With half of the state's final four, it is safe to say the 1A Division 1 Snake River Conference is as stout as they come.
District 6 representatives Challis and Butte County enter this challenge with eyes wide open, both with eyes on Oakley and Valley as serious conference title contenders.
Oakley, Valley and each other, of course.
Challis and Butte County meet in the regular season finale in Challis on Oct. 26, and there may be more on the line than simple county pride.
"Valley is right on the cusp of 2A with lots of talent, and Oakley has been a threat every year," Butte County coach Sam Thorngren said. "Challis has a huge senior class, and they were great as juniors last year.
"The conference isn't just tough. It's dirty tough."
Challis coach T.T. Cain concurs wholeheartedly, noting his team's 8-3 season ended in the state semifinals after securing the conference's No. 2 seed last year.
"Our conference schedule is grueling," he said. "If your heart's not in it, you can go ahead and go home."
BUTTE COUNTY PIRATES
Coach: Sam Thorngren, 13th season
Last year: 8-2, lost to Tri-Valley in the state semifinals
Returning starters: 6 offense, 4 defense
Season outlook: It has been 12 seasons since Sam Thorngren settled in behind the clipboard at Butte County.
Back then, the Pirates were a 2A program, tougher than a salt lick, and played defense like a honey badger on Red Bull.
Entering what he hopes will be his "Lucky 13th" season, Thorngren is older, his clipboard is dustier, and his Pirates now play the 8-man brand.
Other than that, not much has changed.
With six offensive starters and four more on defense, Butte County returns nearly 70 percent of is starting lineup from a team that finished 8-2 and made it to the state semifinals.
"We have four really tough blockers coming back up front, and four or five really talented ball carriers," Thorngren said. "We love our Wing-T, but our defense is where we hang our hat."
Junior Keyan Cummings and senior Ty Twitchell bring the most experience back to that Wing-T, an offense that scored more than 45 points in each of the Pirates' eight wins.
Bridger Hansen will take the snaps for the orange and black, lining up behind a veteran front four.
"We can run the ball, and if we can make people pay for stacking the box by throwing it a little, we could be pretty good," Thorngren said.
But the games are won and lost on defense in 8-man, Thorngren said, noting that any missed assignment is greatly amplified.
"One mistake and its six points," he said. "We just try to be disciplined, jamming receivers and holding our zones."
With 30 players out for the 2018 campaign, Thorngren and his coaches have more options than in past years. In fact, the coach can't remember having such a large turnout since the team moved down to the 2A classification.
Sixteen of those 30 are juniors or seniors, giving the Pirates a decided experience edge on most teams.
"We lost some great players, but we also have some great ones coming back," Thorngren said. "We have been a little banged up during practices so far, but we should be able to get healthy, and I think we will be pretty tough."
Keyan Cummings, junior, FB/DB
Ty Twitchell, senior, HB/LB
Aug. 24 at North Gem, 4 p.m.
Aug. 31 at Clark-Watersprings, 4 p.m.
Sept. 14 Glenns Ferry at Butte County, 7 p.m.
Sept. 28 Butte County at Oakley, 7 p.m.
Oct. 5 Grace at Butte County, 7 p.m.
Oct. 12 Butte County at Valley, 7 p.m.
Oct. 19 Raft River at Butte County, 7 p.m.
Oct. 26 Butte County at Challis, 7 p.m.
Coach: T.T. Cain, fourth season
Last year: 8-3, lost to Genesee in state semifinals
Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense
Season outlook: In professional, college, and big school prep football, coaches advance a "next man up" culture.
In this culture, every position is 1 and 1A, with the "next man up" able to fill the role with nearly the same level of skill as the starter.
In 8-man small-school football, however, the next man up may be 70 pounds lighter and 8 inches shorter.
The next man up may be a freshman who first pulled a chin strap over his nose three weeks ago. A 14-year-old whose cleats house more blisters than toes.
Though his 2018 Vikings have a whopping 23 players out this season, fourth-year coach T.T. Cain has concerns about depth.
In any other season, depth wouldn't be as much of a concern. But with nine seniors and just one junior among those 23, the underclassmen dominate the roster in Custer County.
"We have a great group, and a bunch of kids who have really bought in," Cain said. "They're excited, but maybe I am hyper-sensitive to injury because we have so little depth. We are trying to develop the younger kids to give us that."
Cain's Vikings have seven starters back on offense and six more on defense from a team that went 8-3 and cruised all the way to the state semifinals.
Third-year starters Mitchell Cotant and Ross Sheppeard are back for their seasons at running back and quarterback, respectively.
Fellow starters Blaine Ammar and Cooper Erickson are also key pieces in a deep sea of senior talent.
"They're seniors now, and this is it," Cain said. "It is time to buckle down and go. We expect big things, and we don't look past anybody."
Cain's offense will continue to challenge even the most adept defensive coordinators, attacking out of a base veer, with spread, power, and just about anything the coach can come up with to keep teams off balance.
Challis will operate similarly on defense, throwing 3-man fronts to start, with adjustments as needed to suit the opposition.
After opening at home against Mackay this weekend, the Vikings will spend all of September on the road before a true homecoming gaime against Glenns Ferry on Oct. 5.
"Those four road games (North Gem, Grace, Oakley, Raft River) are about as far as you can go, so obviously homecoming is going to mean a lot to us," Cain said.
Ross Sheppeard, senior, QB/DE
Mitchell Cotant, senior, RB/DB
Blaine Ammar, SR, OL/DL
Aug. 24 vs. Mackay, 7 p.m.
Aug. 31 at North Gem, 4 p.m.
Sept. 7 at Grace, 7 p.m.
Sept. 14 at Oakley, 7 p.m.
Sept. 21 at Raft River, 7 p.m.
Oct. 5 vs. Glenns Ferry, 7 p.m.
Oct. 19 vs. Valley, 7 p.m.
Oct. 26 vs. Butte County, 7 p.m.
1A Division II Rocky Mountain Conference
Small school football schedules tend to stay in motion right up to — and often deep in to — the regular season.
Sho-Ban dropped its season earlier this month, leaving the Rocky Mountain Conference a four-team race between North Gem, Clark-Watersprings and Rockland.
That's nothing new for first-year coaches at Clark-Watersprings and Mackay — schools that joined forces as a co-op in the former case, and were too few to field a varsity team in 2016 in the latter.
"Our main goal is to stay healthy through our nonconference schedule so we can make a run," first-year Mackay coach Travis Drussel said. "With 15, we can't run practices both ways, so we have coaches out there with bags, and a manager out there in pads. We just make do with what we have. "
There is no clear consensus on a conference favorite in the Rocky Mountain Conference, though both Drussel and Clark-Watersprings coach Chris Strahm are complimentary of each other's chances.
"You can pretty much expect a good tough game in our conference," Strahm said. "Those teams have those tough farm kids who love to go out an play."
CLARK COUNTY / WATERSPRINGS
Coaches: Chris Strahm, 1st season, Brett Murdoch (supervisor)
Last year: 7-3, lost to Carey in state quarterfinals
Returning starters: 2 offense, 4 defense
Season outlook: Ask any player — there's nothing quite like a game-day road trip.
Expectations are through the bus roof on the ride in to enemy territory.
Esprit de corps is at its highest. Everything is possible. The energy is popping when that diesel exhaust is flowing.
But game-day road trips are one thing.
What about practice-day road trips?
"We do travel a little bit every day, with them coming down two days a week, and us going up one," Strahm said. "It's definitely a different level of commitment in a co-op, that's for sure."
That CC/WS co-op rode that road-trip opportunity all the way to the state quarterfinals in 2017, finishing 7-3 in their first season as a single unit.
The two teams were a combined 3-13 in 2016, and with around 10 players to staff an 8-man roster, it was either join 'em up or hang 'em up.
"We are just going to try to build on what we did last year, and try to take advantage of the foundation has been laid," Strahm said.
Hunter Rogers is one of three seniors coming back from that semifinal team, and has the most experience of any player on the roster. CC/WS will see big minutes from Rogers in all areas of the field — be it an linebacker, running back, quarterback or defensive lineman.
Strahm also expects big things from sophomores Matt Almgren and Dylan Grey as a talented group of underclassmen work in support of Rogers.
Almgren is what Strahm calls a "show stopper" on both sides of the ball, and Grey is a menace on both sides of the line.
The biggest advantage for the CC/WS co-op will be raw numbers with 23 players suiting up for 2018.
"This is one of the biggest teams we have ever been able to field, and we hope to give kids rest both in game and between games," Strahm said. "Ya know, so they're not out there killing themselves all season."
CC/WS will run a tight-bunch on offense, counting on deception and ball-control. On the other side, look for the 5-1-2 set to be the base defense when the season opens Aug. 31 in Idaho Falls against a tough Butte County squad.
Hunter Rogers, senior, LB/RB/OL
Matt Almgren, sophomore, DE/RB
Dylan Gray, sophomore, OL/DL
Aug. 31 vs. Butte County, 4:30 p.m.
Sept. 14 vs. Lighthouse Christian, 4:30 p.m.
Sept. 21 vs. North Gem, 4:30 p.m.
Sept. 28 at Mackay, 7 p.m.
Oct. 19 vs. Rockland, 3:30 p.m.
Coach: Travis Drussel, first season
Last year: 2-5, lost in first round of playoffs
Returning starters: 6 offense, 6 defense
Season outlook: When he graduated from Mackay in 1998, Travis Drussel was part of a football dynasty.
Drussel graduated smack dab in the middle of a state title run that spanned from 1996 through 2001.
By any state title measure in any classification, it was the most dominant stretch of football excellence the state of Idaho had ever seen.
Two decades later, and following seasons where Mackay didn't have enough players to field even an 8-man varsity program, Drussel is back to coach the Miners in 2018.
Drussel brings that confident Mackay swagger back to the field, and he's not shy about his confidence in his boys.
"I may be a little brash, but we are going No. 1," he said. "When we started those state title runs, it was the belief in ourselves. It didn't matter how big you were. We were going to go right through you."
In an homage to that Golden Age of Mackay football, the Miners will employ what Drussel calls "classic Mackay" single wing offense — with tactical wrinkles thrown in here and there, as needed.
Back for their final season in Mackay are the Green boys, Dallin and Caleb. Playing quarterback and receiver, respectively, Dallin and Caleb give coach Drussel senior leadership in addition to experience.
Similarly, Drussel expects great things from running backs Jacoda Whitworth, Riley Johnson and Sereck Peterson, as well as receiver Nolan Moorman, and linemen Bert Rodgers, Wes Winters, Joey Robertson, and Kolton Holt.
On defense, the Miners will line up in a 4-2-2 formation to open a brutal non-conference schedule that includes games at Challis and Dietrich, as well as home dates with Murtaugh and Oakley.
"That is kind of going to be our base to start, but we expect to learn a lot in those games, and we may have to make some changes and adapt," Drussel said.
Drussel has 15 players out for the 2018 campaign, calling his boys the "15 strong," believing they have the chops to land Mackay a conference title and a return to the state playoff bracket.
"Just a bunch of small-town, hard-working kids," he said.
Dallin Green, senior, QB/LB
Caleb Green, senior, WR/LB
Bert Rodgers, OL/DL
Aug. 24 at Challis, 7 p.m.
Aug. 31 vs. Murtaugh, 7 p.m.
Sept. 7 vs. Oakley, 7 p.m.
Sept. 14 at Dietrich, TBD
Sept. 21 vs. Rockland, 7 p.m.
Sept. 28 vs. Clark-Watersprings, 7 p.m.
Oct. 5 at North Gem, 4 p.m.
Oct. 19 vs. North Gem, TBD