In one of the most highly-anticipated season openers in all of Texas, perennial power Stephenville hosts top-ranked Aledo in a non-district 4A battle at Tarleton Memorial Stadium Friday.
Highly-anticipated because Aledo is No. 1 in the Associated Press 4A poll and Stephenville just missed the top 10 by eight voting points; because the Bearcats have won back-to-back 4A Division II championships and Stephenville has provided some of their most stiff competition along the way both times; because the Bearcats have one of the nation's top-rated running backs in Johnathan Gray and other all-state honorees in quarterback Matthew Bishop, receiver Michael Mann and offensive lineman Michael Wilson, while the Yellow Jackets answer with three-way all-state pick Aiavion Edwards and other all-state honorees in quarterback Connor Washington, linebacker Padyn Giebler, safety turned linebacker Holton Westbrook and kicker Blake Barnes.
But most of all, Friday's 7:30 p.m. opener is highly-anticipated just because it's Stephenville, and just because it's Aledo.
The Yellow Jackets dominated the head-to-head series between the teams after Aledo moved up from 3A, but that has since changed. The Bearcats have won the last five meetings, including three consecutive openers and the two tightly-contested playoff battles - a 23-20 overtime game in the area round in 2009 and an 18-10 state quarterfinal contest last year.
"It's two good teams from two great programs," said Aledo head coach Tim Buchanan. "We may not like each other very much, but we respect the heck out of each other."
For most teams, trying to beat Aledo - which has won 30 straight games - begins and ends with trying to stop Gray, who rushed for more than 3,200 yards and 58 touchdowns last year, including eight scores in the Bearcats' state championship blowout of La Marque.
But Stephenville has held Gray to some of the least productive outings of his career. He has topped the 100-yard rushing plateau in just two of his four games against the Jackets.
"Gray is great, but when we've seen them, it's been about Bishop," said Stephenville head coach Joseph Gillespie. "He's what really makes them go in my opinion."
Buchanan says Bishop has added muscle in the offseason and appears to be throwing the ball better than ever before.
"Matt has had a great offseason," said Buchanan. "He's bigger and stronger and he's really throwing the ball well."
The head coach had similar things to say about Gray, who has verbally committed to Texas.
"Johnathan is up over 200 pounds now, and he spent his summer running track, so he's gotten faster, too," said Buchanan.
Gillespie knows that slowing Aledo's offense will be a daunting task.
"They have the vast majority (8) of their starters returning on that side of the ball," Gillespie said. "Offensively, they may look like a well-oiled machine on Friday."
Buchanan certainly hopes so.
"Those kids have retained so much from last year and from the spring," Buchanan said. "We are able to do a lot more things than we could at this time last year, especially with our offensive line."
That line is led by Wilson, a six-foot, six-inch, 270-pound Texas A&M pledge.
The Bearcats aren't quite as experienced on the defensive side, but they do return five regulars. Leading the way is strong safety Dayne Davis and linebacker Gunner Johnson, who Texas Football Magazine reports having made 118 and 93 tackles, respectively, last year.
Both coaches already feel another playoff rematch is in store for their clubs.
"(The opener) is big because it's our first game, and of course, it's big because of who we're playing," Gillespie said. "But you already get the feeling there will be a bigger one down the road."
Buchanan couldn't argue.
"I would prefer to not play the same team twice in a season, but that's the way it's probably going to go again," he said. "If we take care of our business and they take care of theirs the way both of us should, we'll be seeing each other again."
That would make six meetings in three years between the perennial powers.
Before they can get there, however, they must play the fifth meeting, and, Gillespie says, improve each week from there.
"Win, lose, whatever happens Friday, we have to be better the next Friday against Abilene Wylie," he said. "Then we have to continue that improvement each week throughout the season."
A statement from Gillespie's address at Wednesday morning's Stephenville Chamber of Commerce breakfast scrambler seemed to sum up both coach's thoughts.
"We're going to find out a lot about ourselves and our football team Friday," he said. "Then we'll go from there."
Again, Buchanan agrees.
"I learned a long time ago that if you want to do well in the playoffs, you better play good teams early," said Buchanan. "It's better to have your weaknesses exposed in week one, two or three than in week 11,12 or 13."
Both teams will see a strong opponent in their opener.
An opener that could once again prove to be little more than a teaser for the all-important playoff contest likely to follow.