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McKenzie-Dresden a pivotal showdown of ranked teams

This upcoming Friday night is a night people in these parts have circled on the calendar since the high school football started almost seven weeks ago.

The No. 1-ranked McKenzie Rebels, 6-0, visit Rotary Field to battle No. 4-rated Dresden in a pivotal Region 6A showdown. The winner of this game has an inside track to the regional championship and, with it, a better posture for the Class A playoffs.

Many folks really don’t classify McKenzie and Dresden as rivals, per se, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some intense battles and meaningful games between them. I recall covering McKenzie way back in 1980. Both Rebels and Lions had formidable teams and then-McKenzie coach Richard Chappell cautioned Rebel fans that this would be a challenge. McKenzie won the game somewhat handily, 31-18 as I recall, despite having over 100 yards in penalties that night. 

In 1985, Dresden had a big win on a soggy South Fulton field, which catapulted the Lions to the playoffs … at McKenzie. Dresden had sophomores Peanut Winn and Popeye Jones on that team (perhaps you’ve heard of them), but a veteran McKenzie team won at Rebel Field 17-0 that night. A year later, McKenzie was ranked fifth, Dresden ranked 10th in the state, and McKenzie escaped with a 3-0 victory. Jason Baucum’s field goal was the difference. Dresden, went on to the state quarterfinals that year, bowing to Collinwood 27-0. McKenzie lost to Spring Hill in the round of 16 that year.

Fast forward to 2003. McKenzie and Dresden were unbeaten, as were Huntingdon and Milan. The date was Oct. 10. It was thought that McKenzie and Huntingdon would head into their season finale showdown unbeaten.

It wasn’t to be. Dresden jumped to a two-score lead, but the Rebels battled back within three, but could get no closer as the Lions stunned the northern part of Carroll County, winning 23-20. Then-coach Craig Rogers said to me that night that the McKenzie game was the most important game of the year for his team … because it was the next one. 

Milan and Daylan Walker, who, as I recall, had a big night, beat Huntingdon 24-6. Huntingdon avenged that Milan loss in the state semifinals and went on to beat Lipscomb in the state championship.

A year later, McKenzie visited Dresden in a classic nailbiter. The game went back and forth and with time draining, Dresden had the ball on the goal line. If memory serves, McKenzie’s Ben Boyd made a big stop on the goal line to keep Dresden out of the end zone on fourth down. But the Lions had one more shot. Dresden lined up kicker Ryan Nanney, who eventually earned a spot of Lambuth University’s team, for a 50-yard field goal to win the game. His effort had the leg, but just missed, and McKenzie escaped 29-28. 

That was the same night that I got a call that my nephew was about to be born, so as soon as I got home, I loaded up my mom and dad and headed to Nashville. Things you seem to remember, huh?

Why does this game conjure up so much interest? As coach Rogers said, because it’s the next one. But it also was a competitive game a year ago. Dresden battled McKenzie to the end. The Rebels won 23-14. As previously mentioned, both teams are ranked, both teams are in the hunt for a regional title and both teams want a better position for the state playoffs.

This year’s game promises to be just as competitive, if not more. McKenzie returns 15 starters from last year’s state-runner-up team that went 14-1. Dresden returns 16 starters from last year’s 8-4 team that suffered a loss to a very good Fayetteville team in the second round.

McKenzie has generational talent and has shown an ability to be dominant, whether on the ground or through the air. Dresden has a talented, veteran team as well, a team that is tenacious as a pit bull on a pork chop. The Lions keep coming and don’t give up.

Pardon me for being Captain Obvious here, but the team that makes the fewest mistakes will win. Dresden will have to deal with McKenzie’s potent, multi-faceted attack. McKenzie will have to deal with Dresden’s physicality and resiliency. Both teams are well coached, both teams have talent, both teams have high expectations. It may just boil down to who has the ball last. What do I predict with those ingredients?

A great ball game. Anything else would constitute “talking season” nonsense, as Steve Spurrier once said. Tee it up and let the chips fall.

Jim Steele is a correspondent for Magic Valley Publishing and the host of The Pressbox, which airs 4-6 p.m. CT, Monday-Thursday on WRJB, 95.9 FM, Camden, Tenn.

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