PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

1. Pittsburg

2. Deer Valley

3. Freedom

4. Liberty

5. Heritage

6. Antioch

Running backs will take center stage in the Bay Valley Athletic League this season.

Freedom High has elite recruit Joe Mixon back for his senior season, and he'll be heavily relied upon if the Falcons hope to repeat as BVAL champions. The Falcons are breaking in a new quarterback in sophomore Joe Sweeney, and he'll have a number of experienced receivers to target. Freedom's offensive line is fairly young, but its defense features seven returning starters.

Pittsburg also has an outstanding tailback in Harris Ross and a young quarterback in junior Keith Walker. The Pirates should have one of the better offensive lines in the area, but they do have holes to fill on defense.

Deer Valley, with Nsimba and Nzuzi Webster, might be the most talent-rich team in the league. The Wolverines also have been bolstered by transfers, notably defensive back/running back Robert Taylor, who starred last year at Castro Valley.

For Antioch, seniors Cranberry Gato and Leonard Grillo anchor the offensive line. Senior Isaac Lewis takes over at quarterback, and sophomore wide receiver Ryan Payne should be one of his top targets.

Both Heritage and Liberty have new head coaches who have injected enthusiasm into the programs. Don Sanders takes over at Heritage, which finished the 2012 season by winning three of four, and Jeff Walters will try to get the Lions above .500 for the first time since 2005.

Here is a closer look at the league:

Antioch

COACH: John Lucido, fourth season

2012 RECORD: 6-5, 1-4 BVAL

TOP RETURNEES: OL/DL Cranberry Gato Sr.; QB Issac Lewis Sr.; OL/DL JayVon Chatman Sr.; OL/DL Rogelio Guzman Sr.; LB/OL/TE Leonard Grillo Sr.; QB/LB Alex Obias, Sr. WR D.J. Wall, Sr.

TOP NEWCOMER: WR Ryan Payne, So.

KEY LOSSES: QB/DB Hunter Karnthong, RB/LB Elbert Hamilton, LB/OL Markie Beltram, WR/DB Darrian Jones, OL/DL Randy Washington, OL/DL Julio Crespo, LB Larry Larsen,

OUTLOOK: The Panthers have better depth this season and have stepped up their nonleague schedule to help prepare for the rigors of the BVAL. Antioch's strength should be its offensive and defensive lines, as many of its skill position players have limited varsity experience. The Panthers may not be in the mix for the league title, but do have a shot to finish above .500 again and qualify for the North Coast Section playoffs.

Deer Valley

COACH: Rich Woods, eighth season

2012 RECORD: 6-5, 2-3

TOP RETURNEES: QB Nsimba Webster, Sr.; DB Nzuzi Webster, Sr.; K/P Christian Quintanilla, Sr.

TOP NEWCOMERS: OL/DL Malik Hutchings, Sr.; DB/RB Robert Taylor, Sr.

KEY LOSSES: RB Shane Pooler, C Josh Murtaugh, Sr.; LB Alex Estrada, TE Elijah Iakopo, OL Flenoid McCleary, DB Frank Sturgis, DL Tyler Toomey

OUTLOOK: The Wolverines may be the fastest team in the BVAL as Nsimba and Nzuzi Webster are two of the most electrifying playmakers in the region. Deer Valley has also been bolstered by Castro Valley transfer Robert Taylor, an all-WACC player at defensive back and an experienced running back. But Deer Valley is inexperienced up front with four new offensive linemen. There may be some growing pains for the Wolverines, but they should still challenge for the league title.

Freedom

COACH: Kevin Hartwig, 12th season

2012 RECORD: 9-3, 5-0

TOP RETURNEES: RB/LB Joe Mixon, Jr.; OL/DL Matt Dekelaita, Sr.; DB/WR Aaron Mullins, Sr.; DL/FB Tyler Bergen, Sr.; DE Patrick Choudja, Sr.; FB/LB Stephen Costello, Jr.

TOP NEWCOMERS: QB Joe Sweeney, So.; FB/DB Scotty Sander, Jr.

KEY LOSSES: QB Dante Mayes, WR/LB Darrell Daniels, WR/DB Devontae Young, DL Marcel Zanders, WR/CB Nenwon Gbilia, OL Johnny Doherty, DL Malik Jackson, OL/DL Alex Cabral, OL/DL Kyle Lintz, OL/DL Johnny Doherty, FB/LB Tyler Saude, DL Bobby Montgomery

OUTLOOK: The Falcons have the most dynamic player in California in Joe Mixon and other key returning players that should make for a formidable defense. The question marks for Freedom start at quarterback, as sophomore Joe Sweeney takes over for Dante Mayes, now at Nevada. Sweeney is not as elusive as Mayes but has good arm and is mature for the position. Mullins should be one of Sweeney's top targets, but the Falcons will lean on Mixon for the bulk of their offensive production.

Heritage

COACH: Don Sanders, first season

2012 RECORD: 3-7, 3-2

TOP RETURNEES: OL/DL Addison Hughes, Sr.; OL Jacob Smith, Sr. TE/LB Jordan Ruelas, Sr.; DB Colton Selin, Jr.; WR Tre Edwards, Jr.; RB/DB Nick Zalec, Sr.; TE Nicolas Celgari, Sr.; K Caleb Michael, Jr.

TOP NEWCOMERS: QB Sohail Mohsini, Jr.

KEY LOSSES: FB/LB Carson Cleverly, QB Anthony Carter, WR Johnny Briseno, K Tyler Barrios, RB Julian Johnson, DL Alex Filardo, DL Austin Delambert, LB Hunter Machardo

OUTLOOK: The Patriots ended the 2012 season by winning three of its last four to become eligible for the NCS playoffs. They decided not to enter the postseason, but they have a legitimate chance to qualify once again. Although Heritage has a young quarterback in Mohsini, the strength of the team will be its offensive and defensive lines with Hughes and Smith leading the way. A challenging nonleague schedule should prepare the Patriots for the BVAL slate.

Liberty

COACH: Jeff Walters, first season

2012 RECORD: 2-8, 0-5

TOP RETURNEES: ATH Ivan Oseguera, Sr.; RB/DB Cody Maghuyop, Sr.; OL/DE Shane Goodwin, Jr.; DB/WR Kyle Trego, Jr.; WR Brad Foote, Sr.; WR/CB Jimmie Smith, Sr.; RB/DB Josh Jackson, Sr.; OL/DL Manny Lopez, Sr.; OL Jack Gliedt, Sr.; OL Nathan Sharma, Jr.; OL/DL Brandon Spoulos, Sr.; WR Conor Green, Sr.

TOP NEWCOMERS: LB Alex Espinoza, Jr.; RB/LB Tai Tai Canady, Jr.; WR/S Alex Hull, Jr.

KEY LOSSES: QB/LB Cody Suckow, RB/S Austin Solari, LB/OL/FB Hunter Capps, DE/TE/OL Nico Russomanno, LB Zach Snyder, OL/DL Tanner Blank, OL/DL Danny Wood.

OUTLOOK: Last year, Liberty was often outmatched athletically by other teams in the BVAL, and again the Lions are not blessed with a great deal of size, Walters said. The key, he said, is for the Lions to stay active on every play. The Lions had a lot of young players gain varsity reps last season and while they went through a tough year in 2012, that experience should pay off. Oseguera and Maghuyop are the Lions' leaders, and Oseguera and Joseph Tolentino will share quarterback duties. Liberty also has experience at receiver and offensive line.

Pittsburg

COACH: Victor Galli, 12th season

2011 RECORD: 8-4, 4-1

TOP RETURNEES: RB Harris Ross, Sr.; OL/DL Rene Cardona, Sr.; OL/DL De'Angelo Powell, Sr.; OL/DL Larry Serna-Cruz, Sr.; K Tony Saldana, Sr.; LB/FB Noah Palega, Jr.; C/DE Antonio Baldazo, Sr.;

TOP NEWCOMERS: QB Keith Walker, Jr.; RB/LB DeVonte Tarrance, Jr.; WR/DB Isaiah Barber, Sr.

KEY LOSSES: OL/DL Antonio Huey, TE/DE Motekiai Maile, RB/LB Crajon Menefee, RB Jamal Lockett, QB Lorenzo Renteria, WR/DB Korey Alexander; WR/DB Xavier Crawford

OUTLOOK: With one of the best running backs in the area in Ross and experienced players on both the offensive and defensive lines, Pittsburg should be in the mix for the league championship once again. This is Walker's first season of organized football, but Galli has liked what he has seen so far from the young quarterback and said the offense will not be one-dimensional. The Pirates do have a lot of holes to fill on defense, but all-league selection Palega should shore up the run defense. If the inexperienced players can grow up quick, the Pirates have a chance at regaining the league crown.

Correspondents Matt Smith and Steve Dulas contributed to this story.