The most critical part of the season is upon us.
High school football teams will spend the next several weeks determining their postseason fate. Teams will jockey for playoff positioning, as region standings will determine who makes it, who doesn't, whether teams will host or whether they will hit the road.
Bluffton is hoping to right the ship after a disappointing 33-32 loss to Hilton Head High in the Bridge Bowl two weeks ago. The Seahawks, meanwhile, are looking to run their record to 7-0 and gain another win in Region 8-AAA with their two biggest games of the season looming in the weeks to follow.
Bluffton (4-2) at Beaufort High (5-1), 7:30 p.m.
Nothing the Bobcats have done thus far - losing to Hilton Head High and South Effingham, clinging to victories over A.C. Flora and James Island - matters anymore.
All Bluffton is concerned with now is fighting for a postseason berth. The top four teams out of the six-team Region 8-AAAA will make the playoffs. The Bobcats enter league play as one of three teams with 4-2 records. Beaufort High leads the pack at 5-1, while Ashley Ridge and Colleton County round out the pack with 2-4 marks.
Last season, Bluffton lost the region championship in the final week as Summerville pulled out a home win over the Bobcats. Bluffton then traveled in the first round, despite finishing the regular season with a 10-1 record.
Suffice it to say, getting off to a good start Friday against Beaufort High is essential.
The Bobcats will have some added help this week when they kick off against the Eagles, as defensive tackle and Shrine Bowl participant K.J. Ford will return to action for the first time since Week 1 against South Effingham.
"It's a great feeling," coach Ken Cribb said. "We've been so banged up. He's the heart of the defensive front. That's big. He's a three-year starter, most experience on the team. He brings a lot with him. He makes everybody else around him play better, too."
Bluffton has talked about cleaning up its mistakes over the last two weeks of practice. Fourth-quarter miscues helped lead to that Bridge Bowl loss, which included untimely penalties and key turnovers. With another tight contest expected Friday, eliminating errors will be huge.
"We can't compete with anybody, much less good teams, when we do things like that," Cribb said. "You can't give a team four possessions in a row (like in the Bridge Bowl)."
Prediction: The Bobcats have struggled in the fourth quarter at times, and as a result have gone 2-2 in games decided by six points or less. But with one of their senior leaders back on the field in K.J. Ford, Bluffton will find a way to get back on the winning side to jumpstart region play. The Bobcats win another thriller, 29-26.
James Island (1-5) at Hilton Head High (6-0), 7:30 p.m.
A 29-25 victory over James Island a year ago delivered Hilton Head High's its second and last Region 8-AAA victory of the season. And after getting some late-season help from league foes, that was good enough to seal a playoff berth for the Seahawks.
As a result, B.J. Payne's team knows how critical another win will be this year. The rest of the schedule, which features a pair of ranked teams and a solid Berkeley club, almost makes this one a must-win for Hilton Head High.
"â‚¬Å"That was the message we sent to the kids this week," said Payne, whose team checked in at No. 8 in the latest Class 3-A poll. "â‚¬Å"Last year, we had to have a little help at the end. Last year this game is what put us in the playoffs. So we're playing for playoffs now and further down the line we'll be playing for home field.
"â‚¬Å"Right now this is what we're playing for, is to get into the playoffs. Not that two wins assures it, but it (got it) last year."
The Seahawks will hit the road for two straight weeks following their Homecoming game against the Trojans, and the matchups will prove to be a litmus test to see just where Hilton Head High is. Orangeburg-Wilkinson (5-1) and Hanahan (6-0), a pair of ranked Class 3-A teams, will be waiting.
That makes a win over James Island almost essential.
"It's a big game, but I can honestly say that no matter who we play we're going to line up and I think that last year was last year and the past was the past," Payne said. "When our kids prepare properly and they focus in, we're a pretty good football team."
Khalil Lewis will be back at tailback after sitting out the second half of last week's win over Stall. He and Shrine Bowler Poona Ford will anchor the team as it looks to run its record to an impressive 7-0.
But it won't be easy. Although only 1-5, the Trojans led Bluffton by 13 points late in the fourth quarter and played a bevy of other talented teams in non-region play.
"As I told our kids on Saturday morning, they're the best 1-5 team I've seen," Payne said. "They're really good. ... They do a lot of things well."
Prediction: Payne wasn't very pleased with last week's effort at Stall, which followed that huge win over Bluffton the week before. The guess here is Hilton Head High gets back to the way it had been playing. The Seahawks improve to 7-0 and 2-0 in Region 8-AAA with a close 33-26 over James Island.