TATUM -- The Eagles figured they were moving from Class 2A to the UIL's new 4A Division II classification in November when the state's primary governing athletics body released its cutoff numbers in December.

They weren't disappointed the school was aligned a level up in February with regional powers formerly in Class 3A Division II.

"We were hoping for it," linebacker Chris Starling said. "We asked Coach to book us against the hardest teams we can play. That way, when we get to the playoffs, we'll be ready to play. No disappointments here. We're ready for the challenges."

Tatum's J.D. Taylor fires a pass under pressure from White Oak's Hayden Nichols (9) during Tatum's 42-21 home win on Oct. 11, 2013. (Christopher Vinn, ETSN.fm)

It's really a one step jump for Tatum and no change for the majority of new Class 4A Division II schools. The UIL renamed six-man football as Class A football and bumped the names of other classifications up one number. Class 4A Division II consists mostly of Class 3A Division II teams for a season ago.

But the talent level has jumped moderately in the Eagles' case. That being said, this program has generally been a championship contender since the early 2000s.

Tatum will play in District 6-4A Division II alongside promising Gladewater and Atlanta programs. Both opponents advanced at least into the area round of the Class 3A Division II playoffs and return significant parts of their teams. Gladewater continued to the regional finals and returns 18 starters.

Center, Pleasant Grove and Spring Hill provide the other challenges in district play.

The region, Region II, features Bullard, Canton, Gilmer, Melissa, Fairfield, Waco Connally and Coldspring-Oakhurst just to name a few. Gilmer is considered one of East Texas' best preseason hopes for a 2014 state championship and will visit Tatum on Sept. 12.

Melissa, Fairfield and Coldspring-Oakhurst have made deep runs in recent years. Fairfield's 2013 season ended with a loss in the Class 3A Division II championship game.

Tatum will scrimmage Fairfield in two weeks just prior to the regular season-opener against a very good Newton program. Newton advanced to the Class 2A Region III semifinals last season.

It will be a tough road for any team to get out of Region II alive, but the Eagles have been in a similar situation before.

The program won the 2005 Class 3A Division II title just two months before being aligned in Class 2A due to a declining student population. It won the Class 2A Division I title the very next season and lost the 2007 title in overtime.

"This is the right time for us to move up," head coach Andy Evans said. "We've got kids to play with, so we're excited about the move and getting to play with bigger schools."

The team returns 12 starters, five offensive and seven defensive.

Tatum assistant coach Jason Bragg congratulates Chaston Brooks during the Eagles' 35-21 win at Troup on Oct. 18, 2013. (Mark Martin, ETSN.fm)

Senior linebacker Kyshaun Smith has college football scholarship opportunities with Houston, Texas State and Memphis. Chaston Brooks might join Smith on the next level after six kick returns for touchdowns as a junior last season and good performances at receiver and defensive back.

Devon Boyd and Malik Allen are other senior defenders to watch. Boyd is a linebacker and mutli-purpose offensive athlete. Allen tested as the third-best linebacker in the region at ETSN.fm's Football Recruiting Combine in June.

Senior receiver Deyanta Roberson recorded more than 700 receiving yards last season.

Allen, Brooks, Smith, quarterback J.D. Taylor and defensive lineman Ryan Hyde are the Eagles' captains.

"Tatum has a long history with a great team and a great staff," Allen said. "The ability to be a captain is a big deal. This being my senior season, the ultimate goal is obviously going out with a bang and winning state. I do think we have the talent. It's just about being on our toes."

The squad will start the season with a scrimmage against Elysian Fields next week to supplement the Fairfield exhibition. In addition to Newton and Gilmer, non-district games are against Liberty-Eylau, Chapel Hill and Hardin-Jefferson.

All of its non-district opponents reached the playoffs last season.

"We're ready for the challenge," Starling said. "All we've been hearing is, 'You're going to be good, can't compete with Gilmer.' Or, 'You can't compete with this school.' We just want to prove everybody wrong and show we have some of the best athletes in East Texas. We're looking forward to the challenge."

Tatum linebacker Malik Allen at ETSN.fm's 2014 Photo Day shoot. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)