The Pine Tree Conference Class B is going to be one of the most competitive leagues in the state again this season. Which team enters the season as the team to beat, however, is up for debate.

“I don’t know where everybody got the idea we’re loaded,” Messalonskee head coach Brad Bishop said. “We’ve got a lot of people to replace.”

Bishop’s Eagles enter the season as a favorite, along with three-time defending champion Brunswick, which won the Class B state title last season. The PTC B will play 2017 with eight members, after declining enrollment and a shuffling of the divisional enrollment cutoffs dropped Nokomis and Gardiner to Class C.

“I still think Brunswick’s got it going,” Lawrence head coach John Hersom said.

If Bishop really needs a reason as to why his team is highly regarded, he only needs to look in his offensive backfield. Senior fullback Austin Pelletier is the league’s top returning rusher. Along with returning halfback Tyler Lewis and Alden Balboni, who returns to halfback after playing guard last season for the Eagles, Pelletier gives Messalonskee one of the top rushing attacks in the state. Bishop said Messalonskee has work to do on the offensive line, which is inexperienced.

“They’re smart, good kids,” Bishop said of his linemen, led by senior tackles Colin Kinney and Matt Tremblay, senior center Ethan DuPerry and senior guard Nick Poulliot. “If they can create the slightest crease, our backs are off to the races.”

Sophomore Deklan Thurston, who started at quarterback late last season as a freshman, is back under center.

Defensively, the Eagles are led by Pelletier at end, Balboni at linebacker and Lewis in the secondary.

Seven of the eight opponents on Messalonskee’s schedule reached the playoffs last season. The Eagles open the season with back-to-back games against last season’s Class B state game participants, Brunswick and Kennebunk.

“We have team speed. We have to see if we’ve got some toughness,” Bishop said.

Skowhegan lost one of the top quarterbacks in the state, Garrett McSweeney, to graduation. In junior Marcus Christopher, interim head coach Ryan Libby feels Skowhegan has a quarterback who also can adeptly run the team’s spread offense.

“The only reason Marcus didn’t start last season is he had Garrett blocking him,” Libby said.

Christopher has a strong group of targets in receivers Cam Barnes, Jon Bell and Sean Savage. Skowhegan’s backfield is inexperienced. John Blodgett hopes to avoid persistent shoulder problems that have limited his playing time the last few seasons. Hunter Washburn also will see carries. Senior center Travis Clement is the only returning starter to Skowhegan’s offensive line.

Clement and Jake Price lead a Skowhegan defensive line that has to improve in stopping the run. Linebackers Kobe Houghton and John Nadeau will be keys, as will Barnes and Bell at corner.

“We have some speed. A lot of these guys started last year,” Libby said.

With eight starters back on offense, Lawrence hopes to be near the top of the conference again. Now a senior, quarterback Braden Ballard took over the starting job midway through his sophomore year, and has shown steady improvement.

“Coach (Ken) Lindlof (offensive coordinator) is building on his strengths,” Hersom said. “Offensively, we’re pretty advanced for only being in our second week of practice.”

The Bulldogs return the entire offensive line, led by guard Preston Tilton-Flood, tackle Aiden Strickland and tight end Logan Fortin. Fullback Tyler Larouche also returns and will serve as a captain along with Ballard and Tilton-Flood.

While there’s talent back on Lawrence’s defense, the depth is thin, particularly in the secondary. A few players will see new roles on the Lawrence defense. Larouche moves to defensive end, Alex Higgins moves inside from end to tackle, and Strickland slides over to tackle from nose guard. The Bulldogs will try a base 5-2 defense this season instead of the 4-3 of recent years.

Hopes are high at Cony, still buoyed by a late run last year that saw the Rams overcome a sub-.500 record to knock off Lawrence in the playoffs and take Brewer down to the wire in a PTC semifinal loss. Cony will need to find an answer at quarterback after the departure of Taylor Heath, who was productive in guiding the Rams’ up-tempo, spread-out passing attack.

“That’s the one position where we have no experience coming back,” coach B.L. Lippert said. “That’s the big question mark heading in.”

Anthony Sousa, a former all-conference linebacker who played receiver and tight end last year, has gotten work as the potential replacement in the pocket.

His job becomes easier when considering who he’s throwing to. Jordan Roddy snagged 17 touchdown catches last year and is one of the state’s best receivers, while Eli Dutil is a big-play target who had 173 receiving yards and four touchdowns in the loss to Brewer.

“I think our receiver corps is probably the deepest it has been in my 13 years at Cony,” said Lippert, whose team also boasts a skilled pass catcher in Reed Hopkins and a solid rusher in Ashton Cunningham.

“We’ve got a lot of kids that have shown this summer in 7-on-7s and in team camps. … Whoever is the quarterback will have the luxury of throwing to pretty talented kids,” Lippert said.

Cony will need to be tougher, especially in stopping the run, and Lippert thinks they will be. Devon Thomas and Nic Mills will lead the way on the defensive line, and Sousa will be on patrol as one of the conference’s top linebackers.

Mt. Blue has a new head coach, Nate Quirion. A former assistant at Husson University, as well as Lawrence and Bangor high schools, Quirion’s players quickly learned he’s a stickler for detail.

“He has everything planned down to the letter,” co-captain Nick Foy, a center and defensive tackle, said. “Every single player has a plan.”

The Cougars just missed the playoffs last season, and spent the preseason learning all new systems on both sides of the ball.

“We’re inexperienced in some areas, but this is a very hard-working group,” Quirion said.

Senior tailback Abram Meader is a solid runner, and will also lead the defense from the strong safety position.