By Nate Olson | Casey Johnson (Benton) photo by Jimmy Jones
Here are 25 can’t-miss games on the schedule for the 2021 Arkansas high school football season …
1. Bryant at Longview (Texas) (Sept. 10)
Most will predict Bryant to get by Class 6A nonconference opponents Benton, its Saline County rival, in the Salt Bowl game in Little Rock and Marion at home a week later, but the Hornets’ win streak, which is 30 games to begin the season, could be tested during the first road game of the year at Texas prep power Longview. Like Bryant, the Lobos are reloading, returning only eight starters from their 2020 squad.
Longview, which played for a Class 6A state title in 2018, was 9-3 last season and dominated Lufkin (41-5) and Lancaster (56-20) in its first two playoff games. Denton Ryan, the eventual Class 5A Division I state champion, ended Longview’s season with a 27-9 win Dec. 26 in the regional semifinal. The Lobos kick off their season Saturday in the Jerry Jones Classic at The Star (the Dallas Cowboys’ practice complex) in a 2020 playoff rematch against Ryan. Lobos legendary coach John King is 188-40 entering his 18th season at the school.
2. Junction City at Fordyce (Oct. 8)
Bear Bryant Field has seen its share of epic gridiron battles, but this one might make the all-time Top 10 — two tradition-rich programs with large fanbases that will certainly be ranked near the top of the class fighting for a conference title and the No. 1 playoff seed in October. The atmosphere will be one of late November, and the athleticism of both reloading teams will be remarkable for the 2A level.
3. Little Rock Christian at Pulaski Academy (Oct. 22)
These west Little Rock rivals have split the past two regular-season affairs and state championship games and seem destined for another collision course. PA has won the past two meetings decisively, with a 60-28 win in the 2020 regular season and a 64-27 victory at War Memorial Stadium. The Warriors are the more veteran teams with 14 starers returning.
4. North Little Rock at Bryant (Oct. 29)
This matchup has decided the 7A-Central conference championship the past three seasons and both teams have been undefeated in league play when they met. While the league might be a little less top-heavy with the emergence of Cabot, it wouldn’t be surprising if the winner of this game wins the conference title again. It also wouldn’t be surprising if the two meet in the Class 7A state championship game like they also have the past three seasons.
This is shaping up to be one of the best rivalries in the state’s largest class and will be the biggest game of the week statewide.
5. Lake Hamilton at Greenwood (Nov. 5)
In a rematch of the Class 6A state championship game, the Wolves will be trying to avenge that loss as well as the regular-season defeat in which they had a chance to win late in the fourth quarter. Greenwood returns only a handful of starters from last year’s undefeated state championship team, but the Bulldogs always find a way to reload and are the favorites to repeat. Lake Hamilton is loaded with returning starters, including two of the best running backs in the state in Owen Miller and Tevin Woodley.
This game likely will decide the 6A-West crown — and the teams could meet again in Little Rock in December.
6. Stuttgart at Warren (Sept. 10)
How is this for an early nonconference game — two teams that could meet in the Class 4A state championship game?
The Ricebirds enjoyed one of their best seasons of late in 2020, advancing to the Class 4A semifinals before losing to eventual state champion Shiloh Christian. Stuttgart returns 16 starters and is primed for another deep run. Warren is one of the state’s perennial powers under legendary coach Bo Hembree. The Lumberjacks also return 16 starters from a squad that advanced to the semifinals.
7. Liberty North (Mo.) at Bentonville (Aug. 27)
The Tigers have made a habit of scheduling some of the best teams the Kansas City area has to offer. This season, they welcome the Eagles to Northwest Arkansas.
Liberty North lost its first two games last seasons, including against city rival Liberty. They didn’t lose again until a playoff game against Raymore-Peculiar, which beat them Week 2.
The Eagles are ranked near the Top 10 in Missouri in at least one poll and have lost only four times in the past two seasons.
This is a big test in a season opener for one of Arkansas’ best teams and could solidify Arkansas’ place in football supremacy in the region.
8. Benton vs. Bryant (The Salt Bowl), Aug. 28
Yeah, Bryant hasn’t lost to its Saline County rival since 2005, but this is the Salt Bowl. The pageantry and pomp and circumstance that surrounds this game played at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium rivals any matchup nationwide. More than 30,000 fans are expected for this Saturday night tilt during Zero Week.
While Bryant, the three-time defending Class 7A champion and owner of a 30-game win streak, has controlled this matchup, the Hornets return only a handful of starters from last year’s undefeated squad. Benton is in a similar reloading mode but can ride talented running back Casey Johnson and has veteran receivers Cameron Harris and Andre Lane catching passes from Monticello transfer QB Stan Smith. The Panthers have a chance to snap the skid as this is Bryant at its most vulnerable, with players making Salt Bowl debuts all over the field. The Hornets have the best offensive line in the state, however, with college prospects Will Diggins and Brooks Edmonson. Bryant will try to grind its way to the win.
9. Harrison at Vilonia (Oct. 29)
This late regular-season clash likely will decide the 5A-West conference title. With 35 seniors, the Eagles are gunning for their first conference title in nearly 30 years. Harrison won last year’s meeting, 48-16, and will rely on a veteran defense to try to keep its 22-game conference win streak intact.
10. Bentonville at Fayetteville (Oct. 15)
The Purple Dogs could be one of the surprise teams in any class this season after a disappointing 2020. A home tilt with the Tigers will be a huge test. Once again, Bentonville is expected to win the league title and comes in riding a 32-game conference win streak.
Fayetteville is very talented with three legitimate big-time Division I prospects on the roster. If Bentonville does have its league win streak snapped, Fayetteville could be the team to do it.
On the flip side, Bentonville will be a huge test. We will know a lot more about Fayetteville’s potential impact on 7A after this night.
11. Sand Springs (Okla.) at Shiloh Christian (Sept. 10)
The Tulsa-area team was the only squad to knock off the Saints last fall. The Class 6A-II program held on to beat SC 27-26 on its way to a 7-5 finish that culminated in the second round of the playoffs.
Beating a much bigger program which is a playoff contender in Oklahoma would be another notch in Shiloh’s belt. This might be one of the only times the Saints are tested during the regular season as they boast 15 returning starters from their 2020 Class 4A state championship squad.
12. HS Lakeside at Lake Hamilton (Aug. 27)
This matchup is one of the state’s storied rivalries with just a few miles between the two campuses. The Wolves are fresh off one of their best seasons in a decade and are a favorite to return to the Class 6A state title game. With a glut of returning starters and some young, talented players emerging, the Rams have high hopes that this will be the year they make a deep playoff run. Beating the rival Wolves would set the tone for the rest of the season.
13. Clarendon at Des Arc (Nov. 4)
A matchup of the traditional power Eagles and upstart Lions. Des Arc won the 6-2A Conference title last season on its way to the Class 2A state title game. Clarendon finished 7-3 last season, its best since 2000.
Both teams are loaded with talent and considered contenders to be in Little Rock vying for a state championship in December.
There will be several key games and conference titles on the line the last week of the regular season, and this will be one of the best as both teams could be undefeated and in the Top 5 in Class 2A.
14. Conway at Fayetteville (Aug. 27)
What a way to open the season for both teams playing inside the class. The Wampus Cats have more momentum after posting the better 2020 season, but the expectations are high for the Purple Dogs after a tough 2020.
Fayetteville really needs to play well in this game to set the tone for the season and live up to some of the preseason hype surrounding the team.
15. Sylvan Hills at Jonesboro (Oct. 29)
This game will most likely decide the 6A-East Conference title with one week remaining in the regular season. Whoever wins the league is in a much better playoff position with some tough teams looming in the 6A-West. The Bears won a 17-16 nailbiter a year ago. The game could come down to the fourth quarter again.
16. Har-Ber at North Little Rock (Sept. 3)
Another intriguing matchup involving Class 7A teams. This is a big opener for both clubs. For the Charging Wildcats, it’s the debut of new coach Randy Sandefur. The former veteran NLR assistant has watched as two previous coaches came and went quickly, including J.R. Eldridge, who bolted after one season. Still, NLR has appeared in five consecutive state title games.
Sandefur wants to get the season started right, and Har-Ber is looking to get back to being a factor in the 7A-West after rebounding from a rough 0-4 start last season, including a 41-28 loss to NLR in the opener.
17. Harding Academy at Newport (Oct. 29)
The Wildcats have won 27 consecutive in-state games. There is a good chance that streak will still be intact the week of this contest. However, the Greyhounds could have the best chance to halt it. Playing on the road against a talented, athletic team will give the Wildcats a big test.
18. Pulaski Academy at Joe T. Robinson (Aug. 27)
The Anthony Lucas Era officially begins at PA. This one is fun because of the schools’ proximity to each other. Even though PA plays in a larger classification, Robinson is very talented and big up front with University of Arkansas offensive line commit E’Marion Harris. The teams combined for 83 points in last season’s meeting and fans should expect an explosive offensive output again.
19. Osceola at Hoxie (Oct. 29)
One of the biggest games in Northeast Arkansas this season will be for the 3-3A Conference crown in this late regular-season matchup. After three straight dominant seasons under coach Robert Hooks, Osceola dropped a notch last season after Hooks took the head-coaching job at West Memphis. The Seminoles should be back to regular form this fall with all-state senior quarterback Dontaven Littlejohn leading a talented cast of senior returners. Hoxie had one of its best seasons in school history under legendary coach Tom Sears in 2020, reaching the semifinals, and looks to repeat as conference champion with a healthy group of returners leading its defense.
20. Newport at Prescott (Aug. 27)
After going 10-1 and ending 2020 with another deep playoff run, Prescott is one of the favorites in Class 3A. The athletic Curley Wolves return a core group of starters from last season, but they will be tested by a Newport team that returns 14 starters and also has a legitimate chance to advance to War Memorial Stadium in December. This game will have an electric playoff feel in August.
21. Paris at Booneville (Oct. 29)
The Eagles enjoyed one of the best seasons in school history in 2020 but missed a golden opportunity at wining a conference title and knocking off the tradition-rich Bearcats as Booneville held on for an impressive 28-20 road win. Booneville, which is riding a 29-game conference win streak, will be salty defensively with eight returning starters. Paris will be potent on offense with senior star quarterback Chase Watts and versatile running back classmate Duke Walker returning.
22. El Dorado at Cabot (Sept. 10)
Cabot’s Scott Reed has the Panthers rolling. His former school pays a visit as coach Steven Jones fields his best team in his short tenure. The Wildcats could make a deep playoff run with seven returning starters on defense. Cabot won this game easily last year, 41-23, but the Wildcats might close the gap this year after winning a playoff game in 2020.
23. Sylvan Hills at Maumelle (Aug. 26)
The two central Arkansas teams kick off the season a day early. After advancing to the Class 6A semifinals last fall, the Bears look to make a deep run again, but they must reload with no returning starters on offense.
Maumelle prepares for the rugged 5A-Central slate with this tough nonconference game and will look for its second straight win over the Bears.
24. Greenbrier at Batesville (Sept. 3)
A couple of 5A stalwarts hook up to start the season. The Pioneers won 31-19 a season ago, but Greenbrier returns 13 players from a team that reached the second round of the playoffs in 2020. Batesville returns just one starter on offense, but coach Dave King, who is the fifth-winningest coach in the state, finds ways to win.
25. Rison at Fordyce (Aug. 27)
One of the state’s longest-standing rivalries, the two towns separated by just a few miles are steeped in football tradition and annually open the season with bragging rights on the line.
The Redbugs escaped with a 29-28 win last fall and are among the top teams in Class 2A again. Fordyce returns five starters from last season’s undefeated championship club.
COVID-19 took its toll on the Wildcats last year, canceling four of their games as they eventually suffered their first first-round playoff exit since 2016. Rison will look to bounce back and contend for the 6-3A Conference title with six starters returning.