Top-ranked by The Bee at the end of last season and not at all breaking stride this year with an even stronger team, the Folsom Bulldogs bound into another playoff scramble as a favorite, though this time in a different division with equally high stakes.
Because of enrollment, the reigning Sac-Joaquin Section Division II champion will play in the larger-school Division I field.
The top-seeded Bulldogs loom as the most prohibitive runaway D-I choice since perhaps Elk Grove in 1998 when the Thundering Herd repeated as champion at 14-0.
Should Folsom win the D-I title, and if De La Salle wins a 23rd consecutive North Coast Section championship, as the national powerhouse from Concord is expected, it will set up a repeat of last season's Northern California Open championship game next month. De La Salle beat Folsom last December 49-15.
The Bulldogs are led by Jake Browning, who has a state regular-season record of 56 touchdown passes, and a fleet of receivers. Folsom's offensive line and running game have "been great," Folsom co-coach Kris Richardson said, as has a defense headed by linebackers Eddie Flores, Bailey Laolagi and Rodney Ellison and lineman Sam Whitney.
"We're really peaking at the right time," Richardson said. "That's what you want going into the playoffs – hitting your stride. We'd love the challenge to play De La Salle, and if that happens, it means we went 14-0 and won a section title again, and that's a great season. But we have a lot of work to do before we can even talk about that."
Folsom towers over a D-I field that includes teams it has crushed this season in No. 3 Oak Ridge (35-0), No. 7 Pleasant Grove (63-39), No. 11 Granite Bay (30-14) and No. 12 Jesuit (56-14). Stagg of Stockton is the No. 2 seed.
In Division II, Del Oro earned the top seed in perhaps the section's most competitive bracket after going unbeaten against section foes and winning the Sierra Foothill League. Del Oro coach Casey Taylor feared his team's 8-2 record would slot it lower despite losses to powerhouse Notre Dame of Sherman Oaks and De La Salle.
"We think we should be the No. 1 seed, and it's a great reward for our team," Taylor said. "With the schedule we've played, I don't think you can find a coach in Division II that would disagree with (us) being the top seed."
Del Oro faces No. 16 River Valley on Friday. Sporting 9-1 records, Rio Linda is the No. 2 seed and Elk Grove No. 3.
Title hopefuls include No. 5 Grant, No. 6 Burbank, No. 7 Vacaville, No. 8 Cosumnes Oaks and No. 10 Rocklin.
In Division III, American Canyon is the top seed and Manteca No. 2.
The highest local seed is No. 3 Inderkum, having lost only to Pleasant Grove and Rocklin. No. 11 Vista del Lago reached the D-III final last season and returns quarterback Matt Jimison.
Dark horse teams include No. 10 Casa Roble, which opens at upstart No. 7 Rosemont, No. 5 Sacramento, which has a close loss to Burbank, and No. 8 Christian Brothers.
In Division IV, defending state champion Central Catholic of Modesto earned the top seed in a field dominated by small-school powers in the section's southern portion. Three area teams loom as contenders: No. 3 Capital Christian, No. 6 Center and No. 8 Colfax.
In Division V, top-seeded Le Grand stands as the favorite to win its fourth consecutive championship.
No. 1 Bradshaw Christian and No. 2 Woodland Christian look to be on a Division VI final collision course.
Optimist update – Chris Nixon of Elk Grove and Mike Morris of Rio Linda will coach the 57th Optimist All-Star Football Classic, a showcase event for seniors.
Under game direction of Character Combine, the contest will be played Dec. 28 at Folsom as a finale to the season, a week after the CIF State Bowl games in Carson. Nixon will head the South team that may include Thundering Herd running back Wadus Parker. Morris will direct the North, with a roster that could feature Knights fullback Leo Skattebo.
Event proceeds go to Camp Ross Relles.
Following 55 seasons as a summer event, the Optimist moved to the winter last year to better ensure the participation of scholarship players.
This season, scholarship commit players to receive invitations include: Cosumnes Oaks receiver Alex Van Dyke (UCLA) and tackle Kameron Schroeder (Duke); Capital Christian lineman Nifae Lealao (Stanford); Burbank running back Calvin Green and defensive tackle Ngalu Tapa (both to Washington State); Woodland cornerback Devin Jones (Colorado State); Pleasant Grove cornerback Brandon Lewis (Boise State); Granite Bay tight end Dylan Keeney (Colorado) and Inderkum defensive back Jordan Thomas (Arizona State).
VIDEO: The Bee's Joe Davidson sets up the playoff top seeds here and reports on the return of the prestigious Optimist All-Star Football Classic to be played Dec. 28.
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.