By D. Mark Mitchell

sports columnist

The Opelika Bulldog football team opens the 2015 season in Tuscaloosa against Hillcrest tonight at 7 p.m.  Opelika finished 9-2 last year, losing to Saraland in the second round of the AHSAA playoffs. Hillcrest finished 9-4, losing to Saraland in the quarterfinals.
Brian Blackmon enters his seventh season as the Opelika head coach. Sam Adams, the Patriots head coach, starts his second season after finishing 9-4 last year.
Like Opelika, Hillcrest graduated several starters from a year ago. The Patriots moved their top wide receiver to quarterback. Four of the five starters on the offensive line are gone. Their most dynamic returning player is running back DeAndre Watson, who rushed for over 1000 yards last season.
The defense returns more starters than offense. Hillcrest allowed 24 points a game while scoring 36 points  per contest.
The Patriots allowed 20 plus points per game in ten of its thirteen games in 2014.
On the other hand, they scored 21 points or more in every game, including 48, 42, 39, 47 and 53 points in five games.
Opelika saw several key starters graduate. Jake Bentley, 6’4″ 220 lbs., will start at quarterback. Despite never starting a high school game, Bentley is rated as one of the top junior QB’s in the nation. Jake’s father, Bobby, is a long-time high school coach and now serves as an offensive consultant at Auburn University.
I have been impressed with Jake’s ability to handle the pressure that comes with being touted as a top college prospect. Before that Jake will play QB the next two seasons at OHS.
In addition to Bentley, Opelika’s offense has several skill players: Kyle Fourtanbary, James Moss, Tanner Blatt, Josh Johnson and Jaleel Heard plus many other players that continue to impress the coaches.
The offensive line must provide time for Jake to throw and open holes for the backs to run through. The defense is always steady. Defensive coordinator Erik Speakman and staff continue to put a fast and hard hitting group on the field.
Despite losing several starters up front, OHS will play good defense that should keep them in all their games.
Opelika must establish the run and control both lines of scrimmage. You may say, “Of course they have to block and tackle.”
The teams that win year in and year out control the defensive and offensive front lines.
Opelika must control the time of possession. If our offense can do this, Hillcrest can’t score.
The first game of the season is tough on both players and coaches. It’s normal for players to be nervous. The Bulldogs are on the road and some will be starting for the first time.
The Dawgs must use special teams to their advantage.
Left-footed kicker Jack Slay will handle the place kicking and kickoff duties. Austin Morgan will handle the deep snapping, Jake Bentley will punt and Carter Milner will be the holder.
Look for Opelika to start a little slow on the road. As the game progresses, the Dawgs will take over and control the outcome.
Another twist to the game? How will Brian Blackmon handle the offensive coordinator duties and handle the head coaching job at the same time? Blackmon has been a OC longer than he has been a head coach. He will handle the jobs without a hitch and the transition will be smooth.
Fans can listen to the Opelika vs Hillcrest game tonight on 97.7 Kicker FM or online at or download the i-Heart Radio App on your smart phone. Search WKKR and you can listen.
I (D.Mark Mitchell) will be starting my 36th season as “Voice of the Bulldogs” along Jeff Sasser, former Opelika coach Larry Gore and Wade Meadows. We  will provide you up to the minute coverage of the game and our inside thoughts.
The Coach Brian Blackmon pregame show airs at 6:30 p.m.  with kickoff set for 7.
Opelika will host Auburn next week at Bulldog Stadium. Opelika fans are asked to wear red as we “Red out AHS”. Tickets can be purchased Monday-Friday at Bubba’s Medicine Shop, Victory Design or Rice Banking.
Purchase your tickets early. The game is expected to be a hard sellout .
The Opelika SeaDawgs Swim Team competed in the 2015 Alabama Parks & Recreation State Swimming and Diving Championship this summer. There were 31 teams and 1,300 swimmers competing in this event. It was a great weekend for the SeaDawgs. This two-day event had swimmers from all over the state of Alabama with ages ranging from 5 to 18 years old competing for top honors. Opelika finished eighth overall and we are very pleased with the final results. The SeaDawgs took 53 swimmers to the state meet this year.
We will have pictures in next week’s paper.
D.Mark Mitchell is sports director for iHeart Media, Alabama Dixie Boys State director and vice president of the  A-O Sports Council.