Prediction: Expect a winning state title show at Huskie Stadium
This is not the year we can make jokes about the high school football product being vastly more entertaining than the host school's, since this weekend's state championship games are played at Northern Illinois' Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.
We will likely be able to do that for the 2018 finals in Champaign unless there is a massive turnaround for Lovie Smith and the Floundering Illini.
We can also make a case that the Lake Zurich Bears have produced a vastly superior product to their namesakes playing in their UFO on the lakefront.
After all, Lake Zurich has 13 wins this season while the alleged Monsters of the Midway have 12 in their last 47 games dating to the inglorious end of the Marc Trestman era.
Easy shots? No question. And the annual state title predictions seemingly have gotten easier with a 13-3 record the last two years to bring the overall eight-year mark to 38-26.
But things can change quickly. The hot seat could suddenly get lot hotter as it is for John Fox and to a lesser degree Smith. Or a year of lousy picks could lead to banishment similar to Trestman returning to the Canadian Football League.
Sorry, we're not going there to give you a bonus pick on Sunday's Grey Cup between Trestman's Montreal Alouettes and the Calgary Stampeders.
So, here we go. Hopefully the joke won't be on me late Saturday night.
Class 7A, 4 p.m.: Lake Zurich (13-0) vs. Batavia (12-1)
Both teams have lived up to the high expectations they brought into the season. Each team also came into the season under different circumstances.
After a successful 12-year run of building a Lakes program from scratch, Luke Mertens was hired late in late April to lift Lake Zurich from a hazing scandal. He did it perfectly on and off the field to give the school a shot at its second state title.
There was no QB controversy with these Bears as senior Evan Lewandowski (2,572 yards, 26 TD, 4 INT) broke the career passing records of Matt Blanchard, who also spent time with the NFL's Bears. Zion-Benton senior transfer Payton Powell (39 catches, 811 yards, 10 TD) and TE Matthijs Enters (34 for 590, 7 TD) give Lewandowski two dangerous threats with senior RB Joey Stutzman (1,094 yards, 15 TD) providing the ground complement.
Nothing changed with the trademark tough 3-5-3 defense as 6-foot-2 Wisconsin-bound LB Jack Sanborn had 113 tackles to become the Bears' all-time leader. Junior LBs Nicholas Fabbrini and Lucas Dwyer have combined for 20 tackles for losses, junior DB Austin LePage has tied the school's single-season interception record with 10 and sophomore Anthony Mangano's interception preserved the 14-7 semifinal win over Mt. Carmel.
Batavia coach and 1983 alum Dennis Piron, who won the program's second title in 2013, said before the season this group had a chance to be really special. It has been as it rebounded from a 35-28 loss to end the regular season to St. Charles North and from a 13-point deficit to beat Benet 23-13 in the semifinals.
Senior QB Riley Cooper (2,001 yards, 27 TD, 7 INT) has a favorite target in 6-3 Eric Peterson (32 catches, 640 yards, 13 TD) but Tommy Stuttle, Collin Richter and Jared Martin have combined for 12 TD catches. Jeremiah Evers leads a balanced leads a number of threats in the running game behind Central Michigan recruit Nolan Eike (6-feet-6, 260 pounds).
The Bulldogs' 3-4 defense is led by senior SS Michael Niemiec, who needs 4 tackles to surpass the single-season school record of 123 he set last season. Six-2 junior linebackers Michael Jansey (25.5 TFL) and Luke Weerts (22 TFL) frequently put offenses in difficult situations.
• The pick: This looks to be one of the best games of the weekend and finding a seat could be a challenge as both programs have tremendous followings. They are accustomed to winning big games in intense atmospheres. The outcome will be in doubt until the final minutes but it will be a perfect debut for Mertens and the Bears as the Monsters of Midlothian Road hold off the Bulldogs 21-14.
Class 8A, 7 p.m.: Lincoln-Way East (13-0) vs. Loyola (12-1)
Loyola is back for the fifth time since 2011 under former NFL linebacker John Holecek and hoping to avenge last year's 27-17 title-game loss to Maine South.
The Ramblers have overcome their share of adversity since then as senior QB Quinn Boyle (1,885 yards passing, 20 TD, 4 INT; 800 yards rushing, 7 TD) broke his throwing-hand thumb five weeks before the opener. Hamid Bullie (607 yards rushing, 7 TD) was coming back from a torn ACL and they fell to 4A favorite Phillips 20-14 to start the season.
They rebounded behind Fordham-bound OT Charlie Gross (6-feet-5, 270 pounds) and the WR duo of Rory Boos (37 catches, 743 yards, 10 TD) and James Joyce (50 catches). Their traditionally rugged 3-4 defense led by ILBs Anthony Rodriguez and Christopher Scott and FS Jake Gonzalez (combined 22 tackles for loss) allowed only 124 points in the final 12 games -- with 32 coming up in a 3-point first-round win over nearby rival New Trier.
Lincoln-Way East avenged a quarterfinal loss to Maine South last year with wins in Week 2 and the semifinals for a shot to join its 2005 team as an undefeated state champion. Northwestern-bound DT Devin O'Rourke (6-6, 250) anchors a defense with senior LBs Declan Carr (22 TFL) and John Christensen (20 TFL) that has allowed only 117 points.
Senior QB Brendan Morrissey is a dual threat (1,442 yards passing, 20 TD, 2 INT; 1,016 rushing, 9 TD) and he is complemented by RB Ryan Scianna (696 yards, 7 TD) and 6-2 TE Turner Palissard (37 for 451, 7 TD). The Griffins had a second-round 15-14 escape over St. Charles East on Dominic Dzioban's field goal with 23 seconds to play.
• The pick: Which defense can do a better job of containing Morrissey and Boyle, who can beat you in the air or on the ground, and force other players to beat them? O'Rourke figures to be a major challenge and he'll lead Lincoln-Way East to a 17-10 win.
Class 6A, 1 p.m.: Prairie Ridge (13-0) vs. Nazareth (12-1)
Nobody is surprised to see defending champion Prairie Ridge arrive with a 27-game winning streak with Iowa-bound senior QB Samson Evans (1,957 yards rushing, 36 TD) directing the triple option. If you haven't seen how dynamic or clutch Evans is, go to YouTube and find his 66-yard TD run sprang by future Iowa teammate Jeff Jenkins with eight seconds left for a 17-13 win over Fox Valley Conference rival Cary-Grove.
Evans and RB Zach Gulbransen (1,124 yards, 14 TD), the sons of former Elk Grove all-Mid-Suburban League players, and Jackson Willis (824 yards, 11 TD) have been tough to stop with the exception of C-G, which lost the season opener 7-6. Evans doesn't throw much but one-third of his 24 completions have gone for touchdowns.
The 6-4, 280 Jenkins (8 TFL, 4 sacks), senior MLB Jacob Ommen (10 sacks, 15 TFL) and 6-3 senior LB Joe Perhats (13 TFL) drive the Wolves' 3-5-3 defense as they go for their third title since 2011 under Chris Schremp.
Nazareth coach Tim Racki is no stranger to being on this stage with four straight titles and now-shuttered Driscoll (2001-04) and back-to-back crowns at his current stop (2014-15). His team has rebounded from a 42-0 loss to Marist in Week 7 and features 6-2, 290 Iowa State-bound Isaiah Lee (17 TFL, 11 sacks), senior QB Bobby Grimes (1,034 yards passing, 12 TD) and junior RB Devin Blakely (948 yards rushing, 12 TD).
• The pick: Evans is going to head west of the Mississippi and to the Big Ten as a two-time champion and without a loss in his final 28 high school games. The Wolves will roll 45-14 and will join Rochester in 4A this year with back-to-back unblemished state titles.
Class 5A, 10 a.m.: Phillips (13-0) vs. Dunlap (13-0)
Phillips became the first Chicago Public League team to win a state football title two years ago and now looks to add to that history. It has been tested with wins over Loyola and Richards to start the season, 4A semifinalist Raby, twice over Solorio and Virginia Tech-bound QB Quincy Patterson and perennial playoff team Simeon.
The Wildcats have two big threats in workhorse RB-LB Craig Elmore (1,814 yards, 22 TD) and South Dakota State QB recruit J'Bore Gibbs (1,755 yards, 23 TD, 12 INT). Fabian McCray has 7 TD catches and 7 INT, Elmore has 12 TFL, 6-4 senior LB-DE Terrance Taylor has been credited with 31 sacks and 16 TFL and DT Queniel Morrison has committed to NIU.
Dunlap, located just a few miles northwest of Peoria, has also made history after winning only 6 playoff games and never getting past the second round in 25 previous appearances. Northwestern-bound TE-LB Charlie Mangieri (8 TFL, 6 sacks, 102 tackles) is a beast at 6-4, 230. Senior RB Luke Bennyhoff (2,092 yards, 32 TD) and junior QB Myles Burke (1,526 yards, 17 TD, 7 INT) are tougher to find at 5-10 and 5-7 respectively.
• The pick: Troy McAllister has done amazing things in his eight years in charge at Phillips. That continues with a second title in three years and 44-20 victory.
Class 3A: IC Catholic Prep (12-1) vs. Pleasant Plains (10-3), 4 p.m.
ICCP actually suffered two losses in defense of its 3A title.
The Knights fell to St. Laurence 26-23 in Week 2 and standout senior Luke Ricobene, who had started 36 of 38 games at QB, suffered a season-ending knee injury.
But it wasn't the end as their prolific offense continued to be unstoppable with an average of 50 points a game behind RB senior Lazerick Eatman (1,277 yards, 19 TD), freshman understudy Kyle Franklin (913 yards, 11 TD), senior QB C.J. West (1,831 yards, 24 TD, 5 INT) and junior Khali Saunders (34 for 632, 9 TD). Eatman also has 9 TD receptions.
And when they were kept out of the end zone last week until West's TD run with 23 seconds left, the defense stepped up with a shutout to hand Byron its first loss. Sophomore Kevin Cook (151 tackles) and junior Kemon Reese (115 tackles) don't let offenses get past them much much at LB.
Pleasant Plains didn't appear to have DeKalb in its sights after a 3-6 finish last year and 2-3 start to 2017 when it lost 46-7 to Williamsville. But a program that had won its only playoff game in five appearances in 2012 got it together behind QB Ben Reinert (2,114 yards, 25 TD) and RB-LB Nik Samson (1,470 yards, 19 TD; 24 TFL, 4 sacks).
• The pick: The Knights won't be struggling to find the end zone this week. They'll get there early and often to win another title under ICCP alum Bill Krefft and the third in school history 55-13.
Class 4A: Morris (11-2) vs. Rochester (13-0), 7 p.m.
Morris bounced back from a regular-season ending stumble with two losses in three games to get a shot for its fourth title and first since 2005. Leading the way are two players with big-league baseball pedigrees.
Senior RB-LB Kam Dransfeldt (1,679 yards, 20 TD) is the son of former White Sox and Rangers SS Kelly Dransfeldt. Tyler Spiezio, a 6-5 senior WR-DE (31 catches, 440 yards, 7 TD), is the son of two-time World Series champion Scott Spiezio and the grandson of two-time Series champion Ed Spiezio, who finished his career with the 1972 White Sox.
But they are up against a program in defending champion Rochester that has developed a big-time pedigree of football success that includes five straight titles from 2010-14. Senior QB Nic Baker is small at 5-9 but has put up huge numbers (3,678 yards, 52 TD, 2 INT, 74.3 completion percentage). His top targets are Cade Eddington (79 for 1,1455, 18 TD) and Jayden Reed (50 for 878, 16 TD).
• The pick: Only twice has Rochester been held to less than 40 points and it won't happen here. A 49-21 win will make head coach Derek Leonard's team the first with consecutive unbeaten state champions since his dad Ken, who played at Harper College, accomplished it with Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin in 2013-14.
Class 2A: Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley (13-0) vs. Maroa-Forsyth (12-1), 1 p.m.
GCMS has allowed only 81 points all year with 4 shutouts behind junior DTs Bryce Barnes (31 TFL, 7 sacks) and Josh Bleich (21 TFL, 5 sacks). Senior TB Mitch McNutt nearly gets a first down every time he touches the ball with 1,550 yards and 29 TD on just 160 carries.
Maroa-Forsyth looks to avenge it's 35-7 loss in last year's final to Deer Creek-Mackinaw and is looking for its third title under Josh Jostes behind dual-threat QB Ian Benner (2,082 yards passing, 23 TD; 901 rushing, 9 TD) and RB Deondre Gregory (1,630 yards, 29 TD).
• The pick: GCMS will be up against one of the more potent offenses it has seen but its first trip to the state finals will end perfectly 35-21.
Class 1A: Lena-Winslow (13-0) vs. Tuscola (13-0), 10 a.m.
A perfect way to start the eight games in DeKalb -- with two prolific offenses and stingy defenses. Lena-Winslow coach Ric Arand goes for his third title since 2010 behind RB Rahveon Valentine (2,025 yards, 25 TD). Third-year Tuscola coach Andy Romine is 34-2 and hopes to win the school's third title with dual-threat QB Luke Sluder (2,051 yards passing, 23 TD; 914 rushing, 15 TD).
• The pick: Sluder will be a handful to contain and Tuscola will have the first title celebration of the weekend 21-13.