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Dallas Jackson is the Senior Analyst for RivalsHigh. Email him your question, comment or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.
Four weeks ago, this game figured to be one of the first stops on the road to a national title.
Now, Thursday's matchup between No. 25 Abilene (Fla.) High and No. 67 Tampa (Fla.) Plant is just a stop on the road to redemption.
Plant opened the season No. 1 in the RivalsHigh Top 100; Abilene opened at No. 3. Both teams have learned a lot about themselves after tough starts.
"We learned we had to make a lot of changes," Tampa (Fla.) Plant coach Robert Weiner said of his team's kickoff classic game against Bradenton (Fla.) Manatee. "Maybe the biggest change we should have made was to tell Manatee to just stay home."
The result of the game did not count in the record column, but it did count very big in the perception column.
The Panthers were coming into the season off of a state title-winning season. They had one of the best players in the nation, James Wilder Jr., and a quarterback, Phillip Ely, that had never lost as a starter. What they did not have was an answer for Manatee on that August night.
"We are much more aggressive now," Weiner said. "Our pass defense is based on our line. We have a nice rotation with about eight guys. We are in a better spot knowing what our team strengths are at this point."
Abilene, likewise, was coming off a state title-winning season. And it returned its best players: cousins Herschel Sims (running back) and Ronnell Sims (quarterback).
But it didn't have enough against a demanding national schedule. The team beat now No. 60 Franklinton (La.) High but ran out of gas against now No. 18-ranked Cocoa (Fla.) High in the Week 3 RivalsHigh Game of the Week.
"I think this is evidence of how tough our schedule is, playing back-to-back national games of the week," Abilene coach Steve Warren said. "We haven't lost a regular season game since 2007 so there was not a good taste left in our mouths. We want to redeem ourselves."
The common theme of redemption can be had in very different methods.
For Abilene, a lot of it hinges on the return of team leader Herschel Sims, who did not play against Cocoa after suffering a shoulder injury the previous week.
"Having Herschel back will be a big boost for us," Warren said. "Not just on the field but as a leader he lifts the other guys around him up."
Warren, however, was quick to point out that the team needs more than Sims - and that his abscene was not an excuse for the loss to Cocoa.
"That Cocoa team had some of the best 22 starters we have seen," he said. "Our problem wasn't just us not having Herschel, we were not consistent.
"We learned we couldn't play a good series and then take one or two off. We have to play a full game every game."
Wiener knows the natural tendency will be to compare the results of the Cocoa-Abilene game to that of Plant-Abilene.
"We aren't going to look at it that way," he said. "This is two very good teams playing and those were two very good teams playing. We are very different from Cocoa."
Weiner also was quick to compliment Cocoa.
"You know they are a 2A team here in Florida," he said. "But that is a great team. They could compete for a state title in any class we have. But we are not nearly the same style team."
The difference was not lost on Warren and his preparation for the two teams.
"Plant is much different than both Franklinton and Cocoa," he said. "They are much bigger and more physical. We won't be pushing them out of the way."
It is a difference that Weiner thinks could play into his team's favor.
"We are a little bigger and maybe a bit more intense than Cocoa," he said. "But there are similarities that we will need to have if we want to win. We will have to tackle, have to swarm to the ball on defense, and we will need to execute on offense. We have two dissimilar styles but good football teams share commonalities."
How that physical play tilts the line of scrimmage could be a determining factor in who wins the game.
But again, it may also come down to one player.
"Cocoa didn't have to deal with No. 23 (Sims)," Weiner said. "So the game film may not be as helpful because they passed a lot more than we figure them to do with him in the lineup."
Warren wouldn't tip his hand.
"You know, we will do what we think we can be successful with," he said. "Ronnell has been really comfortable passing the ball and if we need to do that we can. But having Herschel back is certainly something that excites us."
Another area that the teams share is the perception that no matter the outcome, or the affect it has on national rankings, it will make them better in the long run.
"It's a challenge to our kids," Warren said. "It was also a bit of a necessity but ultimately these kind of games will get us ready for the playoffs."
Weiner sees it in a similar manner.
"Abilene lost to a very good Cocoa team," he said. "We lost to a good Manatee team. Neither of those losses are a catastrophe and neither would be losing this game. The season is a process to get ready for the playoffs. That is when you want to win."
But the Plant coach quickly changed his tune: "We want to win this game, too."
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