TAMPA — Tonight at Plant High’s Dad’s Stadium, two of Florida’s top high school football programs — Armwood and Plant — will meet for the 12th time since 2004 and the first since 2012 to kick off the season in Tampa Bay.
During the past decade, the programs have significantly raised Tampa Bay’s reputation as a football hotbed.
Since 2006, Plant has won four state championships. Since 2003, Armwood has won three state titles, though one was vacated because of the use of ineligible players. The Hawks also have three state runner-up finishes.
“We’ve created a monster here,” Armwood coach Sean Callahan said. “We understand expectations will always be high.”
In that time, the programs have produced some of the nation’s top college players, such as Aaron Murray, a Plant graduate who became the Southeastern Conference’s all-time leading passer while at the University of Georgia; James Wilder Jr., another Plant grad who helped Florida State win a national championship last season, and Eric Striker, an Armwood alum and preseason All-American at Oklahoma projected to be taken in the first round of the 2015 NFL draft.
Plant is 6-5 against Armwood since 2004; the Panthers won the last meeting, 20-19.
Armwood and Plant enter the season as the No. 1 and 2 teams in the Tribune’s Hillsborough County rankings.
Armwood, led by consensus five-star recruit and Rivals No. 1-rated senior defensive end Byron Cowart, is also ranked No. 25 in the nation by MaxPreps and No. 5 in the state top 25 poll.
Plant, led by junior quarterback Rex Culpepper, son of former NFL defensive lineman Brad Culpepper, is No. 15 in the state poll.
Plant lost to Apopka in the Class 8A state semifinals last season; Armwood lost to Miami Central in the 6A state final.
“It’s the kind of culture that we’ve cultivated,” Plant coach Robert Weiner said of his team’s aspirations this year. “We make no apologies for it, but it is a fact that our goal every year is to win a state championship.”
Another top preseason matchup is Sickles at Tampa Catholic.
The game not only will feature two teams that went deep into the postseason last year — Sickles lost in the 7A region championship, Tampa Catholic lost in the 3A state semifinals — but also two of the top players in the nation.
Sickles senior running back Ray Ray McCloud III, a Clemson commit who will attempt to break the county’s all-time rushing record, is rated a five-star prospect by Rivals. He’s one of only 30 seniors in the nation, including Armwood’s Cowart, to receive the scouting company’s ranking.
Tampa Catholic junior Nate Craig, who has committed to Auburn, is rated by Rivals as the No. 1 junior in America and is on the MaxPreps National Junior of the Year watch list.
Meanwhile, former Bloomingdale coach John Booth will make his debut as head coach of five-time state champion Bradenton Manatee, which plays at East Lake, a team that reached the 7A state semifinals last season.
East Lake, ranked No. 21 in the state, features another five-star recruit in George Campbell, who previously de-committed from Michigan and has listed Florida and LSU as his top choices.