By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
By the end of this opening weekend of Michigan high school football, some fans will say of their successful teams "it's just like last year," while others will boast "this looks nothing like last year, and it's going to be special."
That's perhaps the greatness of high school football above all other levels – more than at any other, the beginning of the season provides such a fresh slate that last year's winless team could become this year's league champion.
Total, 608 teams will start down that road, with the great majority of the weekend's 306 varsity openers to be played Thursday, followed by games Friday and Saturday as well.
As we'll do every week, below we've broken out some of the games of particular interest from every corner of the state. (Records shown below are from 2018.) Check out your local game, but also take advantage of the opportunity to watch any of 25 games being broadcast this weekend on MHSAA.tv, including all six from the Xenith Prep Football Kickoff Classic at Wayne State University and both from the Vehicle City Gridiron Classic at Flint's Atwood Stadium. Click for the full schedule.
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Bay & Thumb
Fenton (7-3) at Davison (7-3), Thursday
These have been two of the Flint area's powers during the 2000s, Davison riding a four-season playoff streak after bouncing back from a brief rough patch and Fenton coming off its 11th consecutive postseason appearance. They split a pair of openers in 2014 and 2015 before taking three years off, and they're both hoping to ride a strong start in this nonleague game into league title contention. Both finished a win shy of claiming a conference title a year ago.
Keep an eye on these: THURSDAY Traverse City West (7-3) at Midland (9-4), Montrose (10-3) at Cass City (8-3), Detroit Country Day (7-3) at Flushing (7-3), Marshall (3-6) at Freeland (7-4).
Detroit Martin Luther King (12-2) vs. Detroit Catholic Central (7-4) at Wayne State University, Saturday
This year's Xenith Classic is loaded with great matchups, with this one holding a slight edge at the top of the list. Last we saw King, the Crusaders were stunning at least some of the state with a Division 3 championship game win over Muskegon. DCC is a Ford Field regular as well and looking to climb back to that level after falling in its Division 1 District Final a year ago. This will be these teams' first matchup since a District Final in 2001.
Keep an eye on these: THURSDAY Saline (11-2) vs. Clinton Township Chippewa Valley (14-0) at Wayne State FRIDAY Oak Park (9-2) at West Bloomfield (9-3), Grand Rapids Catholic Central (11-2) at River Rouge (8-2), Muskegon (13-1) vs. Warren De La Salle Collegiate (12-2) at Wayne State.
Reading (14-0) vs. Pewamo-Westphalia (11-1) at Olivet College, Thursday
Reading didn't just go undefeated on the way to the Division 8 title last year. The Rangers scored 678 points, 10th most in MHSAA 11-player history. Pewamo-Westphalia will provide one of Reading's most formidable challenges of the last few seasons, however. The Pirates missed Ford Field last fall for the first time since 2014, falling to eventual Division 7 champion New Lothrop in a Regional Final.
Keep an eye on these: THURSDAY Clare (9-2) at Alma (9-2), Hudson (4-5) at Ithaca (8-2), Muskegon Oakridge (9-2) at Belding (7-3), Mason (5-4) at Okemos (7-4).
Northern Lower Peninsula
New Lothrop (13-1) at Lake City (12-1), Thursday
This carries as much intrigue as just about any opener in the state, large schools or small. As noted above, the Hornets are the reigning Division 7 champions, finishing 13-1 last fall and reaching the Final with a 51-22 Semifinal win over Lake City. That was the Trojans' only loss of the season, repeating 2017 when its only defeat came in a Semifinal against eventual Division 7 champion P-W.
Keep an eye on these: THURSDAY DeWitt (12-1) at Traverse City Central (7-3), McBain (8-3) at Kingsley (10-2), Millington (7-4) at Maple City Glen Lake (5-5), FRIDAY Manton (4-5) at Johannesburg-Lewiston (9-2).
Southeast & Border
Chelsea (10-4) at Dexter (6-4), Friday
Dexter football was one of the state's best stories of the 2019-20 school year, posting its first winning record since 2010 and earning the first playoff berth in program history. That gives this annual Southeastern Conference White matchup more buzz than ever before. Chelsea did win last season's meeting 34-20 on the way to finishing 10-4 and Division 4 runner-up.
Keep an eye on these: THURSDAY Madison Heights Madison (13-1) at Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central (9-3), Ottawa Lake Whiteford (10-1) at Blissfield (7-5), Napoleon (5-5) at Brooklyn Columbia Central (9-2), Carleton Airport (4-5) at Ida (8-3).
Jackson Lumen Christi (13-0) at Kalamazoo United (11-1), Friday
Storylines are everywhere. Lumen Christi has won three straight Division 6 championships and at 23 games carries the state's longest active winning streak. United, made up of students from Hackett Catholic Prep and Kalamazoo Christian, tied the best record for either school together or apart by finishing 11-1 a year ago. However, United graduated one of the state's most prolific quarterbacks ever in Eric Wenzel, now at Western Michigan University, and coach Jesse Brown is now the Lumen Christi athletic director.
Keep an eye on these: THURSDAY St. Joseph (5-5) at Battle Creek Central (7-4), Holland West Ottawa (6-4) at Stevensville Lakeshore (5-5), Grand Rapids West Catholic (5-5) at Berrien Springs (7-3), Decatur (6-5) at Mendon (7-5).
Negaunee (5-4) at Iron Mountain (8-3), Thursday
After a rare sub-.500 season in 2017, Negaunee got back to 5-4 a year ago but missed making the playoffs by a win. The Miners' closest defeat came on opening night, 12-9 to Iron Mountain, which went on to post one of the state's best turnarounds of 2018 at 8-3 after going 1-8 the season before. These two should be in the mix for the Western Peninsula Athletic Conference Copper title once again.
Keep an eye on these: THURSDAY Gladstone (4-5) at St. Ignace (5-4), Bark River-Harris (2-7) at Gwinn (6-4) FRIDAY West Iron County (8-3) at Munising (4-5), Marinette (Wis.) (4-5) at Menominee (2-7).
Reed City (11-1) at Montague (11-3), Friday
This will be the third straight opening-night meeting between these two playoff regulars, and the first two were decided by at least three touchdowns. But last year's came with a twist; Reed City won 34-13, but Montague went on to finish 11-3 and Division 6 runner-up. The Coyotes, meanwhile, suffered their only loss in the playoffs for the third time in four seasons and sixth time in eight, falling in a Division 5 Regional Final.
Keep an eye on these: THURSDAY Rockford (7-5) at Grand Rapids Christian (8-3), Saginaw Swan Valley (12-1) at Cedar Springs (10-2), Zeeland West (8-3) at East Grand Rapids (6-4), Hudsonville Unity Christian (12-2) at Allendale (5-5).
Wyoming Tri-unity Christian (10-1) at Climax-Scotts (4-5 in 11-player), Friday
Another handful of teams switched to 8-player from 11 this fall, and Climax-Scotts might be the most anticipated mover over the last few seasons. Last fall was the first since 2002 that the Panthers didn't win at least eight games. They'll be greeted by Tri-unity, which has established itself as an 8-player power and posted double-digit wins last season for the second time in three years.
Keep an eye on these: THURSDAY Morrice (13-0) at Kingston (8-2), Bellevue (9-2) at Martin (6-4 in 11-player), Powers North Central (8-2) at Cedarville (7-5) at DeTour FRIDAY Crystal Falls Forest Park (6-5) at Pickford (12-1).
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PHOTO: Friday (and this week Thursday) night lights return to football fields all over the state this weekend. (Photo by Tim Reilly.)