When the city's most renowned prep rivalry is renewed Friday night at Heywood Stadium, the outcome of the football game will be heavily influenced — possibly even decided — by which relatively unknown player steps into the spotlight.
For only the third time since the rivals began playing in 1905, both McCallie and host Baylor enter this mammoth Division II-AAA game unbeaten after the first half of a season.
However, a good portion of players on both sides — 11 for McCallie, 10 for Baylor — will make their debuts as starters in the rivalry. That includes nine Blue Tornado defenders as well as six Red Raiders who have never played McCallie in even a junior varsity game, most notably junior quarterback Neyland Jean and leading rusher Elijah Howard, who both transferred in last spring.
"I've been told all week that you really haven't played in a real game until you play in this one," said Howard, who played at Knoxville Webb prior to transferring to Baylor and has committed to the University of Tennessee. "The very first day I came, before I had even practiced, I heard about how much this game meant to the school and the city. I've heard you can't hear anything because the crowd noise is constant, and I can tell it's a big deal just by how many people are talking about it on campus and by the way we've been more intense at practice all week.
"I've been in big-game situations before, so I know to stay focused and just do what I do when the game rolls around."
Top-ranked McCallie (6-0) and third-ranked Baylor (5-0) have legitimate state championship aspirations, but first they must decide the pecking order in DII-AAA East with each 2-0 in the region.
Veteran Blue Tornado coach Ralph Potter, who grew up in the rivalry having played quarterback for his dad at McCallie, admitted he doesn't have to call added attention to the game for his younger players.
"Sometimes ignorance is bliss," Potter said with a smile. "They can tell this one is different just by the feeling on campus and around town. I'm not going to put more pressure on them than they'll already feel. There are more guys than usual, on both sides, who haven't yet experienced what this game is all about.
"You never know how guys will respond to that type of environment. But we're about to find out."
The past six meetings have been decided by more than two touchdowns, likely a result of the emotions involved in such an intense rivalry getting the better of one side or the other. The Blue Tornado have owned the past three by an average of 25 points, but Baylor has won six of the past 10.
"I know from experience that it's tough to understand the pressure and the atmosphere you feel when you walk out and see that many people in the stands," Baylor coach Phil Massey said. "I didn't fully grasp it until 2006, when I coached in this game for the first time. It's very different.
"You can try to drown out all the outside noise from the week, but there's no way to ignore it completely. In my 14 years here, I've learned the game can swing in a big way, and quickly, just off of emotions. We've got 13 seniors who are doing everything they can as leaders to prepare all those inexperienced guys about what to expect and how to prepare."
Besides the playoff implications and general intensity of a rivalry, adding to the excitement of this year's game is the amount of future college talent lining up for both sides. Even without McCallie four-star defensive lineman Jay Hardy — who will miss four to six weeks due to a knee injury sustained last week — there will be more than a dozen notable prospects on the field. That includes Baylor juniors Howard, Jean and safety Riley Jenne, plus linebacker Noah Martin (committed to Samford) and fellow seniors Mekos Baker (receiver), Isaiah Golonka (tight end) and Seth Johnson (lineman), as well as McCallie senior quarterback DeAngelo Hardy (committed to Kennesaw State) plus running back B.J. Harris and fellow juniors Austin and Jack Gentle, twin linemen.
Although McCallie junior Gavin Cagle has yet to experience the rivalry's electric atmosphere — Heywood Stadium's seating capacity is close to 6,500, but the crowd will exceed that — the team's second-leading rusher this season is proving to be an accomplished trash talker regarding the Red Raiders.
"They're not special at all. It's just another game for us," Cagle said with a smirk.
Cagle transferred from Christian Academy of Knoxville, so he and Howard played on rival teams even before coming to Chattanooga.
"When I got here, I was just told to hate the guys in red," Cagle added. "I didn't know much about this rivalry when I got here, but you can feel that it's a really big deal.
"You realize there will be more pressure on this one, but I've played in big games before so I'm anxious to get to experience that environment, to see how I stand up against that type competition and how we do as a team."