Hernando at Nature Coast, 7:30 p.m.
Two weeks remain in district play, and the Class 6A, District 6 picture has gained some clarity.
But one game in particular can still alter postseason scenarios drastically, when Hernando (4-4 overall, 4-1 6A-6) travels to Shark Tank Stadium to take on Nature Coast (5-3 overall, 4-1 6A-6).
A win for the Leopards, reeling from a 28-7 loss to first-place Springstead last Friday, could lock up a playoff berth combined with the Eagles defeating Mitchell.
Even with a loss, Hernando would have a decent shot of at least forcing a three-way tiebreaker for district runner-up by defeating the Mustangs next week, along with Springstead downing the Sharks.
In that case, Sunlake would also need to win out in district play, against River Ridge and Central.
But Hernando head coach Dwayne Mobley would certainly rather his team follow the easiest path.
"We understand we've got two games and we need to win both of those games, and one of those games we're playing is a rivalry game," Mobley said. "A lot of the guys on the team have a bigger rivalry against Nature Coast than against Springstead.
"We're talking about going in and winning both those games, so that we definitely know we have a playoff spot."
The Sharks have less of a safety net, yet also a clearer opportunity to claim the district championship if they can get to next Friday's tilt against the Eagles unscathed.
There remains a mathematical possibly that Nature Coast can stay alive even if it falls to the Leopards, but it would require a highly unlikely five-way tie at the top of the district.
Should either Mitchell or Sunlake suffer one more 6A-6 loss, that slim chance goes out the window. Also, the Sharks would have to upend Springstead.
"If we don't win, it's done," Nature Coast head coach Charles Liggett said. "It's been the same thing every week. Some of the coaches were trying to figure out the scenarios, but I told them, 'It's win or leave.' I'm not worried about the scenarios.
"The focus is on us. We've got to play mistake-free and make things happen. I think it's important to get in front early, like Springstead did."
An early lead might be critical because it could be argued that the Sharks have more momentum, thanks to two straight wins over Land O' Lakes and Mitchell.
However, Liggett's rationale has more to do with fearing Hernando's home run threats.
"All they have to have is one big play," Liggett said. "Teams that have beaten them have jumped on them early and gotten them out of the game. We've got to get out in front and take control of the game."
Meanwhile, the Leopards have their own inward issues to solve. Mobley talked about weeding out some malcontents following last Friday's defeat, but said no significant changes had been made as of midweek.
Also, a rib injury knocked out quarterback Ra'shaad Hart against Springstead, though Mobley said he will play tonight.
Still the junior, who had rushed for 423 yards combined over his previous three games before facing the Eagles, figures to give way more to Tyrail Hawkins under center. The two have split the quarterbacking duties all season.
Linebacker Justin Roberts will be out with a bum ankle.
That's one less defender to employ against Nature Coast running back Matt Breida, pacing the county with 1,226 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns.
"We've got to try to stop him," Mobley said. "We've got to make sure guys play their plays, run where they're supposed to go, do what they're supposed to do."
Turnovers have remained an Achilles' heel for both squads. In terms of that, each coach expressed greater concern with where and when his own team might cough up the ball rather than creating miscues.
Liggett noted that outside of a 46-7 loss at Orange Park-Fleming Island, the Sharks had yielded 81 points defensively and 39 came off turnovers inside their own 35-yard line.
"In games where we have not turned the ball over inside our own territory, we've won," Liggett said. "To me, that's the key."
Nature Coast has learned it won't have the services of outside linebacker/punt returner Luis Espinosa for the remainder of the season, as he'll require ankle surgery.
But everyone else on both sides should be ready to go, in what figures to be a playoff-like environment that will only add to a contest that hardly needed any more juice.
"It's going to be very intense," Mobley said. "We'll be mentally prepared."
"I'm expecting for it to be carnival-like; huge, tons of people," Liggett said. "It's always a big game, but now there's a lot riding on it.
"I expect the atmosphere to be huge. I hope we come out of it on top."
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.
Mitchell at Springstead, 7:30 p.m.
Alone in first place in 6A-6, still undefeated on the season, and a chance to clinch a playoff spot and possibly a district championship.
Springstead (8-0 overall, 5-0 6A-6) probably didn't need to raise the excitement any further in today's game against Mitchell (6-2 overall, 3-2 6A-6) at Booster Stadium.
But sprinkle in some homecoming festivities nonetheless, and the Eagles could have a lot to celebrate by the end of the night.
Yet coming off an emotional win over Hernando, and with what could be a de facto district title game looming against Nature Coast, Springstead head coach Bill Vonada hopes his players maintain their focus.
"You worry about the danger of it being a trap game," Vonada said. "With the intensity level of last week, two county games on each side of this one, it's the homecoming game; it's a real big concern.
"We're not the type of team that goes to this star or that star. We're a lunchbox-type team. We're going to work. We can't have an off day."
There are other things to worry about, chiefly the possibility that a flu bug going around the team could shelve 3-4 starters.
Vonada declined to discuss the players impacted, citing the school administration's request to adhere to the HIPAA Privacy Rule.
The Mustangs can relate. Not only did they suffer a 32-0 defeat to Nature Coast that crippled their playoff hopes last week, that game cost them three starters for the rest of the way.
Running back Christian Trinidad broke his nose and sustained his second concussion of the season, running back/safety Jake Guzman broke his collarbone and offensive tackle Foster Artlip tore his anterior cruciate ligament.
Trinidad was the team's leading rusher with 785 yards and 10 touchdowns, while Guzman paced the club with 4 1/2 sacks. Artlip has established himself as a college prospect.
Those are tremendous losses, especially for a team that relies heavily on the run out of its Wing-T system, amassing 2,061 yards and 26 scores on the ground.
Furthermore, Mitchell is clinging to its very minute chance to still reach the postseason, which would require it to win out and receive considerable help.
"I know Mitchell is beat up as well, but they're led by a veteran coach, Scott Schmitz, he'll have them ready to play, he's had them playing hard," Vonada said. "They did a good job of bouncing back from their other loss (36-7 to Sunlake on Sept. 28). So we're anticipating a battle.
"Hopefully we'll put last week's win and all the other activities associated with homecoming behind us, and just get back to what we do: executing on offense, flying around to the football on defense.
"I think turnover margin will be huge and special teams once again could be huge."
Due to the mounting Mustang injuries, Vonada admitted it would be more difficult to pick up tendencies on film, and he believes Schmitz will find a way to make adjustments.
The Eagles have generally done a good job of not overlooking opponents, save for a scoreless first half against River Ridge two weeks ago.
"Mitchell is an even bigger threat, because not necessarily that they're better or worse than River Ridge, but also because they're still in the running for a playoff spot," Vonada said. "We have to realize we can't have relaxation time.
"They're very physical. They seldom beat themselves. They don't pass a lot, but when they do, they pass effectively."
The scenarios are quite simple for the Eagles. A victory would assure them no worse than the district runner-up spot.
Meanwhile, a win combined with Hernando defeating Nature Coast would lock up first place in the 6A-6 standings regardless of next week's outcome.
"The guys are definitely excited about last week's win, but hopefully understand it doesn't mean anything this week," Vonada said. "This week now becomes the biggest game of the year because with a win we're in the playoffs, and that would take a lot of pressure off."
Land O' Lakes at Central, 7:30 p.m.
Central's last chance to avoid finishing in the 6A-6 cellar arrives tonight, when it hosts Land O' Lakes at the Bears' Den.
It seems strange to think the Gators (1-6 overall, 0-5 6A-6), perennial playoff participants for over a decade, are battling to get out of last place. Yet that's exactly the case.
"They're a good team. Don't let the record fool you," Central head coach Mike Einspahr said. "Are they the Land O' Lakes of yesteryear? Maybe not, but they've got talent. I look at them and I don't know how they haven't won at least 3-4 games."
Last week in another matchup of teams winless within the district, the Bears (1-7 overall, 0-5 6A-6) suffered a forgettable 61-6 defeat at the hands of River Ridge.
"We continue to need to learn how to tackle, hold on to the ball and minimize penalties," Einspahr said. "It (the River Ridge loss) was terrible from start to finish. We put a couple of drives together and couldn't capitalize."
In its final home game, Central needs to start laying the foundation for the 2013 campaign, according to the coach.
"I want the seniors to finish out on a good note, but I want the underclassmen to compete," Einspahr said. "I want to be able to compete for four quarters and take that into the offseason, and continue to build this program."
Weeki Wachee at Interlachen, 7:30 p.m.
One last, lengthy road trip awaits Weeki Wachee, as it concludes its 4A-4 slate.
Today the Hornets (1-6 overall, 0-5 4A-4) traverse to the St. Augustine area to challenge Interlachen, hoping to create a happier trip back home.
The Rams have an identical 1-6 mark, and are 0-4 in the district.
"It's another long trip and we'll see what happens," Weeki Wachee head coach Mark Lee said. "They've got some athletes. That seems to be the common theme we have been seeing every week.
"We've just got to do a much better job of tackling. We've really emphasized that this week."
The Hornets could receive some help if fullback/linebacker Andrew Vreeland (right thumb) and tailback/free safety Jon King (shoulder) can return from their injuries. Both are game-time decisions.
Vreeland was actually cleared to play, but dinged up his knee in Wednesday's practice.
David Tinch, recovered from a hip problem and back under center in last week's 56-28 defeat to Starke-Bradford, will continue to split snaps with Marcus Allen.
With some better health and a closer matchup, Weeki Wachee can realistically think about posting the first district win in school history.
"I'm telling the kids, 'You can't take anyone lightly, because what do you think they're thinking?'" Lee said.
"We've done a good job of practicing this week preparing for them. We'll play to the best of our ability, control what we can control and see where we stand at the end of the game."