There would be a natural inclination to declare the winner of Friday's visit by Carmel to Joliet Catholic as the East Suburban Catholic Conference football champion.
The last four ESCC races have ended with defending champ Carmel and perennial powerhouse Joliet Catholic in the top two spots.
But the winner may not have it that easy and the loser may not be totally out of hope in a league with six playoff qualifiers the last three years. Two others just missed last season.
"I believe this is the toughest the conference has been in years," said Nazareth coach Tim Racki.
"I think you've got the big time in Joliet Catholic and Carmel, and then you've got everyone else fighting for a playoff spot," said Benet coach Pat New. "We're going to be challenged, especially playing everyone in the conference. Every week you run into unbelievable talent."
There is no way to avoid anyone as the nine-team league now has an eight-game round robin schedule. In 2008, Joliet Catholic went 7-0 in the ESCC but 6-1 Carmel won a game they scheduled as a nonconference opener 24-12.
"It's tough," said Viator coach Chris Kirkpatrick. "Every week is a physical battle and you have to hold up."
Carmel won last year's meeting with Joliet Catholic 31-28. As usual, both programs feature talented running games.
Carmel returns senior fullback Jordan Kos (1,367 yards, 16 touchdowns) and senior Michael Panico (800 yards, 14 TDs) battled through an injured shoulder last year. Senior linebacker Tyler Lees leads the defense.
The Corsairs will be trying to slow the Joliet Catholic tandem of Northwestern-bound senior Malin Jones (1,122 yards, 15 TDs) and junior Division I prospect Ty Isaac (700 yards, 8 TDs), who was slowed by a knee injury last year.
"The rest of the conference is a tremendously balanced fight every week," said Notre Dame coach Mike Hennessey.
Marian Catholic coach Dave Mattio enters his 36th season with senior running back Jeruel Taylor, the reigning ESCC Most Valuable Offensive Player. All-conference offensive lineman Phil Faso (6-foot-4, 285 pounds) returns to lead Taylor to another 1,000-yard season.
Marist also returns two of its top skill players in quarterback Luke Oosterbaan and versatile senior Ryan Meyer.
Notre Dame's five returners on offense and defense from a playoff team include a pair of all-ESCC picks in senior quarterback Nick Pieruccini and senior safety-running back Connor Gavin. Senior two-way lineman Sean Kane and senior linebacker Sean Flaherty are also big keys for a team with good speed and experience at the skill spots.
Benet's heavy graduation losses from a playoff team including offensive lineman Pat Flavin (Illinois), two-way standout Connor Nelligan and 1,000-yard rusher E.J. Howe. The only full-time starters back are two-way lineman Trevor Krajewski, linebacker Jim Lynch and quarterback Nick Mankowski (814 yards passing).
St. Patrick has key weapons back from a prolific offense that averaged 34 points a game. All-ESCC senior quarterback Ryan Tentler threw for 2,700 yards and 33 TDs and is regarded as one of the best leaders coach Dan Galante has been around.
Standout senior receiver Guy DiBalsamo caught 104 passes for 1,169 yards and 16 TDs. The key to success will be an improved defense led by Division I prospect Brian Canoy (6-4, 265), Hector Trevino (6-3, 285) and linebacker-defensive end Zack Jankiewicz (6-3, 230).
"You have to bring your 'A' game every week or you will be sitting at home in late October," Galante said.
St. Viator will count on a lot in all three phases from versatile senior Frank Laterza. Sean Carney (6-2, 295) anchors the offensive line and linebackers Jack Kellner and Cosimo Cannella return to a small defense that will rely on its speed.
And Nazareth expects to be more competitive with 17 returning starters and a group of juniors who only lost twice as freshmen and sophomores.
"There are really no worries about our kids looking past anyone this year in conference," Racki said.
Because there may be no one to look past.
Daily Herald sports writer Kevin Schmit contributed to this report.