When Lenoir City, at 8-1, takes the field Friday night against undefeated Maryville, the two teams will be in essence meeting in a district championship game.
The Panthers sit alone in second place after Bearden, the only team to beat Lenoir City, fell to West.
Winners of 38 consecutive games going back to Sept. 3, 2010, and winning back-to-back state championships in the process, the Maryville Rebels are a team that is accustomed to being in first place.
"We're expecting them to come and play hopefully their hardest," Maryville running back Shawn Prevo said of the Panthers. "Hopefully, they don't hold anything back, and we won't hold anything back. We're gonna try and win that championship."
For Lenoir City, the idea of winning a district title is a new one. The Panthers' 7-6 finish in 2011 was their first winning season since 2004. Entering 2012 with a senior-heavy roster, Lenoir City has exceeded already high expectations.
"I feel good," Lenoir City coach Mike Zeller said. "I've got a team that plays hard. Obviously, they've got a great program, but we're going to go in there with confidence and do the best we can. Our kids are playing with a lot of confidence right now. I don't think they're over confident. We're going to go out there and do our best and hopefully win a ball game."
Friday night is senior night for the Rebels, which Maryville quarterback Nick Myers feels, on top of the game's district title implications, adds some extra motivation.
"It'd be awesome, a 10-0 record in the regular season," Myers said. "Especially your senior year, that's how you're remembered, so it'd be huge."
The Rebels enter the game averaging 42.2 points per game, with an average winning margin of 25.1, and the Panthers know they'll be up against the toughest competition of the year.
"They don't make mistakes," Zeller said. "They're well coached and their kids believe in what they're doing. They've got a lot of depth, so if kid one makes a mistake, kid two is going to step in and take his spot. It makes them very coachable."
Despite a number of impressive wins, the Rebels have shown some vulnerability this season, especially on the defensive side. Maryville allowed 41 points to Farragut, a team that only scored 28 against Lenoir City, and 33 to West, a team that scored 27 against the Panthers. Lenoir City is also coming off its most impressive run of the season, scoring over 40 in four of the last five games.
"I feel like we're very focused right now," Lenoir City quarterback Jordan Hall said. "We came off five straight huge wins, something we haven't done in a long time. Knowing we can have that confidence coming into this game and knowing we can play with anybody in our district is just a huge momentum boost for us."
With Lenoir City averaging 35.4 points on the season and giving up just 16.3 per game, Rebels coach George Quarles expects the game to be close.
"I would expect this one to go the whole way," Quarles said. "As many points as they've scored this year, if you look at some of our scores against the same opponents, they're pretty comparable."
What the Panthers will need to do in order to come away with a win is play a game without costly mistakes. In Lenoir City's only loss of the season, 24-14 to Bearden, the Panthers fumbled the ball four times, losing three.
"Hopefully, we can try to keep the ball away from their offense," Zeller said. "They've got a lot of weapons and they score real quickly. We can't allow a big play. Hopefully, we can slow them down and make them turn it. Offensively, we're going to have to put some points on the board."
Hall knows the offense must keep up its stellar play. He trusts the defense to keep the game in a manageable place.
"We're just going to have to come out and play our game, play team ball like we have been all year," Hall said. "Maryville is a great team, their record shows it. I know we have a team this year that can put up good numbers against them."
Lenoir City hopes to have senior linebacker Jordan Willis, who Hall called the leader of the defense, when they take the field. Willis suffered an ankle injury early in Friday's win over Farragut. Despite soreness Monday, he expects to take the field Friday night.
"We're going in there to win," Zeller said. "We're not going to go there and lay down."