SIKESTON - All summer long, the Jackson Indians have thought about one thing -- Poplar Bluff.
After the Mules upset Jackson in last year's finale 27-16, the Indians have worked harder this year to be even better than the disappointing 9-1 team in 2000.
On Friday night, the Indians will see if their hard work paid off when they take on the Sikeston Bulldogs at Public Schools Stadium at 7:30.
Sikeston, which is coming off a disappointing 4-6 campaign, will have its work cut out for them against the Indians, who are again a highly-touted team this preseason.
But the Jackson Indians are the least of head coach Charlie Vickery's worries right now.
"We've got to be concerned about ourselves," said Vickery. "We just need to play up to our potential, play hard and try to play as mistake free as we can."
The Bulldogs return 12 starters from last year, including 1,000-yard rusher Heath Hunter and nearly the entire offensive and defensive line.
Jackson head coach Carl Gross thinks the biggest key to the game will be both team's line play.
"The thing that concerns me as much as anything is matching up with them on the line of scrimmage," said Gross. "I just think in some cases that they will be able to mash us. I don't know how deep they are on the line of scrimmage -- I know we're not real deep -- but probably whichever line wears out the fastest will have the advantage."
Vickery says the unknown of Week 1 will be his squad's biggest challenge.
"The biggest thing that concerns us is not knowing exactly what (Jackson) is going to do, and not knowing much about their personnel, other than the people they've got coming back from last year," said Vickery. "You kind of go into the game with a blindfold on because you've got to try to find out what they're going to do and adjust on your feet."
Jackson returns all-state tailback Mario Whitney, who led the area in rushing last year with 1,436 yards and 30 touchdowns. The senior, who has given the University of Missouri a verbal commitment, is blessed with blazing speed and tremendous cutting ability.
But the Bulldogs were able to contain Whitney somewhat in last year's season opener, limiting him to 104 yards on 20 carries.
"Mario is a talented athlete and he's very fast," said Vickery. "We won't face anybody that is quite as fast as him, even though we'll see tremendous speed all year long. He's tough, but he's not the only player they have. They've got a lot of weapons that we're going to have to be ready for."
Whitney (6-0, 190) is widely considered the top offensive player in Missouri and one of the top recruits in the Midwest. He has been listed among the top running backs on numerous national recruiting websites and was offered by several top colleges.
Having that kind of talent makes Jackson head coach Carl Gross' job easy.
"We're going to give the ball to Mario -- I wouldn't look very smart if I didn't," said Gross. "But (fullback) Brad Berry is a good running back and (quarterback) Bryan Austin actually runs the football better than he throws it, so he's going to get his share of carries also. We're going to spread it around -- we know that Mario can't carry the entire load."
Berry rushed for 485 yards with three TDs. Austin, who was replaced at quarterback early in the year, completed 9-of-13 passes for 92 yards with an interception and a TD.
Whitney is also a top receiving threat, catching 10 passes for 188 yards last year.
This summer, Whitney worked some at quarterback but Gross wouldn't tip his hand on whether or not he would make a switch if the situation called.
"Mario's taken some snaps at quarterback, but our offense has always been predicated on us getting him the football as a running back," said Gross. "Bryan's done a good job and he threw the football well in the jamboree. I'm not going to say (Mario's) not going to get some snaps at quarterback, but going into the ballgame Bryan's my quarterback."
In last year's game, the Bulldogs limited Jackson to only 197 yards of total offense. But the Indians dominated on special teams, blocking three Bulldog punts which all led to touchdowns.
Vickery is hoping his special teams in that area will improve. But one of the biggest questions for the Bulldogs is an unsettled situation at quarterback.
Competing for the job are junior Drew Lawrence and sophomore Blake DeWitt. Neither has taken a snap in a varsity game but both have experienced success on the junior varsity and junior high levels. They are considered dead-even entering Friday's contest.
"I think we're in a great situation at quarterback, I feel very comfortable with either one," said Vickery. "They both have their strengths and I'm going to play them both on Friday and just see how things work out from there. I think we're ready to play, but I think it's just a matter of getting game experience under our belt. I think we've got a really good blend of youth and experience both so I'm kind of anxious to see how we will perform."
While the Bulldogs have a 14-9 edge in the series against Jackson under Vickery, the Indians have won four of the last five and they haven't lost at SPS Stadium since 1995
Gross says such history can be thrown out the window when the two teams hook up tomorrow.
"They're completely different now -- they've got their whole line of scrimmage back, which we had a hard time blocking last year," said Gross. "And I know from watching them in track this spring that their speed and their skill positions are going to be much better. I've known Coach Vickery a long time, and the thing about Charlie's bunch is they're always ready. Some years he's got more talent than I have and some years I've got more talent than he has. But I know they're going to be well-coached and I know they're going to be ready to play."