It's already a difficult season for the Modesto Metro Conference, but it will get an opportunity this weekend to show the Sac-Joaquin Section it's worthy of respect.
It will take a lot of convincing, and a three-game sweep by Beyer, Downey and Enochs the three contenders. The MMC has seven teams but just five wins, and the season is already three weeks old.
The good news? This is the last week of non-conference play, so the struggling schools will soon be earning wins by beating each other. The bad news? It does nothing to make Downey, Enochs and Beyer play better. After this week, they won't face another non-MMC foe.
That means a drop in competition, as well as performance: Fact is, a team has to be pushed on Friday nights to improve. The triad of conference contenders will see nothing that will prepare them for the playoffs unless they're playing each other.
It's difficult to convince players to improve if they see a schedule that is lacking quality opponents.
That's not a problem in many of the Stanislaus District leagues while each has a team or two that struggles, most leagues also boast three or four programs that are rich in tradition and competitive.
That could be worth a spot or two when the section seeds its playoffs. We remember that MMC champion Beyer was penalized in 2011 because its schedule was deemed weak, so the Pats added Elk Grove this season to fix that.
Instead, a 48-0 loss to Elk Grove just reinforced the perception that the MMC remains far behind the section's Division 1 and 2 leagues.
Beyer can start improving that image Thursday when it plays undefeated Atwater at Downey. It's a game the 1-2 Pats desperately need or they could risk falling out of contention for a playoff berth.
That's just a third of the trifecta.
Downey has the most difficult task, hosting state-ranked Central Catholic and prolific Ray Lomas Friday. The Knights lost a chance to make their opening statement two weeks ago, falling 45-41 to Merced on a score in the final minutes, and their two wins have come over struggling programs.
Central might be the district's top team, however, after battling state-ranked Placer and upsetting potent St. Mary's of Stockton 28-21 in the Holy Bowl. It's the Raiders' winning reputation that would serve Downey a victory will get the Knights mentioned from one end of California to the other.
If Downey can't pull that off, it's up to Enochs to knock off Merced.
The Eagles were 0-2 with losses to Pitman and Buhach Colony Nos. 2 and 1, respectively, in The Bee's large-school rankings but the competition paved the way for last week's 42-21 win at Turlock.
Like Beyer, Enochs needs this win to improve its playoff bid: Six wins guarantee a berth, but also assures you of a road game against a top-quality opponent.
Seven wins will get you an easier foe, say 8-2 rather than a 9-1 or 10-0 juggernaut. Eight wins also likely gets you a home game, and that was crucial last fall as Beyer beat Stagg in the closing minutes.
It's been a while since the MMC had a victory it could hold high. It has just a handful of playoff wins the last decade, and many of its schools play light schedules in hopes of earning a few wins.
If the MMC goes winless in its three battles, the section has every right to downgrade teams when the seedings are announced. If that happens, as it did to Beyer a year ago, we can turn back to this weekend to find out why.
How will Central Catholic react coming into Downey to face a prolific pass offense led by Aaron Zwahlen, who has committed to the University of Hawaii? Will it be ready after its emotional upset?
The Bee's Ron Agostini has seen plenty of Holy Bowls, and he's seen the Raiders win games they shouldn't have. Central has played some of its best football against St. Mary's, in part because its the two parochial powers taking the field.
Central's also got the chip on its shoulder, with St. Mary's moving into the leadership role as the region's elite parochial program. There's not a more exciting game for the players, but Central has been unable to match that energy in its other regular-season and playoff games the last four years.
As big of a game as this is for Downey, it's an opportunity for the Raiders to show they weren't drained by the Holy Bowl. It won't get any easier for the top-ranked small-school Raiders, either, because No. 2 small-school Los Banos and explosive James Sams are coming to town next week.
Just three weeks into the season and it's clearly the year of the running back, with Sams, Lomas and Sierra's Anthony Cota grabbing most of the headlines in Saturday's editions of The Bee.
Sams leads the section with 669 rushing yards, Cota leads all scorers with 12 TDs and Lomas is averaging 8.6 yards a run despite playing Placer and St. Mary's.
After seeing passers light up the scoreboard the last few seasons, now it's the runners that defenses are struggling so hard to contain.
Any other year, juniors Steve Machado (Orestimba) or Ja'Quan Gardner (Central Valley) would be the stars they rank Nos. 2 and 7 on the section rushing list but they're fightin' for headline space.
For a transcript of Richard T. Estrada's Tuesday online chat, go to this story at www.modbee.com/local. To watch Stanislaus Football Weekly, The Bee's weekly football show, go to www.modbee.com/videos later today.