How the Rockford area ranks in Big Northern Conference football

Jay Taft
Rockford Register Star
Athletes run drills during a practice at Rockford Lutheran School Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021, in Rockford.

The Big Northern Conference football race is as wide open as it's been in decades. And it's not because of what we know — instead, it's because of what we don't know.

This spring, only three of the 10 teams played their full five-game schedule; four teams were only able to get three in.

What's more, Mendota is out and Rockford Christian is in along with Byron, Dixon, Genoa-Kingston, North Boone, Oregon, Rock Falls, Rockford Lutheran, Stillman Valley and Winnebago.

"Of any year," 24th-year Stillman Valley coach Mike Lalor said, "this is the year of the unknown."

These changes left a lot of questions unanswered headed into this season. It's time to get those answered, focusing on the seven Rockford-area teams.

Top 6 QBs to watch:Top 6 quarterbacks to watch this season in Rockford-area high school football

Top 10 LBs to watch:Top 10 linebackers to watch in Rockford-area football for the 2021 season

1 Lutheran

Athletes run drills during a practice at Rockford Lutheran School Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021, in Rockford.

With the rest of the league rebuilding, this just might be the Crusaders' moment to shine.

"There just seems to be a lot of uncertainty out there in our conference this year," Lutheran's first-year coach Ron Gates said. "And someone could go right in there and take it... Our goal, like it should always be, is to go 9-0, and then just go from there."

The Crusaders led Stillman Valley late before falling 15-6 in a game that kicked off just two days after Lutheran got out of a 14-day quarantine. That was their lone loss last season. Lutheran also got some attention after knocking off Byron 6-0 in the spring finale.

Dual-threat quarterback Kyung Hughes and halfback Jacob Al-Ramahi return and will be key contributors in Gates' new spread-hybrid offense.

Lutheran opens at home against the defending league champs from North Boone. In Week 2, they will travel to Genoa-Kingston, co-champs in the BNC two seasons ago. They then take on Byron, the league's power the past decade, in Week 3.

2 Stillman Valley

If Lutheran can't handle that tough schedule, Stillman Valley could be the team that outlasts the rest.

The biggest matchup of Week 1 — and possibly of the season — pits Stillman Valley at Byron. Stillman Valley shared the conference title back in 2019 with Byron and Genoa-Kingston, and the two have battled back and forth a lot over the years. The Cardinals won state championships under Lalor in 1999, 2000, 2003, 2009 and 2013. The Tigers got hot later, placing second in the state in both 2018 and 2019 under Jeff Boyer.

"We're going to find a lot out in that first week," Lalor said. "Byron has had such a dominant run of late, and you can't worry too much about last season. I assume Byron is going to be very good again, and we're going to see about us — right away."

The Cardinals will stick with the flex-bone offense, run by quarterback Kale Rauman, fullbacks Griffin Britnell and Colton Cook and halfbacks Maddux Barrett and Gage Henderson.

NUIC outlook:How Rockford-area football teams will stack up

3 Byron

Struggles this spring by Byron — the BNC's top dog from the past decade — is one of the biggest reasons the conference title is up for grabs. But don't be too surprised to see the Tigers back in the race this season.

Byron won at least a share of the past four BNC titles before last season, going 47-4 overall and 33-1 against BNC opponents in that span. The Tigers were 3-2 last spring, and they got two of their three wins by a touchdown or less.

"In our program, there's high expectations every year," Boyer said. "We still feel pretty inexperienced at spots and have a lot of kids getting ready for their first varsity experience ... But we got a lot out of that spring season; we got a lot of work. It's time to see it pays off."

The Tigers will lean more on junior quarterback Braden Smith, who started and played every game as a sophomore. They will also look to running back Chandler Binkley, who last season finished second in league rushing to graduated teammate Josiah Fetherston — by seven yards.

4 North Boone

North Boone's Will Doetch breaks away for a touchdown against Mendota in the first half of their game at North Boone High School Friday, March 26, 2021, in Poplar Grove.

The Vikings will have a new quarterback running the same high-powered offense that carried them to seven straight non-losing seasons, including back-to-back playoff appearances, their first postseason victory in 15 years and a 2021 BNC spring title.

It's almost time to find out if junior Chandler Alderman can fill the shoes of predecessors Britton Morris and Logan Emanuel, two of the program's best QBs.

"I guess you could say the quarterback is the key to this kind of offense," North Boone's first-year coach Ryan Kelley said of his pass-happy spread offense. "And (Alderman) has a pretty good arm, and he's picking up the rest pretty quickly."

Alderman was North Boone's No. 1 pitcher as a sophomore and played some varsity defensive end last year. But he has never taken a varsity snap, and will jump right into it against Rockford Lutheran in the opener.

Senior Will Doetch is one of the most talented wideouts the league has seen, and should solidify that status this season.

5 Winnebago

Winnebago dealt with some key injuries last season, losing three members of its backfield (and of its defensive middle) at different times in the season. Coach Mark Helm is hoping his team can stay healthy this season, and then see what it can do.

"We have a lot of young kids, and our key is going to be how quickly we can jell," Helm said. "It's so hard to judge this season, too. ... I know this conference is going to give you a battle every week, though."

Pass catchers:Top 10 wide receivers and tight ends to watch in Rockford-area football

6 Oregon

The Hawks were competitive, even in their three losses last season, but that was with an offense driven by QB Breccan Berns. He's graduated, and Oregon will have to rebuild again — this time around senior running back and leading rusher Wylee Rice.

They will open the season in Dixon, where the Dukes struggled last year. Oregon gets BNC-newcomer Rockford Christian in Week 2.

7 Rockford Christian

The Royal Lions went 1-4 last season against mostly teams from the Northwest Upstate Illini Conference and now rejoin the BNC.

The Royal Lions will ease into their schedule, facing three teams with a combined two wins in the spring. But in the middle of the season, they will get a chance to show if they belong in the upper echelon of the league or not. Rockford Christian faces North Boone in Week 4 and Stillman Valley in Week 5.

Jay Taft:; @JayTaft