The skinny: The dark horse moniker is in jest, of course. There is no dark horse. At the risk of echoing South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier's recent claims that top-ranked Alabama could beat an NFL team, Wayne might be the best all-around team in the state regardless of class.
It's unlikely the Pioneers are the best overall, but the point is clear: there are no Class AA teams on their level in 2012. Wayne, led by senior running back Brandon Spurlock, has outscored its opponents 535-130, often while pulling its starters after 2 1/2 quarters.
It's been a while since we've seen this kind of dominance in Class AA. After all, it is typically the most hard-to-predict group of teams. But this year's field is quite a shift from the norm. The top five teams - Wayne, No. 2 Keyser, No. 3 Bridgeport, No. 4 Robert C. Byrd and No. 5 Bluefield - have shown throughout the regular season that they are clearly a step ahead of the rest of the bunch.
Even within that handful of teams some separation was shown late in the season. Keyser beat Bridgeport 25-0 at home on Oct. 19, and just last week the Pioneers annihilated Bluefield 45-14 in what many close to the Wayne program said was the team's toughest game this season.
While a Wayne-Keyser showdown in the Super Six might seem a natural projection, Bridgeport Coach Josh Nicewarner said even a Wayne rout in that game shouldn't be taken as a measure of Keyser's long-term potential.
"What you're seeing out of Wayne this year, you're probably going to see from Keyser next year," Nicewarner said. "They're young, they're tough. I've never been part of a team that got taken apart like we did up there."
Nicewarner's words might be the biggest cause for alarm for Wayne. They sound curiously like the opinions given regarding Wayne a year ago, when they headed into a Class AA title game against a Point Pleasant team that had rolled to 13 consecutive wins to reach its first Super Six.
Wayne won that game 34-7.
The top seed: Tucker County
The favorite: No. 2 Magnolia
The dark horse: No. 4 Madonna
The skinny: With so little known about the Mountain Lions outside the mountains near Parsons, they could very well be considered a dark horse. However, 10-0 and a top-seed - especially when the team finally has the ability to play its home games on its own field rather than at Elkins or Preston - will make them a tough out.
Magnolia, however, also has home field throughout the preliminary rounds and a telling statistic again jumps out when it comes to the Blue Eagles and their home, Alumni Field in New Martinsville. Since 1981, Magnolia is 23-3 in home playoff games. Having already posted regular season wins over first-round opponent Williamstown (24-7) and potential quarterfinal foe Wheeling Central (17-13), Magnolia enters as the favorite to win a title in its first season since dropping from Class AA.
An All-State selection from Magnolia's Class AA title team in 2010 and again a pick in 2011, senior wide receiver Stephen Rogalski has seen defensive attention increase on him throughout the season, Coach Mark Batton said. That added attention, however, has created opportunities for junior running backs Kage Rohde and Drew Keller, which has made the team's offense more diverse. As a result, the Blue Eagles' scoring average has increased from 27.4 points per game in the first half of the season to 43 points in the last five games.
Madonna is the Keyser of Class A. With a roster that includes 15 juniors and just four seniors, the Blue Dons have rolled their way to a 9-1 record. That mark includes last week's 40-2 thrashing of previously undefeated and No. 8 seed Clay-Battelle. Junior quarterback/defensive back Ross Comis is considered by many to be the most well-rounded player in the division.
After losing All-State quarterback Parker Henry to a knee injury in a preseason scrimmage against Tucker County, Wheeling Central struggled to find its feet on offense through much of the first half of the season. However, converted running back C.J. Burch has become better accustomed to throwing the ball recently, which could give the Maroon Knights' offense a much-needed second option.
Wahama, at 10-0, also should not be overlooked. Although the third-seeded White Falcons played just one West Virginia team (No. 14 seed Buffalo) in the regular season, they have not lost a regular season game since 2009.
The games get under way Friday across the state.