Time is running short for Howard County football teams and with only three teams with one loss or less entering Week 7, the pool of county title contenders has shrunk.
After this week, it will be even smaller.
Atholton (5-1) visits Hammond (5-1) Friday, Oct. 14 night in the game of the week.
The last time the Raiders and Golden Bears met, on Sept. 10, 2010, Hammond shocked the Raiders, 19-13.
The win spurred Hammond to a 10-game winning streak, a share of the county title with River Hill and a regional championship appearance. It all added up to Hammond's best season in school history.
Atholton lost again two weeks later, to Howard, but regrouped to finish 8-2 and make the playoffs, where they lost to eventual state champion Wilde Lake.
Flash forward to 2011. Hammond entered the season as a county championship favorite, thanks in large part to the running back tandem of senior Devon Paye (90 carries, 719 yards, nine TDs) and junior Dionte Jones (432 yards from scrimmage, five TDs), with Kyle Jackson and Derek Sicca leading the way on the offensive line.
On defense, the Golden Bears have been stout — led by LBs Rasheed Lashley and Humphrey Anuh, and linemen Olumide Adewumi and Melvin Ikwubuo — allowing fewer than 10 points per game.
Atholton, meanwhile, has been the hottest team in the league lately. The Raiders have scored more points (215), and allowed fewer (34), than any other team in the league. They have won their last two games by a combined score of 110-13, and have outscored their opponents on average by more than 30 points per game.
"I'm really happy with how we've played the last two weeks," coach Kyle Schmitt said. "If we can run 60 plays, which is what we've been averaging, we're going to be in good shape. If they hold us to around 45, we're going to be in for a dogfight."
While Hammond features a run heavy offense — sophomore quarterback Tyler Martin has been a pleasant surprise, completing 18-of-37 passes with five touchdowns — Atholton has one of the best passing attacks in the state.
Senior Brian McMahon has completed more than 63 percent of his passes (58-of-92) for 841 yards and six TDs. He has also rushed for 380 yards and four TDs. His top receiver, Dequan Ellison, has caught 27 of those passes for 488 yards.
While the Raiders are far from one-dimensional — they already have four 100-yard rushers (Kendall Newsome, Kenny Thomas, Jorry Matherson and McMahon) — their passing game is what gives them the most dynamic offense in the league.
"(Hammond) is really fundamentally sound and they're well coached, but I think there are contrasing styles," Schmitt said. "We'd like to speed the game up … that's going to be huge this week is to get the defense off of the field and get the ball back in Brian McMahon's hands and go."
Atholton is just as athletic on defense as it is on offense. Leading tackler Pat Mullens has emerged as a playmaker over the past few weeks, and Steve Whiting (six), Cameron Fogel (five), Paul Federinko (three) and Damon Wells (three) have terrorized opposing quarterbacks for 17 sacks.
Whoever wins the game will be anxiously awaiting the result of Glenelg's game against visiting Reservoir.
The Gladiators, at 6-0, are the league's last undefeated team after edging Long Reach, 23-20, Oct. 6 and have a chance to win out for sole ownership of the county title.
The Gators, who lost three of their first four games, have been on a roll of late, defeating their last two opponents — Mt. Hebron and Centennial — by a combined score of 76-0.
And after that, Glenelg will have to face Howard (4-2) and River Hill (4-2).
"There are no easy games in Howard County. Howard County is a tremendous football league and eventually, someday, the county will get the respect it deserves," Glenelg coach Butch Schaffer said.