Springstead at Citrus, 7:30 p.m.
If last week's preseason action provided any sort of legitimate measuring stick, then tonight's Springstead-Citrus clash looks like a marquee matchup.
"Citrus is a real solid team," Springstead head coach Mike Garofano said. "I've seen them on film. They're physical, fast, athletic; they've got everything you want on a team. We have to step up our game and come to play.
"I think it's probably the best team on our schedule. It's a huge test. And I think they're looking at us as a test, as well."
The Eagles dusted Hudson last Thursday, 37-0, in a game that only lasted a shade over three quarters due to an injury.
The next night, the Hurricanes dominated Nature Coast, 47-7, displaying a versatile, explosive offense and a suffocating defense.
Both Springstead (9-2 in 2012) and Citrus (7-4 in 2012) were already expected to be two of the finest clubs on the North Suncoast and looked the part in exhibition play.
For the Eagles, it seemed like business as usual against the Cobras. Their first possession they ran off 19 plays, marching 77 yards for a touchdown, and never looked back.
By the end of the night, they had rushed 36 times for 301 yards, and completed 9-of-13 passes for 74 yards.
Senior quarterback Tyler Mahla inflicted much of the damage, totaling 116 yards on 11 carries and connecting on 6-of-10 passes for 57 yards. He ran for one score and threw for another, his lone blemish an interception late in the first half.
"Thursday's game was a good practice game to get in, get the officials out there and line up against an opposing team," Garofano said. "Outside of some penalties I thought we played pretty well. We were pretty disciplined, classic Springstead football.
"I want to see us improve, play faster defensively and clean up the penalties offensively. We lost the turnover battle and we need to win the turnover battle."
This will mark Garofano's official debut as the Eagles' headman, and the team's first regular-season game without his predecessor, Bill Vonada, at the helm since Sept. 4, 1998, that year's opener against Central.
Garofano saw firsthand what Citrus did to Nature Coast last Friday. Running back James Pouncey ran for 111 yards on 12 carries while finding the end zone twice.
The 'Canes were equally adept through the air, with quarterback Deion Moore targeting Desmond Franklin on two of his three touchdown tosses.
Citrus and Springstead could theoretically meet within the first two rounds of the playoffs. The 'Canes, though, are in a rugged district featuring Gainesville, ranked fifth in the Associated Press Class 6A state poll, and Ocala-Vanguard, also receiving votes.
For now each squad will try to make an early statement and build positive momentum going forward.
"It's always nice to get off to a good start, get in the win column right away," Garofano said. "To me the first three games are preseason getting ready for our first district game against Sunlake.
"I don't believe in moral victories. Either you win or you lose. We're traveling to Citrus with full intentions of winning."
Jacksonville-Bolles at Hernando, 7:30 p.m.
Springstead isn't the only county team starting out against one of the most formidable opponent on its slate.
Hernando plays host to the third-ranked club in 4A and that classification's reigning state runner-up in Bolles.
The Bulldogs (12-2 in 2012) won the state crown in 2011, something they've done 11 times overall, six of those since 2002.
Only three times during that span have they failed to at least reach the state title game, and they last missed the playoffs in 1992.
"We know the team we're going to play is a championship-caliber team," Hernando head coach Dwayne Mobley said. "We have to play penalty free. We've got to play mistake-free football. This team we're playing capitalizes on other people's mistakes.
"They're very disciplined. They don't do a lot of stuff other teams do, jumping offsides, throwing interceptions, stuff that can turn the game around and gives teams bad field position."
The Leopards (6-5 in 2012) are coming into this one cold, after their preseason meeting with River Ridge was canceled last Friday due to forecasts of inclement weather.
"We didn't get the opportunity to go out and iron out the mistakes or any of that other stuff that usually happens in the first game," Mobley said. "But all our guys are healthy. They're working hard. That's all I can ask of them right now.
"They're ready. It hurt them that they didn't get to play last week, so they're definitely ready to play."
Hernando also didn't get a chance to work through its unsettled quarterback situation. Junior John Coleman will likely get the nod based on seniority, though Mobley said senior Ra'shaad Hart and junior Tyler Kline figure to take some snaps.
Whether it's fair to assess the Leopards against Bolles remains to be seen, but their schedule only gets marginally easier.
Next week they host Jacksonville-Bishop Kenny, a team receiving votes in the 5A state poll, followed by a game at Citrus. Looming down the road is 5A-District 6 foe Pasco, ranked third in the state.
"We're going to be able to see where we're at, how close we are to where we need to be," Mobley said. "This (Bolles) ain't no easy team. This here is a team that's already got its program established. They know what they need to do. And that's where we want to get."
Nature Coast at Crystal River, 7:30 p.m.
Smarting from its loss to Citrus and the three-week suspension (pending appeal) of standout senior Rohan Blackwood, Nature Coast will try to recollect itself tonight in Citrus County.
"Last week was very disappointing and put a huge sour taste in our mouths," Nature Coast head coach Charles Liggett said. "But it is Week 1. We'll have a little more sense of urgency, you hope."
Crystal River (6-4 in 2012) had its own preseason problems, falling 45-15 at Ocala-Trinity Catholic, ranked fourth in 3A.
But very little went right for the Sharks (6-4 in 2012) in Inverness a week ago. Not only could they not stop Citrus from scoring, they were limited to minus-1 yard of total offense in the first half and finished the game with three lost fumbles and 11 penalties.
Blackwood, a defensive end and wide receiver, was lost for this game thanks to his ejection, and starting quarterback Jamison Carnegie went down with a severe ankle sprain.
Senior Ryan Quigley will get the nod under center in his place. Quigley saw time there last season, competing 15-of-32 passes for 163 yards, with four touchdowns and two picks.
"The way we performed last Friday night, I'm not sure it makes any difference," Liggett said. "Jamison didn't get the chance to perform as a quarterback. Quigley's a senior, he's played quarterback, played in games; there'll be an experience factor.
"Until we do something, they'll (Crystal River) pack the box and come like nobody's business. I think they'll try to pick up where Citrus left off, bringing pressure, pressure, pressure."
The Pirates, at least on paper, do seem like a more even matchup than the 'Canes. They needed a second-half rally to top the Sharks in last year's season opener, 21-14.
But this certainly isn't 2012 for Nature Coast, and Liggett recognizes that his team could use a feel-good victory.
"I think it's very critical," Liggett said. "This feels different than any beginning of a season I can remember. We sure as heck haven't endured anything like last week. It was a shell-shock. It was a rough loss in the way it happened.
"We need to win. We need to go out and show we've got the other issues fixed. Everyone else has written us off. Don't think I haven't used that as a motivator for the kids. No one believes in us. Now we've got to go out and make them believers."
Weeki Wachee at Interlachen, 7:30 p.m.
The only county team that did collect a win last Friday was Weeki Wachee, coming from behind to best Lecanto, 16-15.
More impressive, the Hornets (3-7 in 2012) did it without their most electric offensive talent, quarterback/wide receiver Marcus Allen, who sat due to a coach's decision.
The junior is expected to play this week, Weeki Wachee head coach Mark Lee said.
"We made a lot of corrections from Friday night's game against Lecanto," Lee said. "We've got kids who have gotten healthy enough to play. I think that'll be a plus. The main thing was getting guys playing time, game experience and hopefully that'll put them in a much better position this week.
"They were winning 15-10 at the end of the third quarter and we agreed to pull our starters out. The JV did a good job. The varsity came out in the second half and played much better. Things were going in our direction and we were starting to build momentum."
Now the Hornets will try to capitalize on the confidence gained from that victory as they make a roughly two-hour trip to Interlachen (1-9 in 2012).
These teams were district foes last year, and Weeki Wachee roared back down 22-7 in the fourth quarter and returned home behind a 29-22 overtime triumph.
"They're got some athletes," Lee said. "They've got some speed. They're a lot like us from a depth standpoint. They're pretty thin. If we get on them early, I'll feel much better."
Hudson at Central, 7:30 p.m.
While Hudson (3-7 in 2012) got rolled by Springstead in the preseason, Central (1-9 in 2012) went down to Williston in a sloppy game last Friday, 19-6.
"We had two costly fumbles that really hurt," Central head coach Mike Einspahr said. "We had some poor snaps we've got to take care of. Other than that the kids have got to bounce back and get ready for Hudson.
"I feel like the defense played pretty well. We gave up one (touchdown) on special teams and one on offense. They're starting to play together and play as a team. It's never as good and never as bad as it seems."
Since both programs are in a building mode, Einspahr feels the Cobras are a decent match for his Bears, providing an opportunity to make progress out of the gate.
"We've got to learn to take care of the football and stop beating ourselves," Einspahr said. "We keep making strides, not as big as I want and everybody wants, but we're making strides.
"A win for our program and a win for our kids would be extremely huge. I tell the kids not to worry about the win, worry about the process. The win will take of itself."