People have been asking me all week, who’s going to win the Bogue Sound Classic tonight?

The Highway 24 matchup between Croatan and West Carteret is a true county rivalry toss-up. I picked the Cougars to win.

But it wasn’t an easy decision, by any means.

To give you an insight, when the time came to pick a winner for this game, my colleague J.J. Smith and I had a full-bore conversation, going over each team’s pros and cons. That isn’t a conversation we have often. County matchups are usually a little more straightforward to predict.

In fact, true county toss-up games are rare.

The 48-13 result in the Mullet Bucket between West and East Carteret is a good example of a typical county result. Last season, the Patriots creamed the Cougars 48-0. Who could have predicted the Mariners’ 49-44 win over Croatan last season when East went into the game 3-1 and the Cougars 0-4?

Other games have appeared to be one-sided, but resulted in close games, such as West’s 21-14 loss to the Mariners last year. Considering how good the Patriots could have been last season without injuries and transfers, literally no one had East pegged as the winner of that one.

So, what determines a toss-up game? MaxPreps.com is a good place to start. The prep website compiles rankings for every team in the state, rankings that are eventually used in state playoff seedings. This week, heading into the Bogue Sound Classic, the Patriots are ranked No. 268 in the state across all classifications while the Cougars are listed No. 285.

It’s impossible to know what the rankings were for each previous county game during the week of that matchup, but even end-of-season rankings from the last few years paint a series of lopsided matchups. Last year the Patriots finished ranked No. 186 in the state. East finished No. 266 and Croatan, No. 268.

In 2017, the Patriots were ranked No. 106, well ahead of the Mariners (No. 264) and the Cougars (No. 291). The 2016 season offered the closest matchup of the last five years, pitting West (No. 144) against East (No. 147). Croatan was ranked No. 231 that season.

It was Croatan and East, which were most closely associated in 2015, matching up the No. 124-ranked Cougars against the No. 153-ranked Mariners. The Patriots were well behind at No. 253. The 2014 season saw all three teams spaced apart, including West (No. 119), Croatan (No. 221) and East (No. 327).

Typically, county games are early in the regular season. The creation of the 1A/2A Coastal 8 Conference complicated that scenario for Croatan and East, league opponents slated this season to play each other in the regular season finale on Nov. 8. The West-Croatan contest was originally scheduled for Sept. 6, but Hurricane Dorian forced a new date.

The four-week delay means both teams are heavy into their mid-season evolutions, complete with wholesale changes and injury-forced adjustments. Croatan deployed a new quarterback two weeks ago, while West is also on to rotating signal callers. Both teams have had to move bodies around on the offensive line. It’s hard to get a solid read on either squad in its current state with changes like those.

With a matchup so close, a game like this comes down to the little things.

Croatan should have a small home field advantage, but don’t be surprised to see a strong West showing. Turnovers have been a real issue for the Cougars, who have fumbled 12 times and thrown two interceptions in five games. West has turned it over 10 times in the same time span. The Patriots, however, have been more penalty-prone with 24 flags for 216 yards compared to the Cougars’ 15 flags for 102 yards.

West still has an advantage as a 3A program, with a listed roster of 54 compared to 40 for the Cougars. The Patriots also have the historical edge with a 16-3 all-time record against Croatan.

For me, this comes down to the kinds of seasons each program is currently having. In fairness, I’ve seen West play in person three times and Croatan just the once. Only one of those four games was a win for the county team – West’s 41-14 victory over Farmville Central on Friday.

But the Patriots are clearly in a transition year. They graduated the crux of their roster last season, leaving behind a sprinkling of upperclassmen playmakers, but mostly a foundation of young players who will need a year or two to develop. Croatan, on the other hand, is in the midst of a “building” season. The program has a strong junior class poised for a big season next year. Whatever success the Cougars have this year is a bonus.

For all anyone knows, the game tonight could be a blowout in either direction. It could be a 44-42 barn-burner or a 16-14 clincher. The only people confident in the outcome of this game are the ones who will suit up tonight. That’s what makes a great county rivalry game.

(Send comments or questions to zack@thenewstimes.com or follow him on Twitter @zacknally)

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