The most dominant teams in Region I of Class 3A have been on a collision course for weeks, and the two powerful football trains that are Stephenville and Abilene Wylie will finally collide Friday in Wichita Falls.
As Big Spring began to fade through district play and it became clear Abilene Wylie would be in the Division I playoff bracket, the pot began to stir. It's at full boil now, with the highest-ranked teams in the division ready to fight for a regional title and a spot in the state semifinals.
"Big Spring started off 5-0, so going into district it looked like they would be a playoff team. I was anticipating us going Division II for the first time ever," said Wylie head coach Hugh Sandifer, who led the Bulldogs to the 2004 championship and to the state final in 2003 and 2009, all in 3A Division I. "But as (Big Spring) struggled in district play, and as soon as we knew they wouldn't get in (to the playoffs), I think this match-up (Stephenville-Wylie) was what everyone thought we would get."
Both teams reached the regional final with ease, Stephenville by slamming Burnet 56-27 and Kennedale 56-24 and Wylie by blasting Clint Mountain View 49-21 and Andrews 56-0.
"I think it all played out pretty much the way everyone thought it would," Sandifer said. "If you look at it, these are the two Division I teams that have been the most dominant in our region."
Because Stephenville, which won all four of its state titles in 4A in the 1990s, is new to 3A, it's the first time the two powers have met in the postseason. They did play in week one - the second game for each team - the last two years, but Joe Gillespie, whose team beat Wylie 33-21 in 2010 and 42-14 last year, knows everything will be different this time around.
"When you play that early in the season you're really just looking to improve, and nobody is showing their full deck," Gillespie explained. "But nobody will be holding back this time, because everything is on the line."
Both teams have offensive units that have dominated foes and appear to be peaking at the right time. Stephenville averages 456 yards and 43.2 points per game, while Wylie averages 407.3 yards and 40.5 points.
The numbers suggest Wylie has the edge defensively, as the Bulldogs have surrendered just 13.4 points per outing. Stephenville has allowed exactly a touchdown more (20.4) per game, but the Yellow Jackets have done it while facing Aledo and Amarillo, both state-ranked in 4A at the time of their meetings, and Waco La Vega and Glen Rose, two of the top offenses in 3A.
"Our defense is battle tested; our whole team is," Gillespie said. "You better be able to say that at this time of year, because when you reach the quarterfinals a battle is what you're going to get."
Wylie is particularly strong against the pass, where they are allowing only 84 yards per game. But the Bulldogs haven't faced a team that spreads the field as effectively as Stephenville, which has more than 1,200 yards through two playoff games and features a quarterback in Tyler Jones that broke school records with 486 passing yards and eight passing touchdowns last week.
"The first thing I think of with Stephenville's offensiveness is just their explosiveness," said Sandifer. "The quarterback and the receiver (Brice Gunter) are already committed (both to Texas State), and they get a lot of press, but you also have to worry about their running game."
Wylie has been almost just as explosive behind leading rusher and receiver Garrett Martin, a 1,366 yard rusher despite missing two games and part of a third, and quarterback Taylor Grant. While Jones has 34 touchdown passes for Stephenville, Grant has 30 for Wylie. Both signal callers have thrown just four interceptions.
"You look at their offense, and they've been putting up big numbers all year, too," said Gillespie. "This is a game that is going to come down to mistakes, and the team with the fewest mistakes is going to win."
Sandifer's keys for the Bulldogs were just as simple.
"I know I'm just overstating the obvious, but we have to find some way to contain their explosive offense and limit them when we can," Sandifer explained. "Then when we have the ball we have to continue to do what we have been, and that's using our strengths to put pressure on the defense."
With Gainesville or Kilgore on tap in the semifinals - if Stephenville wins that game will be 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 7 at Dallas Kincaide Stadium - something has to give.
"It's that time of year," Gillespie said. "A lot of very good football teams are going to see their season end this weekend, and several great ones are going to keep moving on."