DUNCAN, S.C. -- They stood in a circle at midfield last Friday night chanting "864" at the top of their lungs. Byrnes High football players kept repeating their area code because, finally, they could begin thinking about a school from a different area code.
Rebels coaches took great care these past few weeks to keep their players' minds in upstate South Carolina. They didn't want them drifting south to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where one of the most anticipated high school matchups in years will take place Friday. But after Byrnes slammed Gaffney (S.C.), 60-7, the Rebels could begin looking forward to their showdown with St. Thomas Aquinas.
St. Thomas is ranked No. 1 in the nation in the MaxPreps, USA Today and ESPN polls. Byrnes is ranked No. 2. In a combined eight games this season, the teams have outscored their opponents 305-62. This is the fourth time the top two teams in the USA Today poll have faced off in a regular-season game. The higher ranked team has won twice, but the last time No. 1 met No. 2, second-ranked Northwestern (Miami, Fla.) beat top-ranked Carroll (Southlake, Texas) on Sept. 15, 2007. The Rebels are 9-1 against out-of-state competition, but they know none of those previous Byrnes teams faced a team as loaded as St. Thomas Aquinas.
"It's the biggest around," Byrnes defensive end Brandon Willis said. "Who doesn't want to play the No. 1 team in the nation? If you win, that just sets you apart."
St. Thomas Aquinas players have been thinking about this game for a while, too. Raiders safety Lamarcus Joyner said in July that he was shocked when a text popped into his phone from Byrnes tailback Marcus Lattimore, whom Joyner had never met. Since, the two top recruits have texted often, but as of last Friday they had barely mentioned the game.
"We talked about the game one time," Lattimore said. "He swears they're going to kill us. But we're not going to let that happen."
Judging by the scholarship offers extended to both rosters, the ESPNU broadcast might look more like a college game. Rivals.com considers Lattimore the nation's No. 6 overall prospect. Joyner checks in at No. 19. Byrnes has a pair of defensive ends (Willis and Corey Miller) committed to Tennessee, a quarterback (Chas Dodd) committed to Rutgers and a receiver (Torian Richardson) who has official visits scheduled to Michigan State and Mississippi State. Aquinas also is one-stop shopping for college coaches. Center Brandon Linder is considering Florida, Miami, Notre Dame and Ohio State. Cornerback Cody Riggs is considering Florida, Florida State, Georgia, Notre Dame and Tennessee. Running back Giovanni Bernard has offers from most of the top 25. Meanwhile, kicker Michael Palardy plans to join Byrnes' Willis and Miller in Knoxville.
Byrnes coach Chris Miller said he wants the Rebels to remember who they're representing when they face the Raiders. The Palmetto State plays a quality brand of football, and Byrnes can prove that to the nation. "We've gone to different places," Miller said. "We've gone to Ohio. We've gone to Louisiana. We've been some great places and played some great football teams. But we always talk about 864."
Still, the Rebels know that to earn the respect for 864, they'll have to beat the team that has dominated the 954 for decades. "This is the biggest game I've ever played in," Lattimore said. "They're a great team. They have no weaknesses. We can't make mistakes."