Montgomery County football has a certain intrigue about it this fall. The usual powers again look to be strong, but the reclassification of the two county state champions clouds the picture.

Churchill, Springbrook and Seneca Valley again are the teams in Class AA of which great things are expected. But Kennedy, which won the Class A state title a year ago, has moved up in class, joining such elite company that the Cavaliers might find themselves with "a record just the reverse of last year's (11-1)," said Coach Brady Straub.

Despite the heavy competition, Churchill, which won the AA county championship last season with the help of an overtime victory at Springbrook, still is the consensus favorite, mostly because of the Bulldogs' tradition of excellence under Coach Fred Shepherd. Offensively, Kip Wilson returns at running back along with Prevain Robinson. Quarterback Scott Sorkin will run the option offense.

Defense, however, will be Churchill's major strength. Armin Mashyedi and Chris Ahn plug the line, and Wilson has a flair for the big plays at safety. The rest of the faces may be new, but the game plan will be the same: shut 'em down on defense. "I don't see why we should change now," said Shepherd.

Springbrook Coach Bob Milloy is trying to shield his team from preseason hype, but at least two opponents already regard the Blue Devils as "awesome." Six prominent seniors and 15 juniors return to a team that was 8-2. Most of the returning seniors -- Pat Turner, Dave Mathes, Ron Parr and Rick Molloy -- will play both offensively and defensively; only quarterback Todd Wolfram and all-Met kicker Dave Behrmann will play just one position.

"We're going in figuring we can win every game," said Milloy. "But if we start worrying about Churchill and Seneca Valley at this point, we're going to get beat. I feel like we're going to have something to say about who wins the championship. But I'd have to say Churchill is the favorite."

Seneca Valley had a subpar (for the Eagles) 7-3 record last fall as the offense struggled throughout. The biggest contributors this year are expected to be quarterback Tom McAleavey, tight end-punter Wayne Turner and tackle John Finley. Nose guard Ted Gordon and linebacker Jolly Haggaty lead the defense. Coach Al Thomas, meanwhile, said Gaithersburg is a team to watch.

The Trojans (4-6) will have linemen Mark Krasic and Sam Sechrist leading the way for running back Steve Ellis, but the play of the juniors from last year's junior varsity will be the most important barometer of the team's development. "Next year, we'll have one of the best teams in the last 10 years," said John Harvill, Gaithersburg's coach since 1957.

Wheaton (6-4) will also rely heavily on juniors. Running back-defenders David Quarterfield, Tyrone Shelton and Mike Parsons are the top returnees.

Wootton (5-5) threatened a year ago, but was brought down by injuries to its quarterbacks. Steve Norman will quarterback this year, but the emphasis has been shifted to fullback Jeff Cooper, who will run behind 6-foot-7, 220-pound tackle Ben Cowan. Junior halfback Danny Cockerell may be one to watch. "The first six games will be the key to our success," said Coach Bob Hampton.

The same could be said for Bethesda-Chevy Chase (4-6), which has an "inexperienced offensive line and great anticipation," according to Coach Ed Ross. The only proven players are second-team all-Met linebacker Ceroy Robinson, quarterback Art Smith, and two-way players Yusef Williams and Eric Martin. "The bottom line," said Ross, "is that we could have a good football team and go 0-10. We don't have a slouch on our schedule."

Tough scheduling is only part of the problem for Kennedy, which advances to AA after the close of nearby Northwood. Who will fill in for all the graduated starters is a more pressing matter. Only center Chris Erickson and running back Ricky Pickett started last year, and Straub still has to decide between four quarterback candidates.

"The kids are playing the best they can," Straub said, "but we're going to struggle."

The teams that struggled last season may improve. Rockville (3-7) has eight starters returning on offense and six on defense, the dividend for playing so many juniors last year. Junior quarterback Lorin Greber takes over for Jovi McAndrew (who will start at cornerback) with a lot of offensive support: receivers Jeff Bonner and Farron Riggs and running backs Kevin Lavern and Pete Davis. Whitman will rely on defense, namely Jim Borra and Ed Lee, and hope Mike Manatos can connect with split end John Sweeney offensively.

Former Richard Montgomery assistant Percell Tabb inherited a Blair club (1-9) that is lucky not to have a AA schedule. Better success may hinge on transfer tailback James Partlow and inexperienced quarterback Mike Holland. Seniors Chris Bratton, Jim Todris and Tim Hayes lead the defense.

In Class A, Magruder finds itself in a situation similar to that of Kennedy -- state champion in Class B and now playing in a higher classification. The Colonels routed opponents last season on the way to the title, but Coach Roy Lester doesn't expect a repeat.

"If this team wins the state championship, it would have to be some kind of miracle," said Lester. "We're going to make too many mistakes."

How quickly the defense can come together before the season opener at Churchill should prove to be the most critical issue. Important, also, is how much running room tailback Charles Carridine and quarterback Steve Bates get from guards John Small and Scott Denlinger.

Richard Montgomery (5-5), Paint Branch and Sherwood, meanwhile, seem ready to take advantage of any Magruder slippage. The Rockets are big on the lines of scrimmage with Bret Lingenfelter (6-4, 255), Gary Worthy (6-3, 260), Mike Hudlow (6-4, 245) and Jason Freeze (6-3, 195) and quick in the backfield with quarterback Jamie Blake and tailback Junior Martin. How well they defend against the pass, especially with several nagging injuries, is a question the team may have to answer.

Paint Branch is hoping seniors Vince Jackson and Chris Hayden can take it through a year of rebuilding as juniors get a lot of playing time. Sherwood (5-5) was second a year ago, and played Kennedy tough in a 14-13 loss. Quarterback Joe Garris has a lot of options from which to choose, including halfbacks Matt Pack and Scott Frye and receiver Ken LaMotta.

Einstein ended its losing ways last season, winning five of its first six games, but academic problems will keep the Titans from repeating that feat. Quarterback Dan Sheridan and linebacker Alan Ford are two of the few bright spots. "If we win a couple of games, we'll be lucky," said Coach Jamie Hunter.

New coaches Joe Mencarini (Walter Johnson) and Dan Contesti (Damascus) will fight it out in Class B. Woodward remains relatively unchanged with 1,200-yard rusher Derek Nierman and Coach Tom George (3-7 record) returning.

Mencarini, who spent 16 years as an assistant at Gaithersburg, will have backs Steve Ward and Jon Lastuvka running behind linemen Mike Simpson, Cliff Dickey and Rob Dorsett. Opposing offenses will likely try to avoid nose guard Mike Sarni (320 pounds) and defensive tackle Tony Marciante (245 pounds).

Veteran Ernie Ceccato again will make the most of what he has at Poolesville, which in seasons past has been good enough to make the Class C playoffs. This year should be no different with overachievers Robert Bupp, Brian Thomas and Paul Hawkins carrying the workload offensively, and Mark Saffrer, C.T. Rosser and Donald Stuphin leading the defense. Lack of depth will again be a problem, but the Indians have won 39 of 40 regular-season games over two years.

At Damascus, only three starters return from last year's 2-8 team: defensive back Brian Myers, tackle Kenny Simms, and defensive end Chad Wamsley.