Last season, the race for the NUIC Upstate title was over almost before it began.
The Stockton Blackhawks rolled through the regular season and playoffs, outscoring their opponents by an average of more than 39 points per game during their run to the state championship game.
Even after a 48-24 loss to Maroa-Forsyth in the 1A title game, the dominance the Blackhawks displayed for the first 13 weeks of the season was ingrained in the memories of their conference brethren.
Still, those memories are just that. And the competition to dethrone the defending champs started as soon as players from the other Upstate teams started hitting the weight room.
"I think it's going to be a dogfight in this half of the conference," Milledgeville coach Jason Wroble said. "There are some strong teams year in and year out, and I don't see anyone running away with it."
Still, even with the loss of seven offensive starters and eight defensive starters, Stockton will return quite a bit of experience. As AFC coach Brad Winterland pointed out, even the non-starters on last year's squad got plenty of playing time, thanks to lopsided halftime scores.
Wroble, Winterland and Polo coach Andrew Hofer agreed that, even though last year's run is over, the Blackhawks will still have something to say about the 2013 NUIC Upstate title chase.
"Really, until someone knocks them off their pedestal, they're the kings of the conference," Hofer said. "Top to bottom, this conference is always tough, so there will be a lot of teams to challenge them and give them a run for their money … but you've got to beat them first."
Perennial powers Aquin and East Dubuque come off playoff runs in 2012, as does Warren, and those three join Stockton as the "big four" cited by the three local coaches.
AFC was also in the playoff mix a year ago, but didn't finish with enough playoff points to earn a berth in 1A, despite being playoff eligible with a 5-4 record.
With only one chance to play an out-of-league opponent, Winterland and Co. decided against a crossover matchup with the NUIC's Northwest division. Instead, the Raiders will host El Paso-Gridley out of the Heart of Illinois Conference.
The Titans went 3-6 a year ago, but made the playoffs the previous two seasons, and the Heart of Illinois sent five teams to the postseason in 2012.
"The big one for us is the nonconference game," Winterland said. "I think it's a team we could beat, and it's a team that we can hopefully get extra playoff points from. Hopefully, if we land on 5-4 again, that will be the one that puts us over the edge.
"Realistically, I think we could have anywhere between two and seven wins. We're young and inexperienced in the backfield – we lost 95 percent of our offense – but we've got a big, strong, veteran offensive line, and some skill kids coming up who will fit in really well."
Polo will also look to get into the playoff conversation. After going 1-8 in Hofer's inaugural campaign, the Marcos improved to 3-6 in 2012. A similar jump this fall would make them eligible for the postseason.
The Marcos start with East Dubuque, AFC and Stockton, then get Aquin and Eastland-Pearl City in weeks 5 and 6. With two home games in the final 3 weeks against teams that finished last season .500 or below, lessons learned in the early going could translate to a late-season push in Polo.
"We go into every game looking to win," Hofer said, "and we know it's always going to be tough. But to be the best, you have to beat the best, and we're looking forward to a good challenge."
Milledgeville's aspirations might not include a run into November, but Wroble likes what he's seeing so far this offseason. Numbers are up, work ethic is high, and the snapping of a 25-game losing streak with a Week 6 win last fall has brought with it the knowledge of what it takes to come out on top.
Wroble is also pleased at the schedule facing the Missiles in 2013. Three of their five games against opponents who finished above .500 last year are at Floyd Daub Field, and playing four teams that finished below .500 in 2012 in the first 5 weeks of 2013 means plenty of opportunities to build on those positive thoughts.
"Definitely the first half of the season is key for us," Wroble said. "If we can get off to a strong start, get a couple of Ws and get our confidence up, that sets up the rest of the season nicely. We haven't played well on the road of late, so having some quality teams at home will hopefully help us out a little bit.
"If we're going to have a strong season and show how much we've improved, it's all about how we start and getting off on the right foot."