Jacobs is determined to prove last year's undefeated Fox Valley Conference Valley Division title was just the beginning of a long reign.
Cary-Grove is out to claim its eighth FVC title in 11 seasons, thereby proving its 2013 second-place finish was an anomaly, not the new norm.
While the head-to-head matchup between those teams in Algonquin in Week 7 will go a long way to deciding a champion, other hungry teams like deep Huntley, playoff-seasoned Dundee-Crown, reworked Crystal Lake South and improving McHenry won't concede a thing to the Golden Eagles or Trojans.
Such is life in the competitive FVC Valley, where five of the six teams -- Prairie Ridge switches to the Fox Division this season, dropping the Valley from seven teams to six -- qualified for the playoffs in the last two years.
"The Fox Valley Conference over the years has gotten so competitive that to single out any team is unfair to the other teams in the conference," Cary-Grove coach Brad Seaburg said. "Jacobs won it and they'd have to be considered one of the front-runners, but the other teams, us included, certainly have to be right up there."
Jacobs graduated the consensus area player of the year in quarterback Bret Mooney (Colgate), but the Golden Eagles reload with 11 full- or part-time returning starters, including five three-year starters. The offense returns four linemen, led by senior Carson Shoemaker, and one of the most exciting players in the league, senior running back Josh Walker (156 carries, 1,050 yards, 14 TD).
"I think we could beat anyone, but our toughest competitor will probably be Cary because they have so many returning starters," Walker said. "I think if everyone plays and does their jobs, we'll be fine. It'll be just like last year."
Cary-Grove returns 16 starters, three of whom started in 2012 when the Trojans finished second in Class 6A. The entire backfield returns, led by quarterback Jason Gregoire and fullback Tyler Pennington. Three starters are back on the offensive line, headlined by Notre Dame-bound tackle Trevor Ruhland (6-foot-5, 270).
"We have a lot of potential," Gregoire said. "We have a lot of seniors coming back that started last year and that's always a good thing as far as experience. I think there are a lot of good teams in the FVC on the Valley side and the Fox side. I think it will be tight, a lot of good competition and a lot of good games this season."
Dundee-Crown finished 6-4 a year ago and 3-3 in the FVC Valley, tied for third place with Prairie Ridge. New coach Mike Steinhaus hopes to lead his alma mater to consecutive playoff berths for the first time since 1986-87.
D-C returns Ball State-committed safety/running back Malik Dunner, leading rusher Caleb Parson and quarterback Jeff Atherton. The challenge for the D-C staff is replacing four offensive linemen and eight defensive starters and remain competitive in an unforgiving division.
"Every week you're playing a team that has a possibility of being in the playoffs," Steinhaus said. "Any time you think of the Fox Valley Conference, you think of Cary-Grove. We're not at that point yet with our program. That's something we're striving to be, like a Cary-Grove. Obviously, Jacobs has stepped it up and so have some other teams. We know it's going to be a battle and we're going to see where we fit in this year."
Crystal Lake South was the league's hard-luck loser a year ago, finishing 4-5 overall and 2-4 in division play, tied with Huntley for fifth place. The Gators lost to Jacobs on a miracle lateral play from Mooney to Walker at the final buzzer. They went 2-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less.
CL South coach Chuck Ahsmann believes his Gators will improve weekly in their drive to make a playoff return, but knows nothing will come easy.
"It's going to be tough," Ahsmann said. "D-C has really grown. I think McHenry's freshmen last year were 9-0, so they're going to be tough. Huntley and Jacobs are good.
"Cary is the one to beat though. My son is a senior and we've grown up with that class from Cary-Grove since sixth grade. They just have a ton of athletes, a couple of big D-I linemen, so it's going to be a heck of a challenge to beat them this year."
The league's great unknown is Huntley, which lost three straight heartbreakers early last season and couldn't recover to make the playoffs at 4-5. The numbers say Huntley should be competitive since third-year coach John Hart and staff have 138 sophomores, juniors and seniors from which to choose. Another 110 freshmen are out for the sport.
The Red Raiders have a big, strong defensive front, led by returnees Zach Herbert (6-0, 260), Jeremy Behnke (6-2, 250) and Chase Burkhart (5-11, 230). Offensively, four linemen return, as do three receivers, led by all-FVC Valley pick Josh Esikiel (38 receptions, 510 yards, 4 TD).
"Obviously, one of our goals is to win the conference championship because it puts you in the playoffs and it means you have a very good team," Hart said. "Cary-Grove with 17 starters and two Division I kids, they're a load. And coach Mitz is always going to do a good job. I think that's the element of strength that some people miss, that the programs and the coaches in this conference are the reason the conference does so well in the postseason. There are a lot of really, really good football coaches."
Each coach will be trying to shoo the defending champion Golden Eagles from their perch.
"The Valley is going to be as competitive as it always is," Jacobs coach Bill Mitz said. "We are the defending champs. I know Cary-Grove has a lot of very good players, but we don't have to worry about that for a few weeks. We just have to take it one week at a time and try to prove it each week and stay healthy."
Hampshire in the Fox hunt: First-year Hampshire coach Mike Brasile has a pretty good idea what it means to have Prairie Ridge rejoining the Fox Division of the Fox Valley Conference a year after the Wolves lost in a Class 6A quarterfinal to state runner-up Boylan.
"The division is going to be tough this year with Prairie Ridge," Brasile said. "They had a lot of success in the second half of the season last year. Coming down to the smaller division, they're probably going to the be the front-runners and contenders."
The new coach has installed a spread offense he hopes will allow his team to contend with the likes of defending division champ Crystal Lake Central and second-place finisher Grayslake North. Hampshire went 6-4 last season, made the playoffs and finished third in the FVC Fox with a 4-2 record.
"I think we're right there with them," said Brasile, who has Nick Mohlman returning at quarterback. "I truly believe we should be in the top four. Personally, I believe we should be at the top, though that's a little biased."