No. 6 Osceola Kowboys at No. 7 Lake Gibson Braves

When: Thursday, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Lake Gibson High School, Lakeland (7007 N. Socrum Loop Road)

TV: Spectrum Sports (Channel 47 and HD 1147)

Coaches: Osceola – Doug Nichols (8th season, 75-17); Lake Gibson – Doug DeMyer (2nd season, 13-1)

About the matchup: The regular season kicks off with a special Thursday night clash of state championship contenders.

Osceola returns 17 starters from last year’s squad, which went undefeated in the regular season but got upset in the first round of the playoffs by Treasure Coast. All of the offensive skill players are back, led by Malcolm Davidson, who has 2,302 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns in the last two seasons. Jakobe Thomas (797 yards, 8 TD last year), Braxton Jones (577 yards, 7 TD) and Tayquan Pinellas (407 yards, 6 TD) all put up solid numbers last season and are expected to be big contributors this year. The only position group hit hard by graduation was the offensive line, which projects to have five underclassmen starting on Thursday. Osceola has as formidable a defensive line as any team in Central Florida. Tackle Jordan Redmond and end Mario Kendricks hold offers from ACC and SEC schools while end Dion Bergan has a handful of offers from FBS programs. The back seven of the Kowboys defense includes third-year starters Connor Parker and Trey Shine.   

Lake Gibson’s only loss last season came in the 6A state championship game as Miami Carol City topped the Braves 14-6 in a defensive struggle. It was the third time in program history that Lake Gibson finished as the state runner-up. The strength of Lake Gibson’s team remains its defense. That unit allowed nine points per game last year and recorded four shutouts. Defensive stalwarts Noah Johnson and A.J. Deshazor graduated, but wrecking ball linebacker Tyrice Knight (128 tackles, 8 tackles for loss last season) and athletic lineman Shavonta Timothy (19 sacks) and Jaharie Martin (8.5 sacks) have the ability to wreak havoc on opponents. Offensively, third team all-state running back T.J. Jones will handle much of the workload in the backfield. He rushed for 1,375 yards and 25 touchdowns last season. Auburndale transfer Travis Williams is the starting quarterback. He replaces last year’s starter Kevaris Thomas, who threw for 1,606 yards and 16 touchdowns but transferred to Lakeland.

Three and out:

1. Osceola and Lake Gibson traditionally meet in a spring game, but both coaches worked out a regular season opener for this scheduling cycle.

2. Osceola has six-consecutive seasons with at least 10 wins. Lake Gibson has reached double digit wins twice in that span (2012, 2016)

3. Kowboys linebacker Trey Shine is the son of Willie Green, Central Florida’s all-time leading rusher. Green was Florida’s Mr. Football in 1999 and led Osceola to the 5A state championship.