October 11, 2011

A mid-season look at a national title path

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Dallas Jackson is the Senior Analyst for RivalsHigh. Email him your question, comment or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.

Rising and falling.

With each week of the high school football, the top teams are separating themselves from the pack.

Some are showing they are worthy of Top 10 and (potentially) national title consideration.

Others have shown that they are not.

And, of course, there always are a few we're just not sure about ... yet.

At this point, six teams appear to have established themselves as legitimate national championship contenders.

And a nearly a dozen more have shown they might be able to jump into that mix.

What makes the season special is that while all have had moments of dominance, no team is in a position to control its own destiny and will rely on interplay games as the season plays out.

We'll enjoy watching the scenarios unfold as the games are played.

But speculating about it is almost as fun.

With that, here's our midseason look at the teams to watch:

TEAMS ON THE INSIDE TRACK (BY CURRENT RANKING)
No. 1 Ramsey (N.J.) Don Bosco, 5-0

THE BUZZ: The Ironmen entered this year with a lot of promise and a lot of expectations and the team had a tough time living up to the billing early. Its recent rout of St. Edward thrust it back to a leading player for a national title. Its defense is likely the most talented of any in the country and can line up and play with anyone. Its coaching staff is one of the best in America and on its best day, this team can beat any team on its best day. That is the truest mark of a champion. A limited schedule hangs like a lead weight to the team, and like many other non-power state teams, it continues to battle perception issues despite already winning a national title in 2009.

ARGUMENT FOR: The team opened its season with four quality opponents in its first five weeks and came out undefeated. It also made its most recent win its most impressive leaving all doubters with a 'take that' statement game. The defense could have as many as eight Division I players lining up currently and it is getting coached by some of the best in the country. Scoring over 30 points in four of its first five games also points to having a steady offense that can get its job done as well.

ARGUMENT AGAINST: The team trailed into the fourth quarter of two of its games - both to teams that already have multiple losses - and its season-opening win over Mission Viejo (Calif.) High, which was already tainted due to poor Southern California evaluations has continued to suffer as Viejo lost its second game of the season last weekend. Its biggest, and really only, in-state competition was able to score more than it did against a team on the fringe of the Florida Top 10 so that hurts the perception even more. While the victories over those teams appear to be solid wins at this point, they are still flapping in the wind. The offense is not at the same level as some of the others in the national title discussion and that is not likely to change as the season progresses - hanging a lot of points on bad teams is not proving much to anyone anymore.

WHAT IT NEEDS: There is hardly any meat left on the bone for Don Bosco to prove anything else this season. It will not face another quality opponent except for a potential repeat game against Bergen Catholic in the postseason. It will need help from both the teams it beat and the teams those teams play. If Manatee and Mission Viejo are able to manage the rest of its seasons without further blemishes and make noise in the playoffs, it will help. More immediately, it will need St. Edward to stay tough and not collapse. The Eagles entered this weekend as a team that was believed to be a threat to Bosco and was quickly dismissed. Its next three games are against Cincinnati St. Xavier, Moeller, and Cleveland St. Ignatius - all before playing in the Ohio Division I playoffs. If Bosco's out-of-state wins turn into four-loss opponents, that will not be enough to keep the team atop the rankings.

No. 2 Louisville (Ky.) Trinity, 7-0

THE BUZZ: Trinity entered the season with a lot of hype and a preseason Top 10 national ranking and has only exceeded any expectations. It has hung some very impressive wins on quality opponents and has not had an off week like many other teams in the running. It is rarified air for a team from a state such as Kentucky is in this discussion, but with only three mandatory regular-season games within its state borders, it appears that Trinity knew it would be loaded and went hunting for a national title instead of just crushing poor teams in its state.

ARGUMENT FOR: This team may be the most complete of any in the national title discussion and it likely has the best offense of any in the Top 10 - including DeSoto. It has five senior offensive linemen to lead the way and three Division I skill players leading the offense. Between the team's quarterback Travis Wright, receiver James Quick and running back Dayln Dawkins, the entire school record book will need to be re-written. The defense is also among the best nationally with talented players at every level of the group.

ARGUMENT AGAINST: Despite the outstanding on-field performances, it is very hard to block out that its playoff path could be the easiest of any team in the title discussion and that the team had to go out-of-state to build its case. By the end of the regular season, there will be nothing left for the team to prove - and that is a major letdown as most every other team in the national title discussion will see at least one challenge on its path to a state title. The team needs a lot of things to go in its favor to take home a national title.

WHAT IT NEEDS: It is a double-edged sword for Trinity as it needs Moeller to continue to build its resume by beating St. Edward to combat what Don Bosco was able to do against the Eagles. It then needs to beat Moeller in an impressive fashion and have Moeller perform well in the playoffs. Its other out-of-state wins need to hold up with Brentwood Academy being an early state title favorite as well as Indianapolis Cathedral and potentially Cincinnati St. Xavier - which it already has the better win over than Moeller in a direct comparison. The team needs some, but not much, outside help.

No. 3 Gaffney (S.C.) High, 7-0

THE BUZZ: Gaffney has made a huge run up the national rankings after starting the season on the outside looking in at the RivalsHigh 100. The defense has been one of, if not the most impressive group on the season. Getting to the edge is nearly impossible with very active cornerbacks and linebackers that have a nose for the ball. The offense is quick and efficient with the ability to throw all routes and exploit teams in all areas. The team is also complete with a kicking game that has hurt the Indians in recent years. All things point to a South Carolina title, which means a lot more than it has in recent years as the overall level of play in the Palmetto State is on the rise.

ARGUMENT FOR: This may be the best defense in the country and it is hard to argue that defense doesn't win titles. It has forced many teams out of their traditional game-planning with the speed it has to the edges and the muscle it has in the middle. The team already has beaten in-state powers Dorman and Byrnes on the road as well as crushing the state's No. 2 team, Greenwood, at home. There are very few limitations to this group.

ARGUMENT AGAINST: Some will say that Dorman, Byrnes and many other teams in the state are down this year, so it is making Gaffney look that much better. That is a solid argument against. The team does not have any out-of-state games to buoy its argument so it is stuck going up against the perception of South Carolina versus the perception of Texas - if neither state winner has left its borders. As good as South Carolina has been, it isn't Texas this, or most any, year.

WHAT IT NEEDS: Gaffney is a team that needs help to get to the top spot. It will not be able to rely on interplay or cross evaluations, which hurts and may mean the school has hit its glass ceiling at the No. 3 spot in the national poll. Several in-person evaluations currently have the team graded above a lot of other contenders so that helps, but it will need teams such as Don Bosco and Louisville Trinity (and potentially others) to lose.

No. 4 Seffner (Fla.) Armwood

THE BUZZ: Armwood began the season as the top team in Florida - a spot it regained after Aquinas lost last weekend. The Hawks have been one of the best defensive teams of the last decade and nothing about that has changed with only one opponent this season breaking double-digits. Armwood has been in this position before with an opportunity to start to talk about national titles, but it has not been able to capitalize. It is the inverse of DeSoto in many regards with a defense always thought to be of national-championship caliber and an offense holding it back. This year, the talent and focus on the offensive side of the ball is there so this team is a serious threat to bring a national title back to Florida.

ARGUMENT FOR: Through six games, Armwood has allowed only 30 points - and 17 of them game in the opening week of the season to Top 10 opponent, Bishop Gorman. It has run three straight shutouts and could very seriously end the regular season with four more before the playoffs start. The offensive line will have all five members heading to play college football and it may be the strongest unit in the country. The coaching is defensive-minded and it plays like an Ohio team in the Sunshine State.

ARGUMENT AGAINST: Of all the teams in consideration for a national title, Armwood is likely to end the season with the worst strength of schedule. It may play its entire season with only three games against teams that would register nationally and that could hurt the final ranking. The expansion of classes in Florida hurt the Hawks as many of the teams moved both up and down in class, leaving no real challengers to the Class 6A title. The offense is likley only better than Don Bosco's among the six teams in mid-season discussion for the title with conservative playcalling and a Northeastern 'grind it out' mentality holding it back from several previous state titles.

WHAT IT NEEDS: It really needs to crush Tampa Plant in a few weeks as its common opponent with Bergen Catholic will be a comparison point and could hurt the strength of Don Bosco's schedule. It will also need to have Miami Central continue to improve and make it a meeting in the playoffs as the rest of Class 6A is relatively weak. It could have the most work to do for itself as there isn't much help it can get. And if it doesn't have strong showings each week, the team could not only get passed in the national title talk but also by other teams in Florida as the season moves along.

No. 6 Cincinnati (Ohio) Moeller, 7-0

THE BUZZ: Moeller currently is the top team in Ohio and it has maintained that spot for the last four weeks. It has an explosive offense with a solid receiving corps and a typically tough Ohio running game. The defense has been up to the challenge thus far in the season and it has earned quality wins. Going undefeated in the always tough GCL-South and then winning an Ohio Division I title would give it instant credibility for a No. 1 finish.

ARGUMENT FOR: Current wins over Pickerington Central and St. Xavier give the team two quality wins. Downing its other two GCL-South foes, La Salle and Elder, add two more solid victories. The defense has only allowed 11 points per game and that will keep it in games going forward.

ARGUMENT AGAINST: There currently is no signature win. The victory over St. Xavier came on a missed field goal that could have pushed the game to overtime. Its other wins come against opponents which are not having the best years to build strength of schedule.

WHAT IT NEEDS: Winning out - and winning out in impressive fashion - would be huge. It will take on Indianapolis Cathedral, St. Edward and Louisville Trinity in its last three games and all of those teams have crossover comparisons to other teams in the national title discussion. Performance in those games can help move the team up (or down). Getting through a very tough Ohio Division I tournament would give this team the resume it needs to stack up with any team from any state.

No. 8 DeSoto (Texas) High, 6-0

THE BUZZ: The top team in Texas always is going to have a seat at the national title table. Currently, that crown sits on the head of DeSoto - thanks in large part to a poor performance by Allen - but heavy is the head that wears the crown and the pressure could get to a team that has not had the postseason success that others have. The offense is as explosive as any in the country and the defense is loaded with talent at all levels. If the Eagles are able to fly through the Texas 5A Division I playoffs, there would be an argument to be made for this team winning the national title.

ARGUMENT FOR: DeSoto scoring at a near 50 points per game clip is not a shock; allowing 9 points per game is. The word out of Texas has long been that if this team could get its defense in order, it would be a threat to win it all. It appears that the defense is ready to take that next step.

ARGUMENT AGAINST: Where is the strength of schedule? The team's best wins are against a two-loss Cedar Hill team and a four-loss Stony Point team. It also trailed at halftime against North Mesquite, 17-0, before rallying to win 28-17. The team also filled an out-of-state slot with a home schooled team from Oklahoma instead of a legit competitive team. An extra bye week may have been more respectable than that win.

WHAT IT NEEDS: It needs Longview to continue playing well and then thump the Lobos to win the district. It will have a direct comparison to Allen in that regard - and Allen's performance on national television last weekend could stain that comparison. DeSoto will need to show well in the playoffs with a path that should include Dallas Skyline, Allen and possibly Katy. If it goes through three nationally-ranked foes in five weeks, that could do enough to boost the doubters of the regular season slate of games.

TEAMS ON THE LONG ROAD (ALPHABETICAL)
Bentonville (Ark.) High

WHAT IT NEEDS: A lot of help. There is a lot of talk in Arkansas about this team being comparable to the Mitch Mustain team at Springdale High. Problem with that comparison is that Springdale had major out-of-state wins and this Bentonville team is just throttling in-state competition. It could be among the best in the nation but a lot of losses would have to happen for this team to take the top spot.

Indianapolis (Ind.) Warren Central

WHAT IT NEEDS: A lot of help from one of its biggest rivals, Indianapolis Cathedral. If Cathedral can beat Moeller, and Moeller beats St. Edward and Louisville Trinity, that will open up the discussion for a major move. Don Bosco would also have to lose, but this team was No. 3 in the nation at one point and could jump back up with help and a strong playoff run.

Olney (Md.) Good Counsel

WHAT IT NEEDS: Don Bosco to lose and Manatee to win its state title would be two absolute requirements since they share the common opponent and the result would favor Don Bosco. This team has solid wins over Manatee, Gilman, Red Lion Christian and DeMatha - and a rematch with DeMatha is likely to happen. A Top 10 finish is likely the prize for the season but it could remotely take home the national title.

Mentor (Ohio) High

WHAT IT NEEDS: A state title path that includes St. Ignatius beating St. Edward in the regular season, and then dates with two more ranked teams in the Ohio Division I title. The team already has wins over St. Ignatius and Solon in the regular season. If it can add a few more wins in the playoffs, it will help. It will also need several teams to lose to make the jump into the Top 10, let alone the top spot.

Miramar (Fla.) High

WHAT IT NEEDS: A very impressive state title run is all that can push Miramar past the teams currently above it. The win over St. Thomas Aquinas will give it immediate credibility - and if Aquinas wins its state title that will help - but its playoff path is going to need to have three ranked teams fall in its wake to jump into the Top 5, let alone a national title.

Orange (Calif.) Lutheran

WHAT IT NEEDS: This is the darkest of dark horses as the team was just recently ranked in the RivalsHigh 100 and evaluations of Southern California have been down. It will need to roll through convincing wins over Servite and Santa Margarita on the road as well as a win over Mater Dei to win the Trinity League. It will then need to win the Pac 5 playoffs with convincing wins over likely Poly and Mission Viejo combined with a win over De La Salle in the CIF Open Division Game. It is a longshot, certainly, but not impossible.

The Best from Georgia Class AAAAA

TEAMS: Camden County, Grayson, ML King, Stephenson
WHY THIS GROUP: The best team from Georgia is going to have to win one of the hardest three or four tournaments in the country and doing so with an unblemished record could push any of the four into the Top 10. More help will be needed but it isn't impossible.

The Best from Texas Class 5A

TEAMS: Allen, Katy, Skyline, Trinity
WHY THIS GROUP: Winning the largest class in Texas is an instant credibility card and if one of these four (plus DeSoto listed above) could do it, the path would likely include cannibalizing the others.

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