The calendar his turned to October and playoff football is on the horizon.
Montana’s high school football season kicks off Week 6 as early as Thursday night, as teams continue to jockey for playoff position with just weeks remaining in the regular season.
The Eastern AA has two teams that have established themselves as championship contenders and separated from the pack, but who is going to grab hold of the conference title race? A rivalry showdown in Billings looms large. Missoula Sentinel has been atop the Treasure State Media Poll, which is conducted by Anthony Nachreiner out of Kalispell, for the entirety of the season, but the Spartans, too, have a rivalry game on the docket.
While the Eastern A looks pretty cut-and-dry at the top, the Western A is a different story. Hamilton is the conference’s only unbeaten, but a handful of one-loss teams are hot on the Broncs’ tail. Can Hamilton keep its unblemished record intact? A potential elimination game is also taking place out West this weekend. Can Polson stay alive behind its high-flying offense?
Manhattan has been atop the Class B Treasure State Media Poll for a majority of the season, too, but the Tigers will hit the road to face their biggest conference game to date. Manhattan could deal its opponent a big blow. The top spot in the Western B is on the line this weekend out in Eureka, where the conference champion would have home-field advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Defending 8-Man state champion Fairview suffered its first loss of 2020 last weekend to Scobey and the schedule doesn’t get any easier. The Warriors will be fighting to keep a home playoff game in the opening round within reach. The 8-Man North race has an intriguing battle in the ‘B’ sub-conference. The North has six teams with one loss or less but only takes five to the playoffs.
With just three weeks remaining in the 6-Man regular season, teams are in a dead sprint to the finish line trying to lock of playoff spots. The 6-Man West will likely have its regular-season champion determined by Saturday afternoon. Broadview-Lavina is looking for its first playoff appearance since 2013 when the Pirates were playing at the 8-Man level. A win at home Friday night would almost certainly assure that. The 6-Man East has been a powerhouse in recent years. The conference’s No. 2 spot is up for grabs in Week 6 after Froid-Medicine Lake's statement win in Week 5.
It’s a busy slate in Week 6. Here’s some of the games I’ll be keeping a closer eye on.
- Billings Seniors has been a handful for teams through the first three weeks of the Class AA season, but so has rival Billings West. The two sides meet at Daylis Stadium on Friday night with the top spot in the Eastern AA at stake. With that would come home-field advantage throughout the entirety of the playoffs. Friday night's winner will likely be the regular-season conference champion. During the 2010s Billings West held a 6-5 advantage over Billings Senior, including victories the previous two seasons.
- Missoula Sentinel has looked every bit the part of the top-ranked team in the state so far this season. The Spartans have rival Missoula Big Sky on Friday night, though, and can't afford a misstep. With two other unbeatens in the Western AA, the Spartans likely need to win to keep pace. And I think they do so in a big way.
- Hamilton has beaten some of the top contenders in the Western A en route to a 5-0 start, but the Broncs are going to need to continue winning. Week 6 brings a visit to Columbia Falls, where the 4-1 Wildcats await. With a win, Columbia Falls could jumble the Western A regular-season title race. Hamilton, though, looks capable of putting that race to bed early.
- With Class A slimming down the number of playoff teams this year, both the Eastern A and Western A are bringing just four teams. There are four teams ahead of both Frenchtown (3-2) and Polson (3-2) in the conference standings, meaning Friday's loser will see its playoff hopes take a nosedive. Frenchtown's two losses are to Hamilton and Dillon by a total of 22 points. The Broncs appear to be a postseason-caliber team, but can they hold down Polson quarterback Jarrett Wilson?
- Manhattan probably has the best win in Class B on its resume with a 36-29 overtime victory against Florence. The Tigers still have plenty of work to do in the regular season, though, including traveling to Columbus on Friday night, where a win would move them one step closer to a conference title. Columbus notched an impressive early season win over Red Lodge, which has since stumbled once more. The Cougars, though, find themselves in a precarious situation in the Southern B, where a loss will have them flirting with the conference's final playoff spot.
- The Western B's regular-season title is essentially on the line in Eureka on Friday night when Florence visits the Lions. Florence has already beaten Bigfork handily and can start to lock in on the postseason with a road win in Week 6. Eureka, though, is a proven championship program and won't wilt in the pressure of a big game. A win by the Lions would make the Western B a bit more difficult to decipher.
- How will reigning champion Fairview bounce back from the 36-6 beating Scobey handed it last weekend? The Warriors suddenly face a must-win in order to keep themselves in the hunt for a home game in the opening round of the playoffs, but Westby-Grenora is coming to town and the Thunder are red hot. Westby-Grenora has a shot to essentially put the clamps on the 8-Man East in its inaugural season and make a statement to the rest of 8-Man football that the Thunder are going to be a force, no matter what level they play at.
- The 8-Man North features unbeaten Fort Benton and then five one-loss teams. Shelby remains unbeaten in conference play, though, and leads the 'B' sub-conference. With the conference taking five teams to the playoffs, Week 6's game between Simms and Chinook could potentially keep the loser at home once the playoffs begin. The 8-Man North is almost always among the most competitive conferences in the state and 2020 is more of the same.
- Broadview-Lavina hasn't been in the 6-Man playoffs since the co-op's inception, but the Pirates have made the 8-Man playoffs twice in that span. Broadview-Lavina is on the cusp of a 6-Man playoff appearance, though, even after falling to conference leader Shields Valley in Week 5. The Pirates host Bridger on Friday night with a chance to all but lock up the 6-Man South's No. 2 seed, which would result in the first home playoff game for Broadview-Lavina since a 36-30 win in overtime over Culbertson in 2012.
- Froid-Medicine Lake is in control of the 6-Man East after last weekend's blowout win over Richey-Lambert. Richey-Lambert now faces a dogfight for the conference's No. 2 seed, as the Fusion travel to Savage on Friday night. Savage and Richey-Lambert are each 3-1 in conference play in 2020. Friday night's winner will almost certainly be playing at home in the first round of the playoffs while the loser will likely be the No. 3 seed and have to potentially face Shields Valley in the opening round of the playoffs. Not ideal.