Get used to it.
It's new this season. The NJSIAA's decision to expand to five public-school groups creates more opportunities for sectional titles and changes the playoff landscape in some significant ways -- take a hard look at the SJ 4 field.
Here's an early analysis of the five SJ group races:
SJ 5: Williamstown, with a top ground game featuring juniors Marques Little and John Chamberlin and a sturdy defense led by Temple recruit Buddy Brown, looks like the favorite but the Braves need to get over the post-season hurdle. This could be the year but seeing will be believing.
This group looks wide open. Cherokee, Washington Township (QB Tom Hildebrand is a playmaker), Rancocas Valley and Absegami (if Rashad Kinlaw is back from injury) all could be major factors. I'm hearing some good things about EHT and Eastern, Lenape and returning SJ 4 finalist Millville could be in the mix as well.
The new alignment moved Jackson Memorial into this group. That's been a traditionally solid program. Jackson will scrimmage Camden Catholic this week so it will be interesting to see how that team holds up against the talented Irish.
SJ 4: This season this group might be stronger than SJ 5. With five Division 1 commits, led by DLs Greg Webb, Dajaun Drennon and Myles Nash as well as RB Zaire Williams, Timber Creek is the consensus preseason No. 1 although the Chargers have a difficult opener against Camden Catholic and a challenging schedule.
Hammonton and Shawnee look like preseason Top 5 or Top 7 teams. The Blue Devils have a great young line, and a veteran QB in Chrsitian Mortellite. The Renegades will feature RB/DB DiOrio brothers Rob and Anthony along with TE Jake Dean and WR Zach McHale. Moorestown, led by Temple recruit Shane Rafter and talented QB Drew Pederson, and Mainland (with veteran QB Tom Bradway and Temple recruit in K Jim Cooper) should be dangerous along with Seneca and Triton (which went on the road and beat Southern in SJ 4 play last season and returns RB Josh Woods and DE Isaiah Baylor)). Lacey Twp. is a traditional power.
This group is loaded. TC looms as a preseason favorite but the Chargers are going to have to play their best football in November and December to win another sectional crown.
SJ 3: One effect of the creation of a fifth group is a diffusion of strength. That appears to be the case in this group.
Delsea looks like a heavy favorite although Burlington Twp. and NBC could be dangerous. Delsea has a top OL led by Cody Mayo, a veteran QB in Josh Awotunde and a dangerous RB in Tyrone Saud. The Crusaders also are expecting big things from junior WR/S Bryan Dobzanski, a baseball/wrestling star.
There are a few Shore Conference teams in this group such as Point Pleasant Boro, Manchester Twp., Pinelands, Central and Barnegat. Maybe that will be the strength of this group.
Barnegat could be dangerous as quarterback Cinjun Erskine, who spent his freshman season at Holy Spirit, is regarded as one of the top sophomores in the state.
SJ 2: Defending champion West Deptford lools like the favorite with a solid returning group led by FB Gerald Towns-Owens and RB/LB Josh Cornelius.
Haddonfield is rebuilding a bit but has a talented QB in junior Mike McLaughlin. Plus, that program is humming along at a high level.
Watch out for second-year program Cedar Creek, one of the favorites in re-aligned Cape-Atlantic National. Cedar Creek has major playmakers in Georgia Tech-bound QB Damon Mitchell and RB Gary Melton Jr.
Sterling could be a darkhorse. The Silver Knights are a resurgent program and have good RBs in Qualim Mack and Khalil Wallace.
SJ 1: This could be the best tournament in SJ as several teams appear capable of capturing the crown.
Defending champion Glassboro returns RB Corey Clement, the Pitt recruit who set the SJ record last season with 2,510 rushing yards. The Bulldogs have one of SJ's best sophomores in WR/DB Juwan Johnson.
Woodbury features Alabama recruit Anthony Averett at QB/DB and improve front lines. Paulsboro has a veteran QB in Zack Funk, top linemen in Pop Little and Julien Davenport, and a great kicker in Mke Maccarone.
Penns Grove will be in the mix behind QB Nick Elmer and WR Jabrail Murray. Pennsville has a loaded junior class led by QB Dylan Cummings, who passed for more than 3,000 yards and 35 TDs last season.
Haddon Hts could be a factor. The Garnets have a top linemen in Alex Thompson and playmakers in Brandon Joyner (perhaps), Dante Pinckney and Kenny Lewis. Playing in the Colonial Liberty will help HH prepare for SJ 1 competition.
Gloucester should be improved and features 1,800-yard rusher Ben Boyer, a junior. Audubon will be dangerous with playmakers such as Khalil Chisolm, Adin Borden and Chris Terilingo.
Other races to watch include CJ 4, where last year's SJ 4 champion, Pennsauken, looms as a favorite. The Indians havde top DEs in Isaish Ingram and Korey Mitchell and a RB on a mission in senior Marlin Finley.
Pennsauken will compete with the likes of Middletown North, Colts Neck, West-Windsor Plainsboro-South, Highstown, Freehold Broro and Brick Twp.
CJ 1 has a heavy traditional SJ flavor as that group includes Burlington City, Florence, Haddon Twp. (how Westmont is Central Jersey is a good question) and Palmyra. Asbury Park, which scrimmages St. Joe of Hammonton on Tuesday, also is in that group.
-- Phil Anastasia