Benton vs. Shiloh Christian
Anybody who saw the Saints in the Springdale Jamboree a week before the season-opener witnessed a team that is much improved over last year's 3-7 club. Check that. They're not improved. They're just not injured.
The Saints actually beat Fort Smith Southside in a two-quarter game by beating the Rebels deep. Benton can stay in this game if the Panthers can just keep the Saints in front of them, hold on to the football and put together a couple of long, sustained drives.
Yet, Benton was not ready for last year's matchup with a Class AAA club and got drilled, 47-31. This time, the Panthers must control the tempo to have a chance or it will be 0-2 against schools from two classifications down ...
... Shiloh Christian 22, Benton 19.
Pulaski Academy vs. Springdale
It's No. 1 vs. Class AAA's No. 1 and don't think that if both these teams win state titles that this game won't creep back up in voters' minds. Springdale won't be surprised by anything PA does, but the Bulldogs may get wide-eyed when they see so many talented Bruins on the field.
It will be very interesting to see how finely tuned Pulaski Academy is to start the season, particularly after a good showing in last year's Kickoff Classic and then a coaching change.
Springdale brings to the table the best of both worlds -- a wide-open, no-huddle attack with a slobber-knocker fullback for ball control purposes. The difference between these two teams, besides their squad size, is Springdale's versatility. But mark it down: The Bulldogs may not see a more talented group of players the rest of the season ...
... Springdale 24, Pulaski Academy 9.
Ozark vs. Clarksville
It's a shame that fans will have to drive through two towns just 20 miles apart another 100 miles to see a great rivalry game. No, it's not as big as Booneville-Ozark, but there's some pride at stake when Ozark and Clarksville tangle.
This is the second straight year that Ozark is playing a Clarksville squad in a higher classification. It didn't affect the Hillbillies last year in a 22-19 home victory. Clarksville went on to surprise a lot of folks by making the AAAA State Playoffs and then pulled off a first-round upset at Magnolia.
That kind of thing just isn't in the cards for Clarksville in 2002. Too many new faces will take the field and, while there is a new face on Ozark's sideline, the Hillbillies are experienced enough and by no means intimidated by the Panthers' recent success ...
... Ozark 25, Clarksville 16.
Warren vs. Bryant
Two-time defending AAA champion Warren returns to the Hooten's Kickoff Classic to challenge another Class AAAAA team. This time, it's Bryant, which will have a healthy home-field advantage against the Lumberjacks at nearby War Memorial Stadium.
Warren lost only one game last year, but it was to Class AAAAA Springdale. The Lumberjacks were better last season still were unable to put up much of a fight against the Bulldogs in a 41-14 loss.
Bryant looked good in the opener at Little Rock last year, drumming Shiloh Christian, 34-14. A coaching change was only a minor setback for Bryant and the Hornets should be up and ready to run by kickoff. If they reach their expected potential, the Hornets should be challenging Conway and Little Rock Central for the AAAAA-Central Conference crown.
This Bryant team isn't going to be quite as tough as Springdale was for Warren to handle last year, but then again, Warren isn't quite as tough ...
... Bryant 19, Warren 14.
El Dorado vs. Fort Smith Southside at Conway
So Southside lost to Shiloh Christian in a jamboree game? Big deal.
Don't forget that last year, Little Rock Mills beat Southside in the same setting and, following the last play of the game, celebrated like it had just won a state title.
For Mills, it was a measure of revenge. Granted, the Comets had their 2001 season ended by Southside. But the moral to the story is that Mills went on to win just one more game in 2002.
Southside won a state championship.
What do we know about El Dorado?
There's a new coach, a handful of returning starters both ways and the third best tradition in the AAAAA-South Conference. The Wildcats rank behind Pine Bluff (17) and Texarkana (13) with seven consecutive playoff berths.
Good thing for the Wildcats that Southside isn't in their conference, too ...
... Southside 24, El Dorado 14.
Cabot at Conway
Probably the best game ever in the Hooten's Kickoff Classic was the midnight-oil burning confrontation between Cabot and Conway at Estes Stadium in 2000. Cabot came from behind to beat Conway, 35-34, and has been paying for it the past two years.
Conway won, 21-13, in 2001 and then beat the Panthers handily, 37-15, to open the 2002 season.
Cabot is the better team in November, though. You have to go back to 1996 to find a year when Conway went deeper into the playoffs than Cabot. Over that time, Cabot has won 14 playoff games to Conway's 4.
And last year, Cabot bumped Conway off, 29-8, in the quarterfinals.
This is a hard game to call, because RPS rates teams on their potential at the start of every season and Cabot's potential -- based especially on its playoff tradition -- has the Panthers installed as the favorite. Conway did not overwhelm anybody at the Springdale Jamboree, but few teams will have two better backs that Peyton Hillis and Kevin Wardlow.
This one could be an upset because Conway, at this point in the season, has a lot more to prove ...
... Cabot 19, Conway 14.