Good luck picking a winner in the ever-improving Fox Valley Conference.
The nine-team league sent five members to the 2016 playoffs. Four advanced to quarterfinals in the state's three largest classes, and Prairie Ridge emerged as the Class 6A state champion.
The Wolves return a pair of Iowa-bound stars in dynamic senior quarterback Samson Evans and 6-foot-4, 280-pound senior offensive tackle Jeff Jenkins, two of the best players the FVC has ever seen. Still, nothing is guaranteed in a conference filled with enthusiastic football programs stocked with returning talent and led by quality coaches.
"It seems like everybody's on the upswing," Huntley coach Matt Zimolzak said. "Everyone has great kids and great coaches. That's what you have to like about the FVC: every week there's great competition."
The Prairie Ridge 56-man roster includes five returnees on either side of the ball. Beyond Evans and Jenkins, the double-wing option offense returns all-FVC guard Justin Grapenthin (6-3, 250) and powerful senior running back Zach Gulbransen, who can cover 40 yards in 4.6 seconds.
Defensively, a pair of 205-pound linebackers return: four-year starter Joe Perhats and three-sport athlete Jacob Ommen. Can the Wolves plug the holes left by graduation and defend their FVC title?
"We have five players on each side returning and some good talent coming up," said 16th-year Prairie Ridge coach Chris Schremp, whose 120-50 record includes two state championships. "If we stay healthy, we should be a strong team again this year, but we must stay healthy."
Cary-Grove (10-2, 7-1) finished second in the FVC last year after dropping a 26-14 decision to Prairie Ridge in the season opener. The Trojans hoped for a rematch against the Wolves in a 6A semifinal, but they were defeated 35-21 by DeKalb before they could make it a reality.
The District 155 rivals again meet in the season opener this Friday, a matchup that will go a long way toward defining the FVC pecking order.
While the Trojans have several new faces on defense, the offense should remain potent, led by returning starting linemen Addison West (6-4, 270), Colton Ruhland (6-2, 260) and Cadin Koeppel (5-10, 205). That group is joined by first-time starter Brett Groves, a 6-5, 310-pound senior who recently committed to Southern Illinois.
Class 6A all-state honorable mention pick Max Skol adds full-time fullback duty to his role as starting safety. Junior quarterback Quinn Priester, a versatile, 6-3, 185-pound athlete already committed to Texas Christian baseball as a pitcher, directs the triple option offense.
Huntley (8-4, 6-2) finished third in the FVC last season after losing road games at Class 6A powers Prairie Ridge (31-20) and Cary-Grove (33-7). Such high-level competition steeled the Red Raiders for Class 8A playoff wins over Stevenson and Fremd prior to a season-ending loss to state-runner up Loyola Academy in a quarterfinal.
"What I like about the FVC is every week you face great competition," Zimolzak said. "Even though it's mostly 6A and 7A teams, we know they prepare us for teams in 8A like Stevenson and Fremd. There are no pushovers in the Fox Valley."
Huntley is led by athletic senior quarterback Eric Mooney, who has 12 offers from FCS-level college programs. Last year he rushed for 1,099 yards and 18 touchdowns and threw for 1,653 and 12 scores.
McHenry (6-4, 5-3) returned to the playoffs last season for the first time since 2007 under the leadership of first-year coach Nat Zunkel.
The Warriors return seven starters on defense and six on offense, though one of those offensive starters -- 6-foot-3 senior Patrick Breisch -- makes the switch to quarterback from tight end. A junior to watch is Braden Crowley, an all-purpose player his coach calls "instant offense."
"We are hoping to build off last year's 6-win season," Zunkel said. "Ideally, we'd like to close the gap in the Fox Valley with the top-tier teams."
Jacobs (7-5, 4-4) was the FVC's turnaround team a year ago. Hall-of-fame coach Bill Mitz and offensive coordinator Andy Farrissey switched to a run-based power offense at midseason and the Golden Eagles reeled off 5 wins in 6 games. They advanced to a Class 7A quarterfinal before dropping a 28-21 decision to Fenwick.
Jacobs looks to capitalize on last year's postseason experience with returnees at 18 positions, nine on either side of the ball. Leading the way are fourth-year offensive lineman Jimmy Wormsley, a 6-3, 297-pound senior committed to SIU, and senior running back Loren Strickland. As a junior he rushed for 848 yards and 11 touchdowns.
The Golden Eagles host Huntley on Friday in one of the year's key FVC games -- a season-opening matchup between 2016 quarterfinalists.
"PR was a great team last year and will be a heck of a team this year," Mitz said of the overall league landscape. "But we're focused on Huntley for now and that's it."
Hampshire (3-6, 2-6) should be improved defensively. Seven starters return on that side of the ball. That's seven more than a year ago when the inexperienced unit was burned for 39.6 points and 419 total yards per game in 2016.
Offensively, the Whip-Purs field new starters at several key positions, including quarterback. Wide receiver Cam Fleury leads a dependable group of pass-catchers returning to the spread offense. The hope is to avoid a 4-game FVC losing streak ala the one that concluded Hampshire's season a year ago.
"It can be a grinder," Hampshire coach Mike Brasile said of the 8-game FVC schedule. "There's not one week you can look at and say 'that's a win.' Every week you have to bring your hard hat to the ballfield and stand toe-to-toe with the big guys like Huntley, Cary-Grove, PR and Jacobs.
"Plus, McHenry made the playoffs last year, (Crystal Lake) South is always tough, Crystal Lake Central will be improved and Dundee-Crown has a real strong junior class coming up. There are no easy weeks."
Crystal Lake South (3-6, 2-6) has new leadership in first-year coach Rob Fontana, who served as defensive coordinator the last few years under Chuck Ahsmann.
Look for the Gators to play ball-control behind a solid offensive line led by rising star Trevor Keegan. The 6-6, 290-pound junior already has offers from Michigan and Penn State, among many, and plans to make more visits this to big-time programs this fall. Keegan, center Tommy Atella (5-9, 210) and sophomore Dom Collado (6-3,290) will try to clear room for two-time all-FVC fullback Kyle Leva, who will be the featured back.
Defensively, the Gators return eight starters, led by their top three tacklers: senior cornerback Sam Greenspan and senior linebackers Tyler Beckwith and Cullen Chudik.
Coach Jon McLaughlin expects Crystal Lake Central (2-7, 1-7) to be improved. He has reason for optimism in Northwestern-committed offensive lineman Wyatt Blake (6-4, 300), one of seven returnees on offense. Also back are third-year quarterback Jake Staples and running back Braden Bisram.
Defensively, the Tigers return six starters, led by end Cade Keenan. The 6-3, 235-pound senior has offers from Indiana State and Butler. Veteran safety Richard Logan and returning cornerback Cade Gau lend stability to the secondary. Is it enough to escape the FVC's bottom tier?
"I've been real happy with how the kids have worked as far as preparation and they're pretty well seasoned so I'm cautiously optimistic," McLaughlin said. "Have we done enough work to close that gap? We're not going to know that until we play a game. But every week is going to be such a battle in our league. I'd be really surprised to see someone go undefeated."
Dundee-Crown (2-7, 1-7) will be a junior dominated team with only three senior starters returning. The offense is inexperienced other than returning running back Ricky Ibarra, who last year rushed for 520 yards and 5 touchdowns. Nose guard Isiah Ziegler returns to lead the defense through the annual FVC battles.
"It's one of the best conferences in the state. You can't beat that," D-C coach Mike Steinhaus said. "There are no weeks off against anyone in this league. Not against Dundee-Crown either."