Nature Coast at Sunlake, 7:30 p.m.
The past two weeks have done little to produce clarity in handicapping Class 6A, District 6.
However, the outcome when Nature Coast squares off with host Sunlake tonight should certainly shed some light on the situation.
The Sharks have bounced back from their 0-2 start behind three straight wins. Yet beginning their district slate with blowout victories against Central and River Ridge hasn't erased all doubts, considering those teams are a combined 2-7.
Defeating the reigning 6A-6 runner-up Seahawks (3-1 overall, 1-1 6A-6) would speak far greater volumes.
"I think this game is huge for us," Nature Coast head coach Charles Liggett said. "Last year we were 3-2 at this point and let that one slip away from us (13-8 loss to Sunlake). I think this is sort of that hump game.
"If we lose this week, it doesn't put us out of the district hunt. But last year it ended up being the game that derailed our goals."
No one has done much to derail Matt Breida lately. The senior running back could already surpass 1,000 yards if he runs for 172 in this contest.
That number may seem high, except that it would be his lowest total in four weeks. The past two in particular, he has piled up 426 yards and six touchdowns on just 27 rushes.
Do the math and it comes out to a staggering 15.8 yard per carry for a player trying to garner even more D-I college attention than he has already received.
"He's just Matt," Liggett said. "But everybody has good coaches. Good coaches know how to break down film and attack. I think Sunlake has an excellent defensive coordinator in Matt Smith.
"They're going to have a game plan to slow (Breida) down, just like they did last year. But Breida is a dynamic athlete. He'll work his butt off to make things happen."
Breida came into last year's meeting with even more yards – 1,049 – and was limited to a season-low 30 by the Seahawk defense, guided by the former Springstead player and Hernando head coach Smith.
Of course, this isn't supposed to be quite the same Sunlake squad as in 2011, due to the typical personnel losses endured by prep programs.
A surprisingly close 17-12 triumph over winless Wiregrass Ranch, followed by a 13-7 defeat at the hands of Springstead in its 6A-6 opener backed up that notion.
Then the Seahawks stormed past previously unbeaten Mitchell one week ago, 36-7, to show they haven't exactly fallen out of playoff contention.
"Last year they seemed to be more of a passing-heavy-type team," Liggett said. "From what I've seen, this year they're roughly 75 percent run.
"Our district is pretty close in comparison. I think we match up with them well. I think we've got an answer for everything they do offensively. The question is: How good are they on defense? I know Matt Smith does a great job with that."
Nature Coast will have to limit senior running back Eddie Burgos, who has run for 524 yards and eight touchdowns while catching two more scores.
Quarterback Josh Zifer, also a senior, has actually rushed for more yardage (311) than passed (269), so he has been a dual threat.
Stopping them is half the battle for the Sharks. The other is trying to clean up the turnovers that have plagued them all along; they've thrown five interceptions and lost nine fumbles.
Whatever happens, this game figures to provide better insight into how these teams fit into the district discussion.
"I think this particular week is more of a defining moment, depending on if we win or lose," Liggett said. "And if we win, how does that win come about?
"A loss is a loss regardless. We've had our two losses. We don't need any more. But if we were to win, depending on how it shapes up, it will tell us a little bit."
Springstead at Central, 7:30 p.m.
The Springstead train keeps chugging along, each week bringing a different challenge that the Eagles (5-0 overall, 2-0 6A-6) have managed to overcome.
Tonight's trip to the Bears' Den to take on county- and district-rival Central (1-4 overall, 0-2 6A-6), though, likely won't test Springstead's ability to contend.
Rather, the Eagles can prove they have the maturity required to take care of business.
"Hopefully we can come down off the cloud, because it doesn't count for anything this week," Springstead head coach Bill Vonada said. "We're in such a big, tough district that we can't afford to have an off week.
"Central has struggled in some games, but they've shown some improvement. One of these weeks they're going to put it all together and you don't want to be the team that takes them lightly."
So far the Eagles have been all about a ball-control offense backed by a sturdy defense with an innate knack for creating turnovers to cover up any mistakes.
Still, Vonada stressed a need to improve on special teams and seeks more consistency from his offensive unit.
Quarterback Tyler Mahla and running back Daniel Wright continue to carry much of the load on that side of the ball. They've combined for 689 of the team's 907 rushing yards and 10 of its 12 touchdowns on the ground.
The junior Mahla has also been solid through the air, competing 61 percent of his passes (34-of-56) for 498 yards, with four touchdowns against three interceptions.
Nevertheless, a variety of the ailments and bouts with the flu might leave the Eagles shorthanded and hamper their progress, Vonada cautioned.
Progress is something the Bears, who are celebrating homecoming this week, have provided glimmers of at times. They lost 33-0 to Hernando last week, but fell 68-0 to the Leopards in 2011.
"We moved the ball a lot between the 20s," Central head coach Mike Einspahr said of the Hernando game. "We were in the red zone several times and came up empty. We went for it on fourth down several times and came up empty.
"We rushed for (almost) 200 yards, but we had nine dropped balls, three interceptions. We were in the right spots. I just told the guys we've got to take advantage of the opportunities when they arise."
Though the likes of Quadavis Battle, Jamarcus Hayes and James Reynolds have emerged as potential playmakers, Central simply hasn't avoided costly turnovers.
It may be unrealistic to expect them to challenge Springstead and avoid completing their county run at 0-4. Yet a competitive showing would surely be another step forward.
"I want to pick up where we left off last game," Einspahr said. "I don't want to see us have fumble-itis like we had against Nature Coast (47-0 loss two weeks ago). We want to pick up with same intensity that we ended the Hernando game with.
"I want us to put ourselves in a position to have a chance to successful."
This game will be carried live on WWJB 1450 AM and WXJB 99.9 FM, and streamed live at wwjb.com, beginning with the pregame show at 7 p.m.
Hernando at River Ridge, 7:30 p.m.
Halfway through the season, Hernando's campaign has so far been defined by unexpected turmoil.
The memories of a 0-3 start have begun to fade thanks to back-to-back wins over 6A-6 foes Land O' Lakes and Central.
But even in beating the Bears last week, five players were suspended for the game for disciplinary reasons.
In yet another 6A-6 contest tonight at River Ridge (1-3 overall, 0-2 6A-6), Hernando (2-3 overall, 2-0 6A-6A) hopes to further distance itself from those early-season issues.
"We're getting better every week and that's what it's all about," Hernando head coach Dwayne Mobley said. "We see it in practice; we see it in the game. We're getting better. So that's what we want to continue to do.
"It was a hard lesson for some of the guys to learn (sitting out last week). But hopefully they learned their lesson.
"I'm seeing a lot of attitudes changing. The guys realize and I want them to realize that no one, two or three people are bigger than the program. If you're not going to do what you're supposed to do, you can't play."
Mobley has also seen progress in two key areas, blocking and fumbling, that plagued the Leopards in previous games.
Hernando may receive help up front if right tackle Connor Foradas can return from a shoulder injury that shelved him against Central.
That was the only significant injury reported by Mobley, whose team also played without linebacker/punter Justin Roberts (shoulder) and lineman Kyle LoParco (chest) last week.
As for the Royal Knights, they have struggled out of the gate after going 7-3 in 2011 for their first winning record in over a decade.
In the past two weeks, they've dropped district tilts to Mitchell, 46-3, and Nature Coast, 34-21.
They yielded 225 yards and three touchdowns on the ground to Breida, following the 334 rushing yards they permitted against the Mustangs.
That should bode well for a run-heavy Leopard offense still struggling to get on track.
"I'm pretty sure they'll come out and play hard," Mobley said of the Royal Knights. "They know they've lost two games in the district now. I'm sure they don't want it to be a third. And we're going to River Ridge.
"We can't worry about River Ridge. We've got our own stuff to worry about. If we do the stuff we're supposed to do, the game will take care of itself."
Mount Dora at Weeki Wachee, 7:30 p.m.
Once again, first-year Weeki Wachee put together a respectable showing against a formidable opponent last Friday.
But the result remained the same for the Hornets, who fell to 1-3 on the season and 0-2 in 4A-4 behind a 14-0 loss to Keystone Heights.
They'll give it another go tonight in their third 4A-4 matchup, hosting Mount Dora.
"I'm happy with our effort on defense," Weeki Wachee head coach Mark Lee said. "I thought our offense would be a little further along. We haven't made the progress I'd like to see. But it's something we have to keep building on.
"The fact we're being competitive in games I like. But it still doesn't show up in our record."
Fumbled snaps were a huge problem for the Hornets a week ago, contributing to a five-turnover performance.
It was no coincidence that sophomore Marcus Allen was playing his first full game at quarterback, replacing hobbled junior David Tinch.
A hip injury that sidelined Tinch the past game and a half will keep him out for at least the next two weeks, Lee said.
Allen completed just 3-of-10 passes for 54 yards and was picked off three times, but ran 17 times for a team-best 70 yards.
"Marcus, it was his first game at quarterback. He did some nice things, but he also made some rookie mistakes, which you'd expect," Lee said. "He's gotten better. He's just got to get more comfortable on how to play that position."
Mount Dora (3-2 overall, 1-1 4A-4) dispatched Interlachen last week, 42-6.
The previous Friday they lost 34-12 to South Sumter, and while that may not seem impressive no team has had a closer margin of defeat to the second-ranked team in the Associated Press 4A state poll.
"They played South Sumter pretty tough," Lee said. "They like to fly around to the ball, they like to be pretty physical, and offensively they've got to some athletes.
"They have decent speed at the skill positions. Speed is not something we have a lot of, so we've got a tough task ahead of us."