We haven't even reached the halfway point of the 2011 high school football season, but tonight's schedule offers a lot of our area teams chances to establish their identities for the remainder.
What we know so far is that four of our teams are at or near the top of their classifications (Baylor in Division II, Signal Mountain in Class 4A, Boyd-Buchanan in 2A and South Pittsburg in 1A). But here are 10 games that could determine which of those, or any others, are poised for deep playoff runs.
• Ensworth (4-0) at Baylor (4-0): When Ensworth scored the winning touchdown with just seconds remaining in regulation of last year's Division II-AA state title game, it was as tough a loss as a local team has suffered.
These teams likely will meet again in the Division II postseason, which would be four meetings in two years, so tonight is second-ranked Baylor's chance to end a three-game skid against the top-ranked Tigers and establish confidence for that potential playoff matchup.
The Red Raiders' first task is to slow the player with one of the best names around -- Ensworth's Corn Elder, who already has 580 yards rushing and eight touchdowns.
• Boyd-Buchanan (4-0, 1-0 5-A) at Grace Academy (2-2, 0-0): With Copper Basin's lack of depth, this game is the biggest obstacle between the top-ranked Buccaneers and another district title. The Bucs are allowing six points per game and have shut out five of their last six district foes, but they will be tested tonight unlike in any of those previous district games by a Golden Eagles offense that averages 35 points per game.
• Brainerd (2-1, 1-0 6-AA) at East Hamilton (1-3, 1-0): With Tyner struggling, there is a cluster of teams trying to take control of the district. The Panthers might just be the most dangerous team in a district where the eventual champion may have two league losses.
• Cleveland (1-3, 0-1 5-AAA) at Walker Valley (0-3, 0-0): While neither team's coach is ready to push it, both have their fingers on the panic button at this point. There were lots of expectations for Cleveland coming into the season and the Blue Raiders still have games at Red Bank and McMinn County as well as against Bradley Central coming up, meaning they're already playing for the postseason lives.
• Grundy County (2-2, 0-1 7-AA) at Signal Mountain (3-1, 1-0): Pity Grundy County for being the team that has to play the Eagles one week after the 2010 2A state champs got beat by 37 points. Let's see, the Eagles are at home and ready to make somebody pay for giving up 72 points last week, plus it's a district game to boot? This is Signal Mountain's chance to begin re-establishing itself, and I'd bet the farm the Eagles put up some impressive numbers tonight.
• Notre Dame (3-1, 0-1 7-AA) at Bledsoe County (2-1, 0-1): While Signal appears to be the class of District 7-AA, second place with a possible first-round playoff home game is still an important prize to claim. Both teams still have a solid Sequatchie County team coming up on the schedule, so the winner moves a step closer to claiming second place while the loser will be fighting an uphill battle just to make the playoffs.
• Ooltewah (3-1, 1-0 5-AAA) at McMinn County (2-2, 1-0): It would appear that everyone will be chasing Bradley Central within 5-AAA this year, so neither team can afford a loss before facing the Bears.
• Red Bank (3-0, 1-0 6-AA) at Hixson (3-0, 1-0): The Wildcats are 3-0 for the first time since 1998 and making their home debut after three road wins. A win over the state-ranked Lions would prove the Wildcats are a very real threat to win 6-AA, but they haven't beaten the Lions since 2004. And this is the first time in a while that the game carries much meaning.
"Usually we play them near the end of the season when they're getting ready for the playoffs and we're all but done," Hixson coach Houston White said. "This time the game matters a whole lot to both sides. We have to set the tone early on that we're for real."
• South Pittsburg (3-0, 1-0 6-A) at Marion County (1-3, 1-0): Bad blood and close games are the fuel for most rivalries. While the recent meetings in this series haven't been very close, the tension remains. The two head coaches exchanged barbs during last year's postgame handshake after the Pirates went for two points on each of their last four touchdowns, and the coaching staffs did not trade video this year.
Aside from all that, the game likely will determine the district title.
• Tyner (0-3, 0-1 6-AA) at East Ridge (1-2, 0-1): The Rams were the preseason district favorites but are now facing what basically amounts to an elimination game before we've even reached the midway point of the season. Tyner hasn't started a season 0-4 since 1974.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 20 years, starting at the News-Free Press as a 19-year-old reporter. He has been with the Times Free Press since its inception and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation ...