuilding year this year, and I am afraid their inexperience may show early on under the lights this year. Murphy will be replacing nearly their entire Offensive line and their entire defense from last year’s 9 and 4 team. They also will be looking for the next leader under center, as Brady Grant steps in to fill Cole Laney’s shoes. The saving grace for the Black and Gold this year is going to be SMC Athlete of The Year, Hunter Stalcup, and a young coaching staff that knows how to get the most out of their athletes. Another bright spot on the Dogs roster is the duo of Brody Orton and Brayden Killian coming off the edge of the Defensive line. Those two put up numbers last season and should take another step forward this Fall. While this may not be a typical “Murphy” team on paper, the Dogs have a reputation of plugging and playing guys into their system (13 straight 9+ win seasons). 7 regular season wins this year would be a nice accomplishment for this team, but to get there they are going to have to win against Swain on the road. The Murphy-Swain game is a historic rivalry for both teams and is always one of the most fun games to watch in the SMC, but this year it means as much as it ever has. It really is a tone setter for both teams and could be the difference in a “successful” season and a disappointing one for both Murphy and Swain.
Over/Under: 9.0 regular season wins
Wins: Franklin, at Mountain Heritage, at Alleghany, at Cherokee, at Murphy, Andrews, Hayesville, Swain
Losses: Rabun Gap
Make or Break: East Surry
Key Departures: Brock Adams (DB/WR), Carlos Lopez (OL/DL), Turner Jackson (FB/LB), Jude Campbell (LB), Haden Key (DL/OL)
Key Players For 2023: Donovan Carpenter (QB), Chase Calhoun (LB/RB), Cuttler Adams (DB/RB), Roman Jones (ATH), Kage Williams (FB/LB), Bryce Adams (LB/TE), Quinn Jumper (LB)
The 2023 Black Knights will be reminiscent of the dominant Black Knight teams we have become accustomed to seeing. Robbinsville returns more in 2023 than they lost in ‘22, and they are one of the only teams in the conference that can say that. Brock Adams, Carlos Lopez and Jude Campbell are a couple key pieces gone from last year’s team, but with the addition of Chase Calhoun and a fully healthy Kage Williams, the Knights look better than ever.
The Robbinsville Linebacker core might be the best in the entire state of North Carolina, and their hogs in the trenches are right there with them. Add in Cuttler Adams and a healthy Donovan Carpenter, and this Robbinsville team should be scary. If they can find a go-to guy at the wide receiver position, I don’t see a flaw in the machine that is Robbinsville in 2023.
Roman Jones is a guy on this loaded Robbinsville roster that might go overlooked heading into the season, but come October he will be a household name. The kid has a motor and is an all-around athlete that can play wherever he is needed. Their make-or-break game for their win total comes in game one versus a good East Surry team, but if the Knights are able to play at Big Oaks I say they should be favored in that one, too. I predict a one-loss season for them this year, and that’s against an air-raid team in Rabun Gap. But with some good coaching, they might surprise some folks in that one too! As long as they can stay healthy, I don’t see any SMC team coming within 2 scores of the Knights this season.
Over/Under: 7.0 regular season wins
Wins: Charlotte Country Day, at Madison, Andrews, at Hayesville, Murphy, Cherokee
Losses: at Smoky Mountain, at Tuscola, at Robbinsville
Make or Break: Franklin
The Maroon Machine looks oiled and ready to go in 2023. With Joshua Collins, Josiah Glaspie, Reese Winchester, Nolan Fisher, Brandon Frost and Nse Uffort, the Devils return a good mix of skill players and lineman. With all of these guys returning and with Sherman Holt having another year under his belt as head coach in Bryson City, I am high on the Maroon Devils heading into the season.
The offense was sedentary at times last season, and they were a few plays away from finishing 7-5 instead of 5-7. I look for the Maroon Machine to take a huge step forward this season and have them finishing second in the conference with their only SMC loss coming on the road against Robbinsville.
The make-or-break game for the Maroon Devils to hit their win total in 2023 comes early in the season when they host Franklin at home… and I think this game will set the trajectory of the season for Swain. If they are able to come away with a victory then it should give them the confidence boost they need to shake off early predicted losses to both Smoky Mountain and Tuscola, and allow them to head into SMC play 2-2 after they pick up another win over Madison. The Swain-Tuscola game will be very intriguing, as Sherman Holt revisits his old stomping grounds in Waynesville for the first time while wearing Maroon and White.
SMC Preseason Rankings: