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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.
The standard refrain for high school coaches is that they do not pay attention to national rankings. They make sure to focus their teams on the opposition ... on preparation ... on themselves. Not on subjective analysis and things out of their control.
But both Cocoa (Fla.) High coach John Wilkinson and Abilene (Texas) High coach Steve Warren have been doing a little bit of scoreboard watching this season. And both know what this week's game between the two can mean nationally.
Abilene ended the 2009 season at the No. 5 spot in the RivalsHigh 100 - a spot it currently occupies this season. But it has been one of the frequent movers, sliding from No. 3 to No. 8 and now settling back at No. 5.
The debate rages on in Texas about which team is deserving of the top spot between current No. 2-ranked Euless (Texas) Trinity and Abilene.
"I think people are enamoured right now with Trinity," Warren said. "That is fine with me. They scored a lot of points against [Springdale (Ark.)] Shiloh (Christian). I have no problems if it means we fly a little under the radar. But if we get through this without a loss, I think that says a lot about us as a team."
The stretch of games that opened the season for Abilene is one of the most difficult in the country.
The team, before it opens its district play, will have to navigate games against Louisiana Class 4A favorite, Franklinton (La.) High, two-time defending Florida champion Tampa (Fla.) Plant, Longview (Texas) High as well as this week's game with another two-time defending Florida champion, Cocoa.
Cocoa also has been using a difficult non-conference schedule to boost its stock nationally.
The Tigers scheduled, and have already defeated, Mississippi Class 6A power Olive Branch (Miss.) High and traditional Western Pennsylvania Class AAA front-runner, Jefferson Hills (Pa.) Thomas Jefferson.
Wilkinson is hoping this aggressive schedule will prove his team deserves to be among the best nationally.
"We were the only undefeated state champion in Florida last year, but look at where we were ranked," he said. "It doesn't add up if there isn't bias.
"Olive Branch was a good team. They are going to beat some people," Wilkinson said of his previous opponent. "From what I have heard, Thomas Jefferson is a little down from where they usually are, but getting on the plane and playing far from home should help us in the future."
The Tigers ended 2009 ranked No. 57, one spot up from where they currently sit. This game against Abilene could certainly change that number for the better.
"We may have scheduled ourselves into a tough place," Wilkinson said. "But don't tell that to our kids. They don't know the difference. So Abilene has 5,000 kids and we only have 980. We will line-up 11-on-11 and see what they got. We'll see what we got, too."
As of last October Abilene had 2,283 kids to draw from, the most important may be one that is limited in the game.
Four-star running back Herschel Sims left the game last week against Franklinton with a shoulder injury. His playmaking ability will be needed on the field this and every week for Abilene.
"I'd consider Herschel day-to-day," Warren said. "I don't anticipate him missing the game altogether, but he will most likely be limited in what he can do."
Even in a limited capacity, Sims (along with his cousin, quarterback Ronnel Sims) will lead the Eagles offense against a potent defensive unit for Cocoa.
Wilkinson says his team will prepare as if Sims is full-strength.
"We expect guys like him to play when they are dinged up, so we will get ready for him at full strength," Wilkinson said. "Even if he isn't, that Tony Curtis is really good too."
Cocoa runs a form of the 3-3-5 defense, which is tough for opponents to prepare for. Replicating the defensive fronts, potential blitzes and picking up blocking schemes is a challenge.
But, according to Warren, Abilene has been fortunate in its schedule and will be ready.
"It is interesting," he said. "We don't often see a 3-3 defense, but both Belton [(Texas) High] and Franklinton ran a version of it too. So this is our third week in a row with it."
Warren did point out that there are subtle differences about the schemes that the teams run.
"Belton and Franklinton love to blitz out of it," he said. "Cocoa likes to break you down with theirs. They let those linebackers roam free and make plays. It is similar but definitely a different animal."
"We just got their game tapes this morning," he said. "With the holiday, we got them overnighted on Tuesday. So we are just getting ready to break down the film. The schemes may be the same but it will come down to players and we have some good ones."
The players Wilkinson expects to be tested, and need to rise up, will be on each layer of his defense.
"Grady Redding, our middle linebacker, Terrell Denson on the line and Rick Rivers in the secondary will need to be very active for us," he said.
On the flip side of the game plan will be the emphasis for Abilene to contain Tigers playmaker Chevelle Buie and the team's Wing-T style of offense.
Both Belton and Franklinton were primarily passing opponents, so the ground game of Cocoa will be a test to the team's toughness as opposed to its secondary.
"You know we don't really focus too much on what our opponents do so much," Warren said. "This week, we know we will have to be good tacklers so we are preparing for that. Knowing our assignments and being ready.
"We can not control what they do, what they run or anything like that. Only us. Only how we prepare, practice, and play. That is what we have to do this week."
Wilkinson echoed those comments.
"I am really worn out," he said. "The travel and preparation for a game like this drains you.
"I dont know if you ever feel good heading in to take on a team like Abilene, but our experience, especially with the travel last week, makes me feel like we are ready."
Both teams had better be.
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