Here are 5 football matchups you won't want to miss this fall in the Rock River Valley

The top 5 big football games in the area to watch for this season begin with Harlem at Hononegah.

Jay Taft
Rockford Register Star
Harlem's Dezzion Jordan dives into the end zone past Hononegah's Bryce Goodwine in the second quarter of their NIC-10 game at Harlem High School Saturday, April 10, 2021, in Machesney Park.

The IHSA is about ready to release its 2021 football schedule, which lays the groundwork for a full return of high school sports this fall in Illinois.

Many of the sports seasons were postponed over the last school year and all of the schedules were shortened because of the coronavirus pandemic.

IHSA member schools are gearing up for a full slate of fall matchups, including a normal nine-game regular season in football, followed by a state series to crown champs in all eight classes.

More football:After an injury-plagued spring season, can Illinois State football rebound in the fall?

"We're hoping for a normal season," Hononegah head coach Brian Zimmerman said. "Of course, you never know with this (COVID-19) thing, and the not knowing part is the worst part of it all ... But we like our chances, and we're preparing for a full season."

The first games of the football season are slated for Aug. 27, and most area teams, and all of the NIC-10, already have their schedules locked in.

Here are five big games that area preps fans won't want to miss:

Harlem at Hononegah, Aug. 27

Harlem's Dezzion Jordan narrowly misses a catch under pressure from Hononegah's Drake Emanuel in the first quarter of their NIC-10 game at Harlem High School Saturday, April 10, 2021, in Machesney Park.

Led by then-senior quarterback James Cooper Jr., the NIC-10’s all-time passing leader, Harlem (6-0, 5-0 NIC-10) scored the most points and had the best record in the conference last year. But the Huskies never would have won the title had it not been for a huge comeback in Week 4.

Hononegah took a 17-0 lead against Harlem on April 10 after an 85-yard interception return by Dylan Sayles in Cooper’s first pick-6 of his career. Cooper regained his composure and completed 31 of 51 passes for 353 yards with three passing TDs and one score on the ground, bringing Harlem back for a 26-24 win.

Now, just over four months later, the Huskies will travel to Hononegah for the season opener on Aug. 27 in one of the most anticipated games of the NIC-10 season.

Harlem will look different with Cooper and some of his top receivers, including Dezzion Jordan, graduated, while Hononegah has eight returning starters on offense and five on defense.

"We return a lot, but there's still a lot of questions we have to answer before we're ready for Harlem," Zimmerman said. "They are probably our biggest rivals these days, and I'm sure they're going to be riding high these days. That should be a fun game to open with."

North Boone at Byron, Sept. 24

North Boone's quarterback Logan Emanuel starts a play against Mendota in the first half of their game at North Boone High School Friday, March 26, 2021, in Poplar Grove.

North Boone claimed the unofficial Big Northern Conference title last year after QB Logan Emanuel threw for 1,020 yards and 16 touchdowns and the Vikings went 4-0. Byron, which had won at least a share of the past four BNC titles, lost its season finale 6-0 to Lutheran and finished 3-2.

The Tigers never got a shot at the Vikings and their vaunted passing attack because the schedule was constantly rearranged due to COVID-19 protocols. This year, the two teams will meet up in Week 5 in Byron.

The Tigers were in rebuilding mode last year, while the Vikings bid farewell to a strong class,that included Emanuel, but not his top receiver Will Doetch (20 catches for 533 yards and 10 TDs).

Whether or not Byron has broken out of its mini-slump should be evident even before this matchup — the Tigers open the season against another rival, Stillman Valley.

"To be honest, we haven't even had a chance to think about the North Boone game," Byron head coach Jeff Boyer said. "For us, it's all hands on that Stillman Valley opener."

Boylan at Harlem, Oct. 1

Harlem's James Cooper Jr. throws a pass against Prairie Ridge at Harlem High School on Saturday, April 17, 2021, in Machesney Park.

While Harlem continued to roll last season, Boylan (4-0, 4-0) was right there the whole way.

The Titans never got a chance to unseat the Huskies because of a positive COVID-19 test from a Boylan player that canceled the April 17 showdown.

Harlem (6-0) won its first NIC-10 title since 1997 by crushing East (4-2) 48-8 in the season finale of the spring season on April 23. Boylan could only watch.

This year the Titans head to Machesney Park to face the Huskies in Week 6.

Durand/Pec at Lena-Winslow, Oct. 8

Durand/Pecatonica holds Lena-Winslow to a small gain on a running play Saturday. Le-Win won 24-21 to win the NJUIC North title.

Late last season, Lena-Winslow drove 80 yards and scored the game-winner with 12 seconds left to beat Durand/Pecatonica 24-21. That victory secured the NUIC North title for Le-Win.

It also brought an abrupt end to the best season by either Durand or Pecatonica in 20 years. Du/Pec's only two losses came in Week 1 to Aquin (28-21), the team that ended the season ranked No. 2 in 1A, and in the finale to Le-Win, which finished ranked No. 1 in 1A.

This season, the Rivermen — with returning star quarterback Hunter Hoffman — get Le-Win on the road in Week 4.

"Well, we sure know what (Hunter Hoffman) can do — he's just as good as it gets," Le-Win head coach Ric Arand said. "And, he's got some weapons to work with again. ... I think both teams are going to be excited to play this one."

Aquin at Polo, Oct. 22

Freeport Aquin quarterback Will Gustafson looks to get past Du-Pec defensive back Bo Seaton in the first quarter of their season-opening game at Rockford Auburn's Wyeth Stadium. Aquin rallied to win 28-21.

Aquin, which went undefeated in its final season as an 11-man team, reformed its program to eight-man football this year.

The Bulldogs open its new era at River Ridge on Aug. 27, and will close out the regular season at Polo on Oct. 22 in what could be the matchup of the year in eight-man. Polo won the eight-man title last season.

Jay Taft:; @JayTaft