The fun starts Friday.
High school football teams from the Sac-Joaquin Section - the second largest of the 10 sections dotted throughout the state - either take the field this weekend or go into scout mode.
The top four seeds in Divisions I through VI have opening-round byes. That’s a first for this section after member schools last year voted for such a tweak to avoid lopsided openers, and to better balance other parts of the state where top seeds have byes.
It was no surprise the Sierra Foothill League - the top league in Northern California this season - produced two top seeds. Folsom is No. 1 in Division I and stands as a prohibitive favorite to win its seventh section banner this decade.
The Bulldogs (9-1) have lost only to national powerhouse De La Salle, which has not lost to a Northern California team since 1991.
Del Oro (9-1) is the top seed in D-II, having lost only to Folsom on Friday. The Golden Eagles have won 11 titles since 1989 in 17 championship appearances.
A closer look at each division:
Is it really Folsom and its dazzling display of skill players Elijhah Badger, Kaiden Bennett and brothers Daniyel and Joe Ngata and its superb support crew towering over everyone else?
Monterey Trail may have something to say about that.
Led by quarterback star Zach Larrier, the second-seeded Mustangs (10-0) have rolled this season, including an opening-night rout of Sheldon, seeded fifth in the field.
St. Mary’s is seeded fourth and could face Sheldon in the second round, as both are on the same side of the bracket as Folsom.
No. 3 Oak Ridge is battle tested from the SFL and is on the same side of the bracket as Monterey Trail.
“We are healthy and ready to go,” Folsom coach Kris Richardson said. “Our gal is to peak during our playoff run, and I believe that is happening again. It’s going to be a fun ride.”
Projected final: Folsom vs. Monterey Trail
This was the most difficult field to seed with a committee of eight using computer formula, head-to-head matchups and strength of schedule.
The No. 2 seed is Central Catholic (9-1), which lost only to De La Salle. No. 3 Inderkum (10-0) is the lone unbeaten in the field and is irked it did not gain a higher seed. No. 4 Granite Bay’s early win over Jesuit earned the defending-champion Grizzlies - in the playoffs for the 20th successive season - a higher seed. Granite Bay and Jesuit could meet in the second round.
No. 10 Elk Grove (5-5) at No. 7 Vacaville (6-4) is an intriguing opener. The wild card in the field is No. 6 Grant. The storied Pacers (5-5) will be down 10 players, including eight starters, after the section office exhaustively went over game film that revealed a nasty brawl between Grant and Whitney and all manner of chaos.
Ten Pacers left the bench to help calm the melee, and CIF rules stipulate anyone leaving the bench - even with good intention - has to sit the following game. Grant opens at home against No. 11 Downey of Modesto (6-4).
A Grant-Inderkum second-round game would be the first time these nearby powers would face off.
Projected final: Del Oro vs. Inderkum
It’s rare that one division has three 10-0 teams, but it’s here with top-seeded Capital Christian, No. 2 Placer and No. 3 Merced all rolling along.
No. 4 Antelope is 6-4 with losses to Folsom, Capital Christian and Inderkum.
“It’s the strongest the Division III field has ever been,” said Mark Loureiro, who won eight section crowns at Escalon and is now retired.
Capital Christian has had success in D-V and is eager for a shot at this level. The Cougars have nonleague wins over Grant and Antelope.
Said second-year Capital Christian coach Casey Taylor, “We’re battle tested through a tough nonleague and (Capital Athletic League) run, and we’re proud of our 10-0 record. But now the fun begins.”
Placer wasn’t challenged this season until Friday at Lincoln, prevailing 52-48.
“We needed to face adversity and claw through it,” Placer coach Joey Montoya said. “It’s why few teams go undefeated at all levels. Division III is loaded with great teams, and there will be great games. We come in healthy and with experience.”
Projected final: Capital Christian vs. Placer
Rio Linda (8-2) is the top seed, having lost to Center and Placer. The Knights are led by powerhouse runner Cameron Skattebo, who has rushed for 2,152 yards and 25 touchdowns.
Vanden (7-3) is the No. 2 seed, Casa Roble (9-1) the third seed and Wood (7-3) the No. 4 seed.
Projected final: Rio Linda vs. Casa Roble.
The field has a distinct Pioneer Valley League flavor with top-seeded Colfax (10-0), No. 3 Bear River (9-1), No. 5 Foothill (7-3) and No. 6 Center (7-3).
Bear River lost to Colfax, which barely held off Center, which lost to Foothill. You get the drift.
This is small-school football at its best, including last season when Bear River beat Colfax for the title.
Projected final: Colfax vs. Bear River
Divisions VI and VII
These fields are dominated by programs in the southern part of the section.
The top seeds projected to meet in the D-VI final are No. 1 Modesto Christian (9-1) and No. 2 Hilmar (8-2), and the top seeds in D-VII are No. 1 Denair (9-1) and No. 2 Big Valley Christian of Modesto (9-1).
Sac-Joaquin Section football playoffs
Openers Friday at 7 p.m., unless noted.
No. 9 Gregori at No. 8 Edison
No. 12 Modesto at No. 5 Sheldon
No. 11 Cosumnes Oaks at No. 6 Turlock
No. 10 Davis at No. 7 Pitman (Thursday)
Byes: No. 1 Folsom, No. 2 Monterey Trail, No. 3 Oak Ridge, No. 4 St. Mary’s
No. 9 Lincoln at No. 8 Tracy
No. 12 Woodcreek at No. 5 Jesuit (1 p.m. Saturday)
No. 11 Downey at No. 6 Grant
No. 10 Elk Grove at No. 7 Vacaville
Byes: No. 1 Del Oro, No. 2 Central Catholic, No. 3 Inderkum, No. 4 Granite Bay
No. 9 Ponderosa at No. 8 Buhach Colony
No. 12 Burbank at No. 5 Manteca
No. 11 River Valley vs. No. 6 Sacramento at Hughes Stadium
No. 10 Christian Brothers at No. 7 Yuba City
Byes: No. 1 Capital Christian, No. 2 Placer, No. 3 Merced, No. 4 Antelope
No. 9 Sierra at No. 8 Pacheco
No. 12 Valley at No. 5 Oakdale
No. 11 Rosemont at No. 6 Patterson
No. 10 Cordova at No. 7 Golden Valley
Byes: No. 1 Rio Linda, No. 2 Vanden, No. 3 Casa Roble, No. 4 Wood
No. 9 Orestimba at No. 8 Los Banos
No. 12 Pioneer at No. 5 Foothill
No. 11 Dixon at No. 6 Center
No. 10 Union Mine at No. 7 Mountain House
Byes: No. 1 Colfax, No. 2 Ripon, No. 3 Bear River, No. 4 Sonora
No. 9 Bradshaw Christian at No. 8 Argonaut
No. 12 Waterford at No. 5 Rio Vista
No. 11 Highlands at No. 6 Calaveras
No. 10 Amador at No. 7 Hughson
Byes: No. 1 Modesto Christian, No. 2 Hilmar, No. 3 Escalon, No. 4 Ripon Christian
No. 5 Millennium at No. 4 Gustine
No. 6 Woodland Christian at No. 3 Golden Sierra
Byes: No. 1 Denair, No. 2 Big Valley Christian