Madison-area football conferences will look different this fall

It may be optimistic at this stage to dream of high school sports being played again this fall, but at the moment, the high school football season is still on, and with that, a few short previews of what may come as the 2020 season is just a few short weeks away.

Two huge decisions were made for high school football beginning this season. First, that the seeding process would be handled via computer rankings for the playoffs, and second, that the state would undergo conference realignment across the board to standardize qualifications for the postseason. For this preview, we are focusing on the latter, seeing what the new conferences will be for the next two football seasons.

Because the dominoes start with the largest area schools, that is where we will begin this preview.

The Big 8 Conference in 2019 was unquestionably ruled by Madison Memorial. The Spartans went 12-0 against the Big 8 last year, including two wins each against Madison West, Middleton, and Sun Prairie, the first three playoff opponents that the Spartans saw. Memorial ran into Muskego in Level 4, who would go on to win state for the second straight year (and are a favorite to win a third straight state title this fall). A standout 2020 class, led by many senior quarterbacks, has moved on, but some of the returning talent will make the league a beast in 2020.

Perhaps that's because the Big 8 will also be shedding two members who combined for two victories last year (one of them against the other): Janesville Parker and Janesville Craig. Parker has had some rough times as of late, but it wasn't that long ago that the Vikings were competing for postseason spots. As for Craig, you only have to go back two years, when the Cougars were still playing for a Big 8 title in the final third of the season, and led Memorial late in Week 9 in 2018 before falling late as the Spartans clinched the Big 8 at Monterrey Stadium.

With teams that combined to go 2-17 out from last year, on paper, the Big 8 looks impressive. Each of the four Madison public schools retains both stability at head coach and at least a defining player or two on both offense and defense to build around in a typically upperclassmen-dominated league. None of the four will be picked to win the Big 8 most likely, but all should have an argument for a playoff spot in a condensed schedule. Memorial is probably the favorite of that lot, the only team bringing back a 1,000-yard rusher in Kabaris Vasser in the entire conference.

The remaining four schools include perennial powers Sun Prairie, Verona, and Middleton, all of whom suffered the usual graduation losses but each also with a bridge to the future. Verona and Sun Prairie bring back legitimate star power on offense, each with one of the state's top-rated players back in the fold. Brady Stevens led the Big 8 in just about every passing metric by a mile in 2019, and he'll be back to lead an explosive Sun Prairie offense again in 2020. Verona's Jackson Acker is a Badgers recruit, who would have had even greater statistical prowess in 2019 if not for sharing the backfield with other talented players and a late-season ankle injury that kept him out of a couple of games. Middleton seems to have linemen upon linemen every season, and the wall up front will help transition to a new backfield that will miss the extraordinary talents of Kallion Buckner.

Beloit Memorial is the outlier; years of struggles against the Big 8 have left the Purple Knights out of the postseason for an entire generation. That may not change having to play a schedule in which six of the seven teams on their conference schedule made the playoffs last year.

With the Janesville schools moving into the Badger Conference, it greatly reconstitutes the two leagues held there in football. Gone are the Badger North and Badger South; now, the Badger Conference is split into Large and Small. The Janesville duo will occupy the Large portion, which is where we start.

In addition to adding Craig and Parker, the Badger Large Conference will include two teams who played for state titles in 2019: Division 3 champion DeForest and Division 2 runner-up Waunakee. Both schools were borderline to play up a division in last year's playoffs, so don't let the divisional designation fool you; both are larger schools. Waunakee will probably be the favorite in this new league this year, as DeForest graduated the bulk of their contributors from last year's football state champions.

Tossing into the mix for the Badger Large: Badger South co-champ Milton, a program on the rise; the explosive offense of Watertown, although the Goslings did not fare well against Waunakee in their meetings in crossover games since joining the Badger; Oregon, a program that can be tough to read but also tough to play; and Beaver Dam, one of two schools (along with DeForest) that will operate with a new head coach in 2020.

In terms of projections, it's hard to predict the impact of adding two much larger schools into the mix of teams, and then jumbling eight schools together that only a few years ago were playing in four different conferences. The result is that outside of Waunakee, the conference is largely unfamiliar, with the expectation that DeForest will be hard-pressed to defend its state title after big graduation losses. Some interesting match-ups are on the table, including the Craig-Parker-Milton pod against each other, as well as Waunakee-DeForest later in the schedule, and the Beaver Dam-Watertown rivalry continuing, but the conference as a whole is kind of a weird one.

The Badger Small Conference actually feels a little more familiar since every team in it has been part of the Badger Conference for a longer period of time. It's also a conference that has had a lot of turnover at head coach the past couple of seasons, so while the schools will be familiar to followers of the Badger Conference, the coaches on the sidelines may take a little more work to recognize.

Monona Grove, the largest school in the Badger Small (missing out on a slot in the Badger Large by a handful of students), will likely enter 2020 as the favorite. The Silver Eagles' spread concept and the usual stable of standout athletes put them at or near the top of contenders in the league entering 2020. Stoughton, co-champs of the Badger South last year, will continue have a Nelson to wreck both sides of the line for opponents, as Barrett Nelson adds another year of experience and highlight reels to his resume. The Vikings, however, will be working under a new head coach in 2020, Jason Becker, an assistant last season. Stoughton is in the midst of its greatest success on the gridiron in program history, and still has some exciting pieces to contend in the new conference.

An interesting team in 2020 will be Sauk Prairie, who lost a hard-fought game to Stoughton in the first round of the playoffs last year. Clay Iverson's second year should prove to be more consistent than the first, in which the Eagles hung tough with both DeForest and Waunakee for stretches before falling. Like Milton in the Badger Large, Sauk Prairie is a program on the rise under a proven head coach, and with new conferences comes new opportunity.

Reedsburg will have two new head coaches in 2020 after Brian Pottinger stepped down. The Beavers will still get to see some of their favorite rivals in 2020, including Baraboo, Sauk Prairie, and Portage. Baraboo's Steve Turkington will actually enter the year as the longest-tenured head coach in the new league. Portage and Mount Horeb/Barneveld struggled last year, with the latter absolutely decimated by injuries. And, Fort Atkinson will also have a new head coach, one of three schools in the Badger Small to have a change at the top spot. Overall, only two schools, Monona Grove and Baraboo, will have head coaches that started more than three years ago at their current school in the Badger Small, which should make it an exciting year in the conference.

Adding two schools to the mix in the Badger conference means two schools had to move out: Edgewood and Monroe. Both are powerhouses in other sports in the Badger Conference, but as of late it's been a little tougher sledding on the football field. Monroe is not that far removed (2016) from an outright football championship, but will now face schools in the Rock Valley that also occasionally show up in non-league schedules for other sports. Meanwhile, Edgewood will be stepping into uncharted waters a bit for the regular season, but will see teams that they normally only face in the playoffs during the regular season.

The Rock Valley Conference will be one of the more interesting conferences statewide at the middle-enrollment level, and the style of play in the conference will have a clear identity. Monroe, East Troy, Jefferson, and Edgerton have each featured punishing ground games over the past several years, while McFarland, Evansville, Edgewood, and Whitewater have gotten it done with a little more balance in their offense. It's clear the run game will be the biggest factor this year in the league, however, given the recent success of the schools that rely on it.

Monroe and East Troy probably best epitomize this approach, with the former racking up 1,000-yard rushers like it's nothing and the latter among the state leaders in rushing yards per game the past few years. Jefferson and Edgerton have had solid programs the past few years with some terrific two-way standouts, and despite some graduation hits, have systems in place that perpetuate with new athletes stepping into larger roles. Edgerton's head coaching change probably won't do much to change the styling of play there; Russ Lietz was a longtime assistant for the Tiders.

Another new head coach in the league is Garth Coats at Evansville, who will take over for WFCA Hall of Fame coach Ron Grovesteen. Coats is an Evansville native, a national champion offensive lineman at UW-Whitewater who served as the offensive coordinator last year for the Blue Devils. Evansville is another school decked with graduation losses, but the style of play should lean more physical under a former lineman at the head coaching spot, which will serve them well in a league full of talented lines and running backs.

McFarland has been extremely competitive in the Rock Valley, a school with standout athletes on the track and the football field. The Spartans will run a little contrary to much of the rest of the conference, with top talents in recent years in the defensive backfield, skill positions, and quarterback. Whitewater has yet to stake its identity on any one style, but as the program continues to work past rebuilding, should be an interesting follow.

Edgewood's addition is the true wild card. The Crusaders have had a few years of finding tough sledding in the Badger South, playing schools routinely double its own enrollment. There have been some very capable athletes across the board, and some competitive games against the powers in the league in that stretch, but the depth of much larger programs has been much to overcome as of late.

Beyond that, the diaspora of area teams to various conferences makes the 2020 season an exciting one to follow. The new Capitol Conference blends the old Capitol North with some of the Rock Valley remnants and Trailways-Large power Horicon/Hustisford, meaning such tradition-rich programs like Lodi, Columbus, and Big Foot will get to battle it out with the likes of Lake Mills, Lakeside Lutheran, Luther Prep, and Turner for playoff spots.

A small-school conference that emerges this year with pieces from a few previous conferences is the Eastern Suburban Conference. The conference covers a lot of ground, from Cambridge, Marshall, and Waterloo just east of Madison to schools like Markesan, Dodgeland, and Pardeeville further east and north down to Palmyra-Eagle and even Clinton in the southeastern part of the state.

To the north of Madison, the South Central Conference welcomes back Poynette. To the southwest, a few remaining schools not part of some of the new leagues closer to the Madison metro area find themselves in new homes.

Perhaps one of the more interesting alignments is the SWC, which will add Brodhead/Juda and New Glarus/Monticello to a mix that includes schools such as Prairie du Chien, River Valley, Richland Center, Dodgeville, and Platteville.

A conference that looks like a powerhouse already is the SWAL, which in addition to existing cornerstones like Lancaster, Darlington, Fennimore, and Mineral Point will include, along with Cuba City, Belleville and Parvkiew/Albany from the greater Madison area.

Finally, the Trailways will be full of familiar teams to that conference, including Deerfield, Fall River/Rio, and Johnson Creek from the area east of Madison.

Eight-player football will continue to have just one representative from Dane County: Wisconsin Heights. The Vanguards are part of the Southern Conference, which includes several smaller schools from the southwest part of Wisconsin such as Belmont, Wonewoc/Weston, North Crawford, and Kickapoo-La Farge, but also from the eastern portion of the state, such as Oakfiled, Elkhart Lake/Glenbeulah, and Williams Bay. Abundant Life/St. Ambrose hasn't put a team on the field the past two years, but were the only other Dane County team playing in the last few years at this level. Eight-player football is due for statewide realignment in 2022.

All told, the new conferences should provide plenty of exciting storylines in the upcoming season, should it be played. In addition to the conference changes, there is going to be computerized seeding, so the playoff impact should be felt as well.

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