High school football is kicking off across the nation, meaning that the race for a mythical national championship is beginning once again. And one of the major factors in the debate may have already been determined: strength of schedule. With so many teams in contention, it isn't just how a school fares -- it's also the level of competition it plays against.
With that in mind, here are the 25 toughest schedules in the country, one of which may give a team the inside track to a coveted high school championship.
Toughest games: at Manatee (Fla.), at Grayson (Ga.), at Booker T. Washington (Fla.), vs. Columbus (Fla.), at Belen Jesuit (Fla.)
The buzz: There may not be a harder schedule in the country -- let alone among the preseason Top 25 teams. The Rockets play three of the top-ranked teams in the country (Manatee, Grayson, Booker T. Washington), and all of the games are on the road. Led by running back Joseph Yearby, Miami Central will face an uphill battle to repeat another undefeated regular season.
Toughest games: vs. Anaheim Servite (Calif.) at Brophy College Prep (Ariz.), at St. John Bosco (Calif.), vs. St. Bonaventure (Calif.), vs. Mater Dei (Calif.)
The buzz: Servite defeated Santa Margarita last season -- as did Mater Dei -- and the rematch should be terrific at the end of this season. The first game against Brophy Prep may be more significant, however. A loss against the Broncos, which went 11-1 in 2011, all but eliminates the Eagles from the national title discussion.
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Toughest games: vs. Miami Central (Fla.), vs. Miramar (Fla.), vs. Palmetto (Fla.), vs. Cypress Bay (Fla.), at Venice (Fla.)
The buzz: Manatee was set to play Skyline (Sammamish, Wash.) and Friendship Collegiate Academy (Washington, D.C.), but the financing for the games fell through. The Hurricanes came through with showdowns against Miami Central and Miramar, however, compensating for their lack of national bouts. The other games, particularly Manatee's Oct. 26 date with Palmetto, won't be easy. Many pundits are high on the upstart Tigers in 2012.
Toughest games: vs. Miami Central (Fla.), at McEachern (Ga.), vs. Brookwood (Ga.), vs. Dacula (Ga.), vs. Central Gwinnett (Ga.)
The buzz: The second game of the season may be the test of 2012 for Grayson, as Robert Nkemdiche and Co. will face off with one of talent-rich Florida's most high-powered offenses. The Rams return 10 starters on defense, but it will likely need to put up at least 24 points on the scoreboard to compete with Central and continue their quest toward a mythical national title.
Toughest games: at Indianapolis Cathedral (Ind.), at Archbishop Moeller (Ohio), vs. St. Xavier (Ohio), vs. St. Xavier (Ky.)
The buzz: This is the same-caliber schedule that helped push the Shamrocks to the national championship in 2012, and a repeat isn't out of the question. Trinity returns quarterback Travis Wright, running back Dalyn Dawkins and wide receiver James Quick, all of whom will look to continue their dominance against some of the top high school competition in the Midwest.
Toughest games: at Bishop Gorman (Nev.), vs. Gilman (Md.) vs. St. Joseph Regional (N.J.), at Gonzaga (D.C.), vs. DeMatha (Md.)
The buzz: The nationally televised season-opener with Bishop Gorman should be a telltale game for Good Counsel, as its vulnerabilities could be exposed against the Las Vegas-powerhouse Gaels. Playing against two additional ranked opponents, as well as several of the top teams in Maryland, could push coach Bob Milloy's Falcons into the national title conversation with an undefeated season.
Toughest games: at Armwood (Fla.), at Cocoa (Fla.), vs. Glades Central (Fla.) vs. Atlantic (Fla.)
The buzz: This small-class school has plenty to prove in contests against several of the perennial powerhouses in the state of Florida. Depth is the biggest issue for Heritage, but the top-end talent is clearly there. A showdown at Armwood, which features prized recruits Leon McQuay III, Alvin Bailey and Darryl Richardson, will be a major measuring stick contest for the Stallions.
Toughest games: at John Curtis (La.), vs. Armwood (Fla.), at Robinson (Fla.), at Jesuit (Fla.), at Tampa Bay Tech (Fla.)
The buzz: Plant's showcase against John Curtis may be the top out-of-state game of the year, a contest that will have major implications on the national title picture. Still, the challenges for the defending Class 8A champs don't end there. Contests versus Armwood, Robinson and Jesuit -- the former a team that Plant has struggled against in recent years -- all loom large.
Toughest games: vs. Martin (Texas), at The Woodlands (Texas), at Dallas Jesuit (Texas), at Bowie (Texas), vs. Richardson Berkner (Texas)
The buzz: This Skyline schedule is a major step up from those of year's past -- and an undefeated season could produce a mythical national title. Games against Martin, The Woodlands and Jesuit should all be exciting, and could offer a glimpse of what to expect from the Raiders before the always-difficult Texas Class 5A Division I playoffs.
Toughest games: vs. Miami Central (Fla.), at Cedar Hill (Texas), vs. Jackson (Fla.), at Southridge (Fla.), at Carol City (Fla.)
The buzz: Led by touted linebacker Matthew Thomas, Washington enters 2012 with sky-high expectations. And though the showdown with regional rival Miami Central stands out, the most telling game for this team could prove to be its Sept. 15 clash with Cedar Hill. Traveling to Texas just one week after its toughest in-state test makes for a defining two-week stretch for the Tornadoes.
11. Camden County (Kingsland, Ga.)
12. Byrnes (Duncan, S.C.)
13. Ensworth (Nashville)
14. De La Salle (Concord, Calif.)
15. Carroll (Southlake, Texas)
16. Lake Travis (Austin)
17. John Curtis (River Ridge, La.)
18. Hoover (Hoover, Ala.)
19. Butler (Matthews, N.C.)
20. Abilene (Abilene, Texas)
21. Bellevue (Bellevue, Wash.)
22. Oscar Smith (Chesapeake, Va.)
23. Central Dauphin (Harrisburg, Pa.)
24. McGill-Toolen (Mobile, Ala.)
25. Vista Murrieta (Murrieta, Calif.)