With the high school football playoffs starting Friday night, here are the five biggest story lines on the North Suncoast:
Is 3,000 yards attainable for Nature Coast RB Michael Weston?
The Sharks' stable of running backs, past and present, are well known. DeShawn Smith, now at Florida A&M, was named the state's Mr. Football after leading the nation in rushing with 3,715 yards in 2015.
Weston, a senior, still has a ways to go to equal Smith's single-season total, but 3,000 yards are within reach — if the Sharks can (9-1) make an extended run. Entering the playoffs, Weston ranks as the state's leading rusher with 2,251 yards.
Nature Coast is the No. 1 seed in Class 5A, Region 2, so getting to at least the region final is a realistic goal. And if Weston averages slightly better than his 225 yards per game, the milestone will be met.
Can Mitchell get past the region semifinals?
The Mustangs (8-2) have done some impressive things lately, winning four straight district titles and advancing to the region semifinals each of the past two seasons.
Now, Mitchell is trying to take the next step by getting to the region finals for the first time.
It will be a tough task. First, the Mustangs have to get past Lake Weir (7-3). If Mitchell wins, it likely will have to travel to play defending Class 6A state finalist Armwood (9-1).
The Mustangs have built a consistent contender. And they keep improving in the postseason. After losing by 23 points to Ocala Vanguard in the region semifinals two years ago, Mitchell lost by just four in the rematch last season.
Can Zephyrhills Christian get back on track?
The Warriors (6-3) have been without starting quarterback Jacoby Braxton (fractured collar bone) for more than three games. The senior returned at halftime last week against Admiral Farragut, with ZCA trailing 17-0. He looked a bit rusty in what turned out to be a 31-6 loss.
With a full week of practice, Braxton should be better prepared. He is 4-2 as the starter this season and accounted for three touchdowns in wins over North Florida Christian (the No. 1 seed in Class 2A, Region 1) and Lakeland Victory Christian (the No. 1 seed in Class 2A, Region 2 — also ZCA's region). So he's been tested against good competition.
"We thought we would sit Jacoby one more week because we were in the playoffs either way," coach Mike Smith said. "We thought maybe we would let him heal up a little bit more and save him. But he wanted to try to throw some so we thought it would be good for him to test the waters (against Class 2A, Region 3 No. 1 seed Farragut)."
What is the best first-round matchup?
No. 7 Crystal River at No. 2 Zephyrhills is awfully interesting. Yes, the Bulldogs are 10-0 and have four shutouts. But the Bulldogs' reward for a perfect season is an opening-round game against a team that hasn't lost by more than two touchdowns.
Crystal River is no slouch. The Pirates are 8-2, and one of those losses was 20-14 in overtime to Nature Coast. But Zephyrhills can score in bunches (38.7 points per game).
Zephyrhills' track record in the playoffs, however, is not stellar. The Bulldogs have never advanced past the second round and have won just three first-round games (1997, 2002 and 2017). That 1997 win? 7-0 over Crystal River.
Does any area team have a chance in Lakeland?
Wiregrass Ranch (7-3) will be the first team to find out. This is the third straight season that the Bulls have opened the postseason at Lakeland. They lost 43-20 in 2016 and 52-0 last season. It will take a monumental effort to pull off the upset this season.
Lakeland is not only 10-0, but the Dreadnaughts have outscored opponents 483-50 and have won their past seven games by an average score of 50-1. Class 7A, by far, is the toughest bracket in the state tournament.
All games at 7:30 Friday night. Admission is $8.
Wiregrass Ranch at Lakeland
Lake Weir at Mitchell
Gainesville Eastside at Nature Coast
Crystal River at Zephyrhills
Hernando at Baker County
St. Francis Catholic at Zephyrhills Christian