How do you follow up the best season in school history?

In 2015, the Cleveland Panthers put together the best season is school history.

With senior quarterback Peyton Gilliland leading the way, Gardner Gilliland’s team went 12-1 and advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2A playoffs. Cleveland knocked off top-ranked Fyffe in Week 2, went on to win 2A Region 7, and set a school record with 562 points (43 per game) on the year.

Following up that season will not be easy, of course, but the roster returns quite a bit of talent and there are plenty of things to be excited about in the heart of Blount County.

The Panthers stay in 2A Region 7 but there are a couple of major changes to the region – namely saying goodbye to Fyffe but there’s also high-octane Tanner coming back on the Cleveland schedule.

Cleveland’s 2016 opponents were a combined 52-55 last year and Falkville, West End, Winston County, Tanner and Cold Springs finished with winning records. The new 2A Region 7 features Cold Springs, Falkville, Tanner, Tarrant, West End and Winston County.

Aug. 25 (1A) Southeastern (NR)

The Mustangs were just 1-9 a year ago and that included a season-ending 61-8 thrashing from Cleveland. Mike Burkett is still trying to put together a quality 2A roster and, while the program is further along, there is still a lot of work to do. Cleveland was bigger, stronger and deeper along the lines on both sides of the ball last year and Burkett is hoping to close that gap, hopefully sooner rather than later. Cleveland has won both games in the series.

Sept. 2 Falkville (R)

The Blue Devils were 9-3 a year ago on the strength of an offense that put up almost 36 points per game. However, Joel Schrenk’s team also gave up 31 points per game and were lit up by Tanner (68 points), Danville (45) and Randolph County (56). If the Blue Devils can figure out how to slow somebody down, they could cause some serious trouble in Region 7. Cleveland leads the series 9-3 and won the last meeting 44-8 in 2011.

Sept. 9 at West End (R)

The Patriots were a borderline playoff team in 2015 but defense proved to be the team’s undoing – West End gave up 62, 54, 51 and 44 points to Fyffe, Collinsville, Cleveland and Gaston. Kyle Davis brings back Andre Little (5’11, 170 Sr) at wide receiver but the Patriots need to get better play from the offensive and defensive lines to be competitive with the region’s best. West End leads the series 16-8 but Cleveland has won four in a row and seven of the last eight, including last year’s 51-22 romp at home.

Sept. 16 at Winston County (R)

Winston County was a solid 3A playoff team in 2015, finishing 7-4 after a tight, 28-13 loss at New Hope in the first round of the playoffs. The Yellow Jackets put up 37 points per game behind senior running back Andrew Brown, who was a first-team all-state selection after rushing for more than 2000 yards. Replacing him will not be easy but there is a ton of talent and experience coming back for new head coach Bart Stephenson. It’s a good bet that Stephenson was not happy when he saw the Yellow Jackets’ first four games – Haleyville, at Susan Moore, Tanner and at Cleveland. These teams have only met twice – in 2008 and 2009 when they were in the same region. Winston County won both games, 35-20 and 35-7.

Sept. (23) at 3A J.B. Pennington (NR)

Todd Cassity’s first year at J.B. Pennington produced a 2-8 record but that was in Class 4A. The Tigers showed lots of improvement and were very close to being a .500 team – close losses to DAR (43-35), Good Hope (21-20), Westminster Christian (35-28) and Locust Fork (28-21). Cassity has to replace workhorse running back Jacob Washburn but fixing a defense that gave up almost 37 points per game will be the first priority. Cleveland pulled away in the second half for a 35-7 win last year and the Panthers have won the last five in a row against the Tigers. J.B. Pennington leads the series 33-27-6.

Sept. 30 at Tanner (R)

Former Crimson Tide offensive lineman Laron White has one of the top 2A programs in the state at Tanner. The Rattlers won back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013 and were ranked No. 1 at the end of the regular season last year before being upset by Ranburne 56-55 in double overtime in the second round of the playoffs. Tanner must replace several big bodies but QB Chadarius Townsend (5’11, 185 Sr), the reigning 2A Player of the Year and an Alabama commitment, is back along with all-state running back Lee Hisbon (5’9, 180 Sr) and those two are a nightmare for opposing defenses. Tanner leads the series 3-0 but the teams have not met since 2011.

Oct. 7 (3A) Locust Fork (NR)

The Hornets were a solid 4A last year, finishing 5-5 and coming up just short against DAR (43-26) and at Priceville (26- 22) late in the year to miss the playoffs. Chris Musso’s team battled injuries throughout the year and those injuries resulted in playing time for lots of underclassmen. Locust Fork has some holes to fill up front but this should be a solid 3A team. Cleveland leads the series 33-22-1 but Locust Fork has won the last three, including the last meeting – a 29- 24 victory at Michael E. Dixon Memorial Stadium in 2013.

Oct. 14 at Tarrant (R)

The Wildcats are not what they used to be. For years, Tarrant was a power in 4A and 3A football, reaching the 4A title game in 1988 and the 3A title game in 2001. Now this is a program that hasn’t won a playoff game since 2006 and bottomed out at 1-9 last year. Eric Johnson has done his best in his now 10 years at Tarrant but the Wildcats haven’t even had a home field the last two years, playing “home” games at Fultondale. Tarrant has some talent returning at the skill positions but the roster numbers – just 23 players at one point last year – means depth is a huge problem. This will be the first meeting between the two programs.

Oct. 21 Cold Springs (R)

Rod Elliott’s Eagles were solid last year, finishing 6-5 and claiming at No. 3 seed from 2A Region 6 before being flattened by Sulligent (63-27) in the first round of the playoffs. The Eagles will run the ball out of a Wing-T that can be tricky to defend but defense, or lack of, was a major problem last year. The better offenses of Sulligent, Tanner and Falkville put up 63, 52 and 40 points and Holly Pond broke a 29-game losing streak by putting 49 points on the Eagles in Week 10 last year. Cold Springs has lots of skill kids but needs to find some linemen. Cleveland leads the series 15-9 and has won the last six in a row, including a 45-9 victory at Cold Springs in 2011.

Oct. 27 at (3A) Susan Moore (NR)

Susan Moore made solid stride’s in Ken Adams’s first year, making the playoffs as a No. 3 seed and giving North Sand Mountain all it could handle before falling 27-13 in the first round. The Bulldogs will grind away on offense, running the ball 90 percent of the time, but this is an offense that has some diversity to it with misdirection and play-action passing. Adams will look to replace his leading rusher and several lineman from both sides of the ball. Cleveland pulled away in the second half for a 47-12 victory at home last year and has won three in a row and four of the last five but Susan Moore leads the series 34-29.