Greenup County's Auston Clarkson sprints down the sideline on Friday against East Carter. MARTY CONLEY/ FOR THE DAILY INDEPENDENT

With the set of events that unfolded over the summer, ranking the top 20 games in the upcoming season doesn’t seem near enough.

The ongoing health crisis left the reality of a fall sports season in a precarious place. The 17 area teams included in this gridiron guide have a combined 143 games scheduled as of this writing and they will all have special meaning this season.

The pandemic has taken away several of our favorite rivalry games like Ironton-Ashland, Pikeville-Paintsville and Ironton-Wheelersburg, to name a few. But due to some creative scheduling by coaches and athletic directors, several  meaningful matchups still remain on the docket around the area.

Due to last season’s postseason restructuring, many of these contests now have playoff implications. The shuffling of schedules has also added a few more kickoffs between area teams.

You will see a brand new Lions’ den this season, a double dose of district opponents and a rivalry game that’s always a Barrel of fun.

A group of ’Cats will lock horns with a team for the first time on their home turf and a late-season tussle between state champions will occur in Paintsville.

Are you ready for some football?

20. Bath County at Boyd County, Sept. 11 — The Lions will start their season by opening their dazzling new den when they welcome the Wildcats to Cannonsburg. Boyd County’s only win came against Bath County last year, but coach Evan Ferguson is encouraged and excited that the Lions’ new field will see more wins this season.

19. Ashland at Bourbon County, Sept. 25 — Health and school officials chose caution after an Ashland athlete tested positive for COVID-19 on Sept. 4. The Tomcats had to cancel their scheduled season opener with Greenup County and wait an additional two weeks for their first taste of Friday night lights in Paris. These two teams last met in the second round of the 2017 Class 4A playoffs where the Tomcats jumped out to a 40-0 lead at Putnam Stadium. The city in France is known as the City of Lights. In Paris, Kentucky, Ashland will try to shine bright the first time it sees the gridiron in 2020.

18. West Carter at Greenup County, Nov. 6 — This matchup adds some local flair to the docket after the KHSAA announced the season can go forward. The two teams haven’t met since 2014. The last time the Comets played on the Musketeers’ home turf, then-Greenup County sophomore Ryan Byrd rushed for a whopping 447 yards. West Carter senior running back Leetavious Cline has been known to put up some lofty numbers of his own. The two teams will look to make a statement before a possible playoff appearance.

17. Raceland at Lawrence County, Oct. 30 —This will be the 32nd meeting all-time between the two schools, and the Rams and the Dawgs know each other very well. Raceland has won 19 of those contests. Lawrence County hopes to get out of its own Dawg house after dropping the last six meetings with the Rams.

16. Greenup County at East Carter, Oct. 16 —This game last year was one of the most entertaining and gripping contests during the 2019 season. The Musketeers and Raiders see this game as pivotal to keep pace in the district with Ashland and Russell. East Carter rattled off 23 straight points in Lloyd last year to diminish a 14-point halftime deficit, only to have to hold off a final Greenup County rally. Micah Adams intercepted a pass near the end zone in the final seconds to secure the game for the Raiders.

15. West Carter at Russell, Oct. 30 — These two teams were once district opponents until realignment last season moved the Comets one class smaller. The matchup has had a sprinkling of close games, but Russell keeps putting another mark in the win column. When West Carter makes the trip to Russell in late October, it will be looking out for No. 1 — its first win in the series in 27 tries.

14. Paintsville at Lexington Christian, Oct. 30 — How does Joe Chirico follow the Tigers’ trip to rival Raceland? A journey to LCA, a Class 2A team that regularly ends its season with a double-digit win total. Paintsville doesn’t have fond memories of a 35-7 setback to the Eagles at Memorial Field last year and will have revenge on its mind as the Tigers look for two huge wins late in the regular season.

13. Ashland at Greenup County, Oct. 23 — The Tomcats and the Musketeers were scheduled to meet twice in 2020, but the first was canceled after a Tomcat tested positive for COVID-19. Greenup County crossed a hurdle against its biggest rival Russell by defeating the Red Devils in 2017 and 2018. It would like to do the same against fellow district opponent Ashland. The Tomcats have prevailed in 21 straight meetings, with the last Greenup County win coming in 1999.

12. Hazard at Paintsville, Sept. 25 — After these two Class A teams met in the state semifinals in 2016, they decided to make the contest a regular feature early in the season. The Tigers took the first two matchups before the Bulldogs returned the favor at home last year. Coach Joe Chirico is fond of testing his team with a vaunted schedule and Hazard has proven to be a worthy opponent. Paintsville leads the series, 16-13.

11. Spring Valley at Ashland, Oct. 30 — The Timberwolves left a bad taste in Ashland’s mouth after a 35-0 victory last year in their first-ever regular season meeting. Spring Valley used a ball-control offense to rack up nearly 300 rushing yards. These two are powerhouses in their respective states.

10. Raceland at Greenup County, Sept. 25 — The Iron Bowl has been one-sided, with the Rams winning the prior nine contests by an average of 24 points. The Musketeers have proven they can challenge their rivals down U.S. 23 after a 17-14 nail biter last year at Raceland. New coach Zack Moore hopes to change the direction of this heated rivalry.

9. East Carter at West Carter, Sept. 11 — The Barrel will be up for grabs once again to begin the season on the most anticipated night on a Carter County gridiron. The Raiders finally got their hands on the coveted Barrel last season and broke two streaks in the process. The Comets had a stranglehold on the series with five straight victories, and it was the first game that wasn’t decided by more than two touchdowns during the streak. Impressive seasons by both teams last year should add a little more spice to their season opener.

8. Greenup County at Russell, Oct. 9 — The Backyard Brawl had been quite a tussle. The Musketeers secured their first back-to-back wins in the series in 2017 and 2018. The Red Devils brought the fight to Greenup County last year with a 42-point victory and acquired some distance in the district seeding process.

7. Johnson Central at Bell County, Sept. 11 — The Golden Eagles rang the championship bell for the second time last December at Kroger Field. In their season opener, they don’t want to get their bell rung when they travel to Log Mountain. The Bobcats won 14 straight games in 2019 before they ran into determined Belfry in the Class 3A championship. Johnson Central will look for a huge night from Dylan Preston as several offensive roles will be filled with new players.

6. Ashland at Raceland, Oct. 2 — The wait is finally over for the Rams. Raceland has enjoyed testing the friendly confines of Putnam Stadium, but the Tomcats will invade Raceland’s home turf for the first time in early October. Ashland shut out the Rams last season. Akron-bound Blake Hester (231 yards) and Keontae Pittman (118 yards) each had huge rushing games and scored twice. Pittman is back and will look to eat up more real estate at Ram Stadium. Ashland holds a 22-8 advantage in the series, but this game has produced riveting performances.

5. Belfry at Johnson Central, Oct. 30 — These two teams have met regularly to close out the regular season before they make their usual deep runs in the playoffs. But it comes at a time when both are looking ahead, which may result in several lopsided scores. Nevertheless, when two reigning state champions collide, it has to be high on the list. Johnson Central completed its first undefeated season in school history last year and has a good chance to have its winning streak still intact when the Golden Eagles and Pirates meet.

4. Russell at Raceland, Nov. 6 — The Rail Cities Bowl never seems to disappoint … until last year when the Red Devils sent the Rams home with a 41-0 loss after quarterback Jake Heighton went down with an injury. The senior said he is ready to go and this matchup seems like the perfect playoff precursor to prepare both teams for the road ahead. Heighton might be called on for more late-game magic. Two years ago, his 1-yard plunge sealed a win over the Red Devils after defensive lineman Hayden Topping scooped up a Russell fumble near the goal line.

3. Pikeville at Raceland, Sept. 12 — You can call this a Saturday Night Special. Football fans have been salivating all summer for football to return. The wait will have to last an additional 24 hours at Ram Stadium, but expect a traffic jam around U.S. 23 as cars will clamor to get the best view of this matchup. “Cool Foot” Luke Lemaster sealed the Rams’ first trip to a Class A state final with his 36-yard field goal as time expired the last time these two teams met at Raceland. The Rams gave the defending and unbeaten state champs a stern test last season in Pikeville. Expect the Panthers to remember.

2. Russell at Ashland, Oct. 16 — JT Garrett snatched a deep pass from former Tomcats quarterback Jake Gregg out of the Russell sky and 97 yards later, the touchdown sealed a district title and home return date in the playoffs last season. Old rivals, now district combatants, will tussle once again at Putnam Stadium as Ashland has won 12 of the last 13 in the series.

1. Paintsville at Raceland, Oct. 23 — This matchup has yielded more drama than your favorite soap opera. The regular season contest is just a tasty appetizer that sets up for the main course. After the latest realignment, these two teams seem destined to meet again three weeks later on the home turf of the victor of this game. The Rams and Tigers have met in the playoffs each of the last seven seasons. Raceland took the previous two at Memorial Field before Paintsville swept the season series last year. The Tigers have won the last five regular-season clashes, which should supply the Rams with extra motivation.

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