Predicting high school football's final weekend
This weekend marks the finale of the high school football season, and three of the largest, most football crazed states crown their champions: California, Florida and Texas.
The first showdown takes place Friday -- the Florida Class 5A state final between ESPN RISE FAB 50 No. 1 St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale) and No. 10 Lakeland at the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando.
Later Friday, at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., the CIF Division I final pits No. 8 Centennial (Corona) against No. 19 De La Salle (Concord).
On Saturday, Texas plays host to two important matchups. At Reliant Stadium in Houston, No. 3 Allen will take on No. 15 Fort Bend Hightower for the Class 5A Division I title. At Floyd Casey Stadium in Waco, No. 5 Lake Travis (Austin) faces off against No. 48 Longview for the 4A crown.
The 2008 national high school football season concludes Saturday when No. 2 Long Beach Poly plays No. 37 Grant of Sacramento in the first CIF Open Division championship, which also will be played in Carson.
With so many important games looming, we asked a few of our FAB 50 panelists to look into their crystal balls and predict who will win this weekend:
Florida: St. Thomas Aquinas vs. LakelandMark Tennis: St. Thomas Aquinas wins 34-20
This game sets the table for the rest of the weekend. If the Raiders win -- and I think they will -- they will effectively shut out anyone else from being the ESPN RISE FAB 50 mythical national champion. If they lose, any number of teams could come up and grab the final No. 1 ranking. Lakeland also is unbeaten, but the Dreadnaughts have had to come from behind five times to pick up wins. They still look as though they're a year from being a legitimate national title contender. St. Thomas should get it done -- a win would make Cris Carter a happy camper on "NFL Countdown" on Sunday morning because his son, Duron, is a standout player for the team.
Doug Huff: St. Thomas Aquinas wins 28-21
I've watched both of these teams this season, and I think this will be the Raiders' first 15-0 season in Class 5A.
Jon Mahoney: St. Thomas Aquinas wins 31, Lakeland 10
The last time these two teams met in the Class 5A state finals, Lakeland prevailed, 45-42, in double overtime. But that Lakeland team had current Florida standout running back Chris Rainey. This year, the Dreadnaughts have no doubt been solid, but they also have squeaked by in a couple contests. Meanwhile, Aquinas has dominated every opponent in its path this season. I see no reason that will stop this weekend.
Brian Stumpf: St. Thomas Aquinas wins 31-17
These two have clashed in classics in the past, but St. Thomas has too many offensive weapons this year for the Naughts, who likely will retake this title in '09.
California: Centennial vs. De La SalleMahoney: Centennial wins 31-20
The last time De La Salle faced a team with this type of star power, it lost to FAB 50 No. 14 Don Bosco Prep (Ramsey, N.J.) on national TV. Not only can Centennial match the power of Don Bosco but it also has players with a freakish combo of size and speed, such as senior linebacker Vontaze Burfict. De La Salle's offense won't be able to get much going against Burfict & Co.
Huff: Centennial wins 20-14
The Huskies gain revenge for last season's postseason loss to the Spartans.
Stumpf: Centennial wins 27-24
Centennial will not be intimidated after a narrow loss to the Spartans last year and will finish the job in '08.
Tennis: De La Salle wins 31-28
This might go against the grain, given that DLS lost the last time it played a nationally ranked team, Don Bosco Prep, and barely beat two other squads early in the season. In the team's three previous playoff games, though, the Spartans have become more similar to other great teams of the past. Centennial has the motivation and the talent to easily turn it the other way, so this looks like one of the two toughest picks among the five we're choosing.
Texas: Allen vs. HightowerTennis: Allen wins 20-17
This one also is very tough to call, partly because Hightower is playing close to home at Reliant Stadium and partly because Hightower has beaten some very good teams to get here. Allen, though, has played what is perhaps an even tougher schedule. The Eagles have wins over two other teams that are playing for Texas state titles -- Wylie and Longview -- and they beat national No. 1 Trinity just two weeks ago. Given that Trinity won the title in this division last year and was better this year and that Allen beat the Trojans this season, I'll go with Allen.
Huff: Allen wins 21-20
The battle-tested Eagles close the deal on the Class 5A-Division 1 title with another close win versus a FAB 50 ranked opponent.
Mahoney: Hightower wins 24-21
Hightower has flown under the radar this year despite being the Houston area's top team. Although Allen has delivered quality win after quality win in the playoffs, including a victory over then No. 1 Trinity, this time it will be Hightower that shocks the high school football world for the state title in Texas' top classification.
Stumpf: Hightower wins 16-14
Both teams have run the gantlet of arduous playoff brackets, but I like Hightower in the upset with the home cooking at Reliant Stadium and senior leadership of A.J. Highsmith.
Texas: Lake Travis vs. LongviewMahoney: Lake Travis wins 42-21
Yes, Longview is good, but Texas-bound senior quarterback and Gatorade National Player of the Year Garrett Gilbert is playing on a different level. In fact, I'm willing to bet a lot of college teams would like the top quarterback in the ESPNU 150 under center right now. He's that good.
Huff: Lake Travis wins 36-20
The potent Cavaliers attack, triggered by Gatorade National Player of the Year Gilbert, should be too much for the Lobos to handle.
Stumpf: Lake Travis wins 51-38
There will be points aplenty here as Gilbert cements his national POY status with one last big outing.
Tennis: Lake Travis wins 42-31
The consensus is that this will be a high-scoring contest. If Allen wins in 5A Division I, check the score in this game because Allen beat Longview, 21-7, in the season opener. If Lake Travis can win more impressively, that would indeed strengthen the Cavaliers' case that they should be regarded as the top team in Texas even though they aren't 5A.
California: Long Beach Poly vs. GrantTennis: Long Beach Poly wins 21-7
Too bad Grant couldn't be in this game with the team it had two years ago because that group was really something. This year's team is unbeaten and is outstanding, but it probably won't quite measure up to the Jackrabbits. Poly should win its first CIF state football title since 1919.
Huff: Long Beach Poly wins 27-20
The Jackrabbits have prevailed in close contests with a stiff defense and big plays.
Mahoney: Long Beach Poly wins 14-0
This is one of Poly's best defenses under head coach Raul Lara, and that's saying something, considering all the Division I prospects the Jackrabbits have produced on that side of the ball. With the offense a hit-or-miss group this year, it's only fitting that Poly pitch a shutout for the state title.
Stumpf: Long Beach Poly wins 17-7
Grant will play well on the big stage, but Poly's defense is a little faster and its offense just too physical in the end.
Mark Tennis is the deputy sports editor of ESPN RISE. Doug Huff is a senior editor of ESPN RISE. Jon Mahoney is a staff writer for ESPN RISE Magazine. Brian Stumpf is ESPN RISE's high school football blogger and the senior director of ESPN RISE events.