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August 24, 2011

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Dallas Jackson is the Senior Analyst for RivalsHigh. Email him your question, comment or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.

Prattville (Ala.) High, the No. 1 team in the RivalsHigh Top 100, knows it has the talent to go undefeated and win a national championship.

It just doesn't know if it has the ability to win one big game.

For as good as the program has been - and the nearly dozen Division I recruits that dot the roster each fall - winning 'The Big Game' always has been a stumbling block.

It will get its next chance Saturday, when it hosts perennial power and No. 9 overall team Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas at Buccaneer Field in Hoover, Ala.

"We need to get some of these games in the win column," Prattville coach Jamey DuBose said. "We know (Aquinas) will be a tough test, but we can't just keep playing these types of games and come out on the wrong end."

Since the start of 2008 season, Prattville is just 1-4 in out-of-state games. It has lost to Cincinnati (Ohio) St. Xavier, Ramsey (N.J.) Don Bosco, Suwannee (Ga.) North Gwinnett, and Miami (Fla.) Central. Its lone victory came against Brentwood (Tenn.) Brentwood Academy in 2008.

In that same time span, St. Thomas Aquinas has only lost one game, won a national title and secured a runner-up finish, as well as won four major out-of-state games.

Simply put, St. Thomas Aquinas is used to playing in - and winning - 'The Big Game.'

This one, however, will be different than most of the others. It will mark the first time in four years that the program comes into a game as the underdog.

"They are the top team right now," Rocco Casullo, the St. Thomas Aquinas head coach, said. "You can look at the top teams in Florida each year and find fast teams, strong teams, well-coached teams, and this group looks like a combination of all of that."

It is also the first game for Casullo as a head coach since taking over for George Smith - who spent all but three seasons since 1975 as the head coach at Aquinas and is now the Athletic Director at the school.

"It is my first game, too," Casullo said. "It is our first game of the season. It is some of these kids first time on a plane. It is a lot of their first varsity starts.

"It is going to be hard to approach it just like any other game with all of that going on."

Being the RivalsHigh National Game of the Week and airing on ESPN already separates this from being just another game.

The focus on routine, according to Casullo, needs to be like any other though.

"We went from 2010 into our workout season," he said. "Then summer and practice. This is our game week. We are approaching this as business as usual; we need to get settled in as a group."

The group, however, is much different from the one that last took the field in the state title game.

The turnover on the roster of the Raiders is staggering when stacked against what Prattville returns.

"They have nine starters back on defense," Casullo said. "We have five starters back on offense. That is a tough spot to start out with."

Aquinas returns two running backs, two offensive linemen and its tight end from last year.

All of the team's losses on offense - save for one lineman - were Division I players: quarterback Jake Rudock (Iowa), receivers Rashad Greene (Florida State) and Phillip Dorsett (Miami), and linemen Bobby Hart (Florida State) as well as Austin Barron (Florida State).

"We have to be very smart with this game," Casullo said. "We want to put kids in a position they are comfortable with. We will have to fight for first downs; I am not sure we have the threats to take many deep shots so we have to eliminate mistakes."

The mistake-free football gameplan will rest on the legs of senior running back Dami Ayoola and junior tailback Fred Coppet.

Any shots the team tries to take will be through the arm of Max Lescano, who will be making his first start.

The flip side of the Aquinas offensive quandary will be the Prattville plethora of returning talent.

There are 10 starters back on the offensive side of the ball.

"On paper, we are very good," DuBose said. "But games are not won on paper as you well know. (Aquinas) has been-there done-that on the field, on the road and we haven't. It is going to test us."

But as Casullo points out, the difference between the two teams is very narrow.

"You know the difference between the top team and the No. 50 team is very small," he said. "Any of those teams can beat the others and that is why we play the games."

National GOTW
No. 1 Prattville v No. 9 Aquinas
DL Justin Shanks (6-3/306, Sr.)
S Derrick Moncrief (6-3/204, Sr.)
DB LaRonji Vason(5-9/158, Sr.)
QB Justin Thomas (5-11/178, Sr.)
DE Jelani Hamilton (6-5/250, Sr.)
DE Byran Cox Jr (6-3/240, Sr.)
DB Cole Champion (5-11/175, Sr.)

When: Saturday, Aug. 27, Noon
Last meeting: First-ever meeting
Rankings: Prattville (0-0), No. 1 in Alabama
St. Thomas Aquinas (0-0), No. 2 in Florida

Prattville wins if: Its quarterback duo makes good decisions. Prattville will rotate in a pair of players with very different skill sets. There is Justin Thomas, who DuBose has described as a Pat White-type player, and Jalen Whitlow, a soft Arkansas State commit with a big arm. Whitlow will have to protect the ball in the face of a strong St. Thomas Aquinas front seven. If those two do not put the defense on short fields or give up turnovers for points, they should lead the team to a victory.

St. Thomas Aquinas wins if: The coaches bring their 'A' game. It is tough to put a game like this on the shoulders of the coaches, but there are few positions that Aquinas would have a strong edge (there are plenty where it is a close call but none that strongly favor the Raiders). This one could come down to a few big plays and a great game plan. And if there is one thing that has been proven time and again, it's that the Aquinas football team will be well prepared. Casullo's background is with the defense and he will certainly have something in store to confuse Prattville. Offensively will be a bigger challenge though, as Prattville is loaded.

Prediction: Prattville has been on the wrong side of so many of these out-of-state games - then had to watch its opponents get propelled to a Top 15 finish, if not a national title. Prattville is now the favorite to win and could use the victory to make its case for national recognition. Aquinas is all business. It has played and won on the road before, so it will not be shell-shocked by the hostile environment. If Prattville plays not to lose, it could. The Lions will need to push the pace and try to push the opposition around. If it can do that, it will win. - Prattville 26, Aquinas 17

Game of the Week Predictions: 1-0 (10-5 in '10, '09, and '08)

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