Whether Edwardsville is taking on top competition from Chicagoland or closer to home in the Greater St. Louis area, one thing is certain:
Head coach Matt Martin's Tigers have earned their opponents' respect.
The Tigers have made the IHSA playoffs 25 times since 1988, including all nine years of Martin's tenure — the last six in Class 8A. The 2017 Tigers made the 8A semifinals, the 2018 Tigers the quarterfinals and last fall's Edwardsville squad the second round, finishing with a 34-17 loss at Minooka and an 8-3 overall record.
The 2020 slate is again full of challenges for the Tigers — including facing not one, not two, but three defending state champions — but led by returning star running back/FBS recruit Justin Johnson Jr., the Tigers look poised to hold their own against one of the state's most difficult schedules.
"I think our kids have competed well, and our coaches have done well," Martin said of Edwardsville's increasingly-demanding schedules. "I think (opponents) know coaches are going to have to work hard to put a game plan together and kids are going to have to play hard if they want to beat us.
"I think we've earned that kind of respect."
Head coach: Matt Martin (10th season, 80-24)
Last year's record: 8-3
While the offensive skill positions are more than set with the likes of Johnson, returning starting quarterback Ryan Hampton and leading receiver Mason Ahlers, the guys up front blocking for them are a question mark with only one starter — center Kyle Smith — back in the orange and glack.
It's a question, however, Martin feels his Tigers will be able to answer.
"It's not uncommon for us," said Martin. "We've been here before, having a senior-dominated offensive line and next year replacing four out of five or five out of five of them.
"With the work (assistant coach) Doug Heinz does with our O-line program, it seems like kids always step up and fill those roles, and they wind up being one of the best offensive lines in the area."
Where question marks remain is on the defensive side, where Edwardsville lost its five leading tacklers from 2019 to Pomp and Circumstance.
"I think offensively we have a chance to be pretty good and can put something together, but defense is a concern," Martin said. "But, hey, some kids are going to have an opportunity to compete on that side. It sure would be nice to practice and get to work on that. ...
"But I think defense absolutely will be our key. We'll have young kids playing, but sometimes young kids step up and do some things I never thought they would. And if that's the case, we can do some things as a team this season."
Players to Watch
Any list of top Tigers has to begin with Johnson, a four-star recruit per Rivals who rushed for 1,120 yards and 19 touchdowns last season on just 169 carries, an average of 6.6 yards per attempt and a sprint to the house once every nine totes. Johnson recently narrowed his college choices to six — Michigan State, West Virginia, Minnesota, Cal, Louisville and Washington State.
"He will be the focal point of our offense just like he was last year," said Martin. "He's a tough kid ... and to have him back is awesome."
Right alongside that 6-0, 200-pound focal point is Hampton, a 6-1, dual-threat quarterback who threw for 854 yards last season and is expected to do even more in 2020 to keep defenses honest.
"I believe Ryan Hampton is going to be better this year," Martin said. "He's put on 10 or 15 pounds of muscle. He's just kind of a late-bloomer kid, and he reminds me a lot of an all-state quarterback we had here a while back, (2015 Edwardsville graduate) Dan Marinko."
The third returning piece of the Tigers' senior skill-position triumvirate is the 6-2 tight end Ahlers.
"I think he's one of the better athletes we've ever had come through this program at tight end," said Martin, adding that Ahlers might see some time on the defensive line this coming season as well.
Martin mentioned TE Pierce Boyer and RB Torrence Johnson as potential game-changers who maybe haven't received the credit they deserve due to the star players sharing their positions. DB/WR Grant Matarelli promises to be an emerging receiving threat, Nasim Cairo will again be a force on the defensive line, Ty Berumen is back in the defensive backfield, and the 6-0, 225-pound Smith at center will anchor a new-look offensive line.
Newcomers You Need to Know
A pair of players jump out — playmaking junior DB/WR/backup QB Gabe James and senior lineman Andrew Kaltmayer (6-5, 308), described as "the biggest kid on the team whose shown a lot of maturity" by Martin.
"If his (offseason) conditioning is any kind of indication of what kind of football player he's going to be, he's going to have a very good senior year," Kaltmayer's head coach said.
2020 Schedule Analysis
The proving grounds for these Tigers will be against some of the best football teams around St. Louis. Highlights include a Week 1 visit from DeSmet Jesuit, Week 2 at Christian Brothers College High School (more commonly known as CBC), Week 6 at home against league rival East St. Louis and Week 9 across the state border at Lutheran North.
East St. Louis (Class 6A in Illinois), De Smet (Class 6 in Missouri) and Lutheran North (Class 2 in Missouri) are all 2019 state champions in their respective classes. CBC lost to De Smet in Missouri's Class 6 semifinals a year ago, before that winning back-to-back state titles of its own.
"(Scheduling) is just a tough situation with the state that football is in right now in Illinois," Martin said. "That's one of the reasons there was such a push for districts.
"Our program is in a place right now where we're going to play the best of the best — either the best teams of Chicago or the best in the St. Louis area. For financial reasons, travel and being able to play underclass games, we're playing in the St. Louis area.
"But, yeah, it's a very good schedule. ... To not say it's a tough schedule and we'll need some breaks to win some of those games would be naive."
Edwardsville's 2020 slate also features Southwest Conference foes Alton (Week 4), Belleville East (Week 5), Belleville West (Week 7) and O'Fallon (Week 8) along with a nonconference visit to Champaign Central (Week 3).
The schedule is a bear, and there are questions along the offensive line and the defensive side, but with the proven, potent offensive talent and winning coaching experience these Tigers boast, it's hard not to see them making noise in the 8A playoffs again in 2020.