CLIFTON -- At 7 p.m. Friday, familiar foes will face each other with a familiar prize at stake.
Clifton Central and PBL have won each of the past six Sangamon Valley Conference titles, with the Comets claiming the title in 2013, 2014, 2017 and 2018 and the Panthers winning the championship in 2015 and 2016.
"We both have certainly won our fair share, and in the last couple of years, we played each other early In the season, which has helped decide who was in front of that race early on," Clifton Central head coach Brian Spooner said.
In 2017, Clifton Central handed PBL its lone SVC loss via 27-7 score in week three en route to a conference championship. The Comets again bested the Panthers 34-13 last year in a week-seven battle of teams that were unbeaten in the SVC at the time.
"This year, when the conference schedules changed, our game was pushed further back into the season, which has allowed each team to find their rhythm down the stretch," Spooner said.
The conference title could once again be decided by a battle between the two teams as Clifton Central (6-0) and PBL (5-1) enter Friday's matchup with 3-0 records each in the Sangamon Valley Conference.
Watseka (5-1) and Seneca (3-3) are 2-1 and 2-2 in the conference, respectively.
"I think the winner of this game is in the driver's seat for the conference title," Spooner said. "I think that Seneca and Watseka could still have a shot at it but these next two weeks will certainly decide all of that."
After Friday's game, PBL will host Watseka in week eight before traveling to face Dwight (1-5, 1-3) in its regular-season finale. Clifton Central will face Iroquois West (1-5, 0-3) at Gilman in week eight before hosting its regular-season finale against Momence (1-5, 1-3).
"I would definitely say whoever wins this game has a chance to win the conference title," PBL head coach Josh Pritchard said. "We still have more opponents left in our conference that are pretty tough, too. I wouldn't say (we'd be) necessarily in the driver's seat, but it definitely helps our chances of getting there. Any conference opponent's going to be a tough one, but when you play a really good team, we know it's going to be a tough game, and I'm just hoping that we can show up to play."
Clifton Central went into last Friday's game against Watseka as the No. 2-ranked team in Class 2A before beating the Warriors 33-7.
"It's definitely a huge game," Pritchard said. "They're loaded with talent, and we know it's going to be a tough game for our kids, and I hope our kids are ready to play."
It was the Comets' first win against an above .500 team as they beat Georgetown-Ridge Farm (1-5) 41-18, Herscher (1-5) 42-26, Westville (2-4) 35-13, Dwight 50-24 and Seneca (3-3) 28-15 in the prior five weeks.
"We want our kids to remain humble throughout the season and to concentrate on each day to getting better," Spooner said. "We have tried to explain to the kids that each week we are ranked and that ranking gets higher and higher, there is a bigger target on their backs, which means that each week, they have to stay focused and continue to grind it out every day so that we do not allow things to slip away from us."
The Panthers, meanwhile, have won five straight games after their week-one loss via 32-8 score to Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley (5-1). They beat G-RF 52-12, Iroquois West 50-0, Seneca 22-18, Momence 44-7 and Salt Fork (4-2) 42-0.
"I think both teams are happy with their position right now," Pritchard said.
Last Friday, Gunner Belt and Gavin Coplea connected for three touchdown passes for PBL. They each set a single-game school record as Coplea had 207 receiving yards and Belt threw for 289 yards.
Clifton Central and PBL have each scored 40 or more points in four of their games this season.
"We feel like we've been scoring points," Pritchard said. "I know they've been scoring some points. We don't expect to shut them out, but if we do, that'd be great."
Jay Lemenager has thrown for 1,109 passing yards and 14 touchdowns for the Comets while Jacob Shoven has 22 catches for 522 yards and seven touchdowns and Chandler Burrow has 16 catches for 277 yards and five scores.
"Their quarterback is a dude," Pritchard said. "He's really good. He's got a cannon for an arm. He doesn't mind chucking the ball deep, and he's got a bunch of 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-3 receivers out there who make plays for him. They extend plays, and he finds them. We're going to have to be on them. In the open spot, they're going to hit their receivers, so we're definitely going to have to make them make contested throws and, hopefully, get some pressure on them so that we can force bad throws. If not, we're going to be in for a long game."
"I think this game matches up two teams that are very similar in styles and players. We both like to throw the ball on offense and we have some good-sized kids to run the ball as well," Spooner added.
Garrett Graham has rushed for 578 yards and eight touchdowns while Lemenager has 307 rushing yards and five touchdowns for Clifton Central.
"Their running backs are loads. Their quarterback runs the football well. They pretty much do everything well. I just hope we can slow them down because if we can't slow them down, they can put up a really big number on the scoreboard, and we could be in for a long, cold, wet night," Pritchard said.
"Obviously, we don't want that to happen, so we just hope we can slow them down. We hope the kids take to the game plan we put together, and it's the right (game plan)."
The PBL defense forced three turnovers, including two fumble recoveries, en route to pitching its second shutout of the season last Friday. The Comets' defense forced six turnovers, including two interceptions returned for touchdowns, in their win over Watseka.
"Their defense has shown up the last couple of weeks," Pritchard said. "Our defense has played really well, especially in the second half of games. We just hope we can continue to do that."
"On defense, we both use our size and speed to get to the ball," Spooner added. "I think we are both very sound at every position. I think our offensive and defensive lines will be the key this week because, from what we have seen on film, they are very good and they will present our biggest challenge of the season."
Both defenses may have more opportunities for takeaways this upcoming Friday as the weather in Clifton calls for a chance of rain that night.
"It looks like it's going to be a wet one, so we're definitely going to have to hold onto the football because if we give them opportunities to score, they're going to score, so we need to limit their chances with the football as much as possible while holding onto the ball and, hopefully, scoring while we have the football," Pritchard said.
The Panthers have not committed a turnover since week four.
"We've done a pretty good job, for the most part, of holding onto the football this year," Pritchard said. "We really haven't turned the ball over a ton, but when we play great competition, they're going to try to force turnovers, and we've just got to make sure we put the ball on the mark and we catch it when we're supposed to."
The Comets showed last Friday that they can make some plays as well as Burrow returned the opening kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown.
"They're really good at pretty much everything," Pritchard said. "We're going to have to wrap up. We're going to do some things on special teams to, hopefully, give us an advantage, or at least, limit their chances."
A win over Clifton Central would not only give PBL the lead in the SVC race, but would put it one step closer toward hosting a first-round playoff game. After week six, the Panthers are in the No. 10 spot in the IHSA's Class 3A playoff outlook with 27 tiebreaker points, the second-most among 5-1 teams in 3A.
"We want to continue to try to get a home football game in the playoffs," Pritchard said. "I think our kids are just motivated because they want to win the conference. They want to beat a top team, and they want some recognition. That's our goal -- to show that we are a pretty good football team. We know this game is going to gauge how good we really are."