Since the Lincoln Trail Conference was formed in 2010, one could always circle the matchup between Mercer County and Annawan-Wethersfield as one of the key games on the schedule.
Of the eight regular season conference meetings between the two foes, the winner has gone on to grab the LTC title five times.
The two teams meet tonight in Aledo, Illinois, each looking to earn a leg-up on the conference race.
"Anytime you have a Mercer County on your schedule you know you're going to face a team that's very well coached, a team that's hungry, a team that, like us, has seen their fair share of success," Annawan-Wethersfield head coach Brandon Johnston said. "We know typically to win the Lincoln Trail Conference, the roads go through Stark County and Mercer County."
The Titans have won the last three meetings and are the two-time defending conference champion, but Mercer County is eager to win its first conference title since 2013.
Annawan-Wethersfield fell victim to injury throughout the season last year but that helped some younger players get valuable varsity playing time, including Coltin Quagliano, who took over at quarterback midseason after Zac VanOpdorp suffered an injury.
That has given the Titans a potent combination in the backfield as VanOpdorp has rushed for 105 yards and three touchdowns this season while Quagliano has thrown for 395 yards and two scores.
"We felt last year we had two pretty good starting quarterbacks," Johnston said. "This year, I think Coltin is more prepared than he was last year and Zac, we know we can use in a lot of different areas. We hand the ball off to Zac, we throw the ball to him and he blocks well for us, and he's been a three-year starter defensively for us as well. ... We don't really think of it in terms of one versus the other. We try to find the right combination to bring us the most amount of success."
Still, it took Annawan-Wethersfield time to find its footing. The Titans got off to a 0-2 start, falling to Class 2A-ranked Illini West and Class 3A-ranked Farmington but rolled to a 40-0 win over Monmouth United last week.
"I don't think there's any shame in losing to any of the teams we lost to the first two weeks," Johnston said. "I'm still comfortable and confident in our kids. 1-2 isn't our ideal situation, but I don't think as a coaching staff we've had much sense of panic or our kids have had much sense of panic. We're still confident in our abilities."
Mercer County also boasts a talented backfield with quarterback Rashaun King and running back Evan Terrill. King has thrown for 337 yards and five touchdowns while Terrill has rushed for 143 yards and a touchdown and has a touchdown catch as well.
"He's making better decisions on the field, not throwing the ball into traffic ... that's something you get as you get more experienced," Mercer County head coach Andrew Hofer said of King. "His touch and his decision-making, all of that adds up to him being a better, well-rounded quarterback."
The Golden Eagles have started out 2-1 and are ranked eighth in Class 2A, their only loss coming by eight points to an Elmwood-Brimfield team that is receiving votes in the Class 3A rankings.
"I've seen improvement every week," Hofer said. "Our offensive line continues to improve, and if the arrow continues that way, we'll have a chance to do some nice things."
Even though there's plenty on the line this week, it's still early in the season and the conference slate doesn't figure to get much easier.
The only other champion in the conference's history has been Stark County, but this might be the deepest the LTC has been. Four of the eight teams have records above .500, including undefeated Princeville and a Ridgewood team that went 0-9 last season.
"It's certainly the deepest it's been since I've been here," said Hofer, who is in his third year at Mercer County. "Top to bottom, there's no gimmes on a week-to-week basis. You've got to come prepared and ready to go every Friday or else somebody is going to knock you off. There are no weeks off."
Mercer County already has a win over Stark County while the Titans face Stark County and Princeville in its next two weeks.
"It's certainly a big challenge for us as we look to meet our long-term goals," Hofer said. "Beating A-W is one of the steps that's going to be necessary for us to meet some of those. The kids are definitely excited, and we're happy to be there playing in front of our home crowd."