The Herd is the word again.
After returning to prominence last season with a 12-1 record, Elk Grove High School bounds into this campaign as The Bee's No. 1 team.
The Thundering Herd is one of the Sac-Joaquin Section's most storied programs with five section titles, great community support and talented athletes.
Elk Grove returns 11 starters and is one of the quickest teams in the section, but challenges abound. Enrollment has declined to 1,620 students as neighboring schools, such as Pleasant Grove, have soared with players who used to play on Elk Grove's renowned junior football program.
The Herd isn't as big in the trenches as it was last season, and its top offensive lineman, Michael Tsukamoto, is out for at least six weeks after breaking his collarbone in a scrimmage at Del Oro on Saturday. What's more, Herd coach Chris Nixon said he will sit quarterback and team captain Tommy Arnold in a disciplinary action for Friday's opener at section preseason No. 1 Lincoln of Stockton.
Still, Elk Grove has depth and is determined to make another title run. Guy Hall impressed in quarterback duty against Del Oro, ranked second by The Bee. Robert Frazier rushed for 1,494 yards and 21 touchdowns last season, and returning linebackers Wadus Parker and Noah Letuligasenoa and lineman B'won Canada combined for 26 1/2 sacks.
Inside the rankings – With Elk Grove, No. 4 Grant and No. 7 Franklin playing in the Delta Valley Conference, the annual debate begins: Which is the area's top league?
Grant returns standout linebackers Abnor Toma, Tui Lopa and Moses Moala, and national recruit safety Trayvon Henderson.
Franklin returns a section-leading 17 starters from last season, headed by quarterback Trent Spallas and numerous running backs.
Del Oro, No. 3 Nevada Union and No. 5 Granite Bay hail from the Sierra Foothill League. Del Oro won the past two Division III section titles and reached the state D-II bowl last season under coach Casey Taylor, who has 100 victories in 10 seasons in Loomis. The Golden Eagles return San Jose State-bound tailback Brandon Monroe (1,662 yards, 22 touchdowns), two-way lineman Tanner Woods and emerging tight end Dalton Hudec.
Granite Bay, the defending D-I section champion, returns a veteran defense led by defensive end-linebacker Beau Hershberger.
Nevada Union returns one of the section's top quarterbacks, Kyle Cota, and fields perhaps its top linebacking trio in Tanner Vallejo, Hank Humphers and Marysville transfer Cole Hannum, who will find out this week from the section office about his transfer-eligibility status.
The Delta River League includes No. 6 Pleasant Grove, seeking a second D-I title in three years; No. 10 Folsom, breaking in a new quarterback with Taylor Miller-Wing or Jake Browning; and No. 11 Oak Ridge, which features quarterback Jason Samuels.
The team to watch in the DRL is No. 16 Jesuit. First-year coach Marlon Blanton has installed the veer offense featuring an experienced line and returning quarterback Thomas Sperbeck.
D-III movers, shakers – For years, the separation of D-I and D-II and D-III was similar to colleges. No longer.
Among area D-III teams in the Top 20:
No. 8 Placer, with a prolific wing-T offense and USC-bound lineman Eddie Vanderdoes.
No. 9 Del Campo, with another powerful running game.
No. 14 Inderkum, with some of the fastest tailbacks in the section.
No. 17 Casa Roble, with school rushing record-holder Kody Jones (1,500 yards in 2011).
No. 18 Whitney, with big shoes of graduated stars to fill.
No. 19 Vista del Lago, a playoff regular as a relatively new school.