Buck Smith spent Sunday sweating through an interview for Harvard. Questions came from a variety of topics. He had no idea what to expect.

"I'd still take that over the [next] month of the [football] season," Smith, Westlake's senior quarterback, joked this week. "These are the kind of weeks where I almost wish I wasn't playing just because I can go watch these games."

Four Charles County teams -- No. 7 Lackey, McDonough, Thomas Stone and No. 20 Westlake -- have dominated the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference during the first half of the season (a 19-1 combined record over that span); the quartet began playing one another last week. This week's games should give a good indication of who are the top teams in the conference.

Smith's Wolverines host arch rival Thomas Stone, which suffered its first loss of the season, a 41-11 drubbing by McDonough last week. The Rams, meanwhile, visit the team they consider their biggest rival, undefeated Lackey. Next week, the opponents switch -- Westlake visits McDonough, while Lackey hosts Thomas Stone.

While many expected Westlake and Lackey to be undefeated heading into their meeting Nov. 5, the final weekend of the regular season, these next two weeks will largely determine whether that prospect comes to fruition.

"I think [Westlake] wants that game to have the same kind of importance going into it as we do," Lackey senior lineman Jeremy Hairston said. "But if we don't take care of these games first, that won't matter."

If Lackey and Westlake both win this week, it would push both teams two games ahead of the rest of the conference with only three games to play, a deficit almost impossible for any team to overcome.

It would also push the Cougars and Rams further down in the playoff points race. McDonough has a tenuous hold on third place in the Maryland 3A South Region standings, but fourth- and fifth-place Severna Park and Northern have much easier schedules the rest of the way.

Thomas Stone holds a similar edge over Arundel and South River in the 4A East Region.

That's why both the Rams and Cougars know the importance of this week's games.

"Around school, it's been pretty intense," Thomas Stone senior wide receiver James Davis said. "It's Westlake. It's the one game of the year where everybody shows up."

Thomas Stone and McDonough are hoping to catch Westlake and Lackey, perhaps looking ahead to three weeks from now. Moments after the Rams' victory over Thomas Stone last week, quarterback Cory Yates said the celebration stopped.

"Coach [Dave Bradshaw] said we didn't have too much time to celebrate because we've got Lackey," Yates said. "I think they get more hyped for the Westlake game. Maybe they'll overlook us."

That's doubtful, considering Lackey's veteran team played a string of critical games last season en route to the Maryland 3A title game.

"From our experience last year, it helps us realize the importance of these games, but it also teaches to look at one game at a time," Hairston said. "Without having been there, you can't know."

Chopticon at Northern

When: Tonight at 7

Records: Chopticon 1-4, 1-4. Northern 4-2, 4-2.

Last week: Chopticon defeated Calvert, 22-0. Northern defeated Patuxent, 24-21.

Last meeting: Northern won, 26-23, on Oct. 16, 2003.

Outlook: For the second time this season, Bryant Spriggs played hero in the final minute of a game for Northern. Spriggs intercepted Patuxent in the end zone in the final minute to secure Northern's victory last week. He also picked off McDonough in the final minute to help the Patriots hang on to a 14-12 victory Sept. 18. Those two grabs might get Northern into the playoffs. The Patriots finish their season against four teams that have won a combined two games. Northern is in fifth place in the Maryland 3A South points standings, but third-place McDonough still has to face Lackey and Westlake, while fourth-place Severna Park closes the season with undefeated Broadneck. With several of its injured players back last week to help earn its first victory, Chopticon has a similarly strong outlook. "Traditionally, we're usually a better team the second half of the season," Braves Coach Andy Palko said, "and this year with the injuries and the toughest part of our schedule out of the way, I hope that's the case."

La Plata at Huntingtown

When: Tonight at 7

Records: La Plata 3-3, 3-3. Huntingtown 2-3, 2-3.

Last week: La Plata lost to Lackey, 48-0. Huntingtown lost to Westlake, 42-0.

First meeting

Outlook: Since allowing 21 points en route to a 3-0 start, La Plata has struggled handling some of the more capable offensive teams, surrendering 139 points in lopsided losses to Northern, Patuxent and Lackey. The Warriors could catch a Huntingtown team trying to save its breath. The Hurricanes have their rescheduled game against Chopticon on Monday evening, the second of three games in 10 days. Huntingtown would like to rediscover the offense it showed in solid victories over Great Mills and Leonardtown. The Hurricanes were out-muscled by a bigger and more experienced Westlake team last week.

Patuxent at Leonardtown

When: Tonight at 7

Records: Patuxent 2-4, 2-4. Leonardtown, 0-6, 0-6.

Last week: Patuxent lost to Northern, 24-21. Leonardtown lost to Great Mills, 21-6.

Last meeting: Patuxent won, 55-28, on Oct. 17, 2003.

Outlook: This just may not be Patuxent's year. Nothing else could explain why the Panthers have suffered one close loss after another this season. Three of their defeats have come down to either the final play or last minute of regulation, and last week's loss might have dropped Patuxent out of playoff contention in the Maryland 4A East Region. Even if the Panthers win their final four games, two of three teams -- South River, Arundel or Thomas Stone -- would have to have a huge collapse for Patuxent to have a shot at sneaking into the draw. At the very least, look for the Panthers to take out some anger on Leonardtown, which has surrendered at least 42 points in each of the teams' past five meetings. Patuxent senior quarterback Delonte Janey is third in the Washington area with 1,143 passing yards, and tied for second with 15 touchdown passes.

Calvert at Great Mills

When: Friday at 7

Records: Calvert 0-6, 0-6. Great Mills 1-5, 1-5.

Last week: Calvert lost to Chopticon, 22-0. Great Mills defeated Leonardtown, 21-6.

Last meeting: Calvert won, 30-7, on Oct. 16, 2003.

Outlook: Great Mills broke the area's longest active losing streak -- 15 games -- with a victory last week, but other dubious runs could end this week, as well. The Hornets have not won consecutive games since Sept. 3 and 10, 1999, when they defeated Southern and Northern, respectively. The Hornets also have not beaten a team other than Leonardtown since they beat Northern, 24-20, on Sept. 15, 2000. If those streaks are going to end, Great Mills must get a smart defensive effort, as it did last week. Hornets Coach Bill Greer said his players were more under control and did not over-pursue, which was their problem in the first five games. Sophomore linebacker Dewayne Simmons led the Hornets with three sacks.

McDonough's A.J. Wallace gallops upfield in the Rams' 41-11 thrashing of Thomas Stone. The Rams now visit unbeaten Lackey.Westlake running back Aaris Reed practices as his team seeks to stay unbeaten for its Nov. 5 tilt with Lackey.