The landscape has been altered a bit as Wewahitchka and Port St. Joe open the 2019 high school football season next week.

And that is no reference to Hurricane Michael.

The county rivals will face-off in a Kickoff Classic 6:30 p.m. ET next Friday at Gator Field.

The start of the game was moved up as new lights are being installed at Gator Field and it is unclear if they will be operable by next week.

In any case, the two county football programs enter a new landscape this year as part of something of a two-year pilot project to better level the playing field for small rural schools.

During the spring, 12 schools, the majority of small, rural schools west of the Apalachicola River, agreed to the formation of a new conference, the Rural League.

The schools, including Port St. Joe, Wewahitchka, Blountstown, Liberty County, Franklin County, Baker, etc. are not leaving the FHSAA or the state Class 1A playoff format.

The discussions among football coaches began shortly after Madison County won its second-straight Class 1A football title by reaching a running clock in a rout of Baker.

Baker, in turn, had dominated its opponents all season and entered the state title game unbeaten.

Schools and coaches see the use of charter and magnet schools as mechanisms to blur true school enrollment as it should be counted to determine athletic classification.

And that runs counter to very idea of Class 1A, once known as the rural classification, which was created after a revolt of small schools nearly 20 years ago.

Back then, at a meeting at Liberty County High School, coaches and administrators from nearly two dozen small schools considered leaving the FHSAA for a new league and conference.

At the time the rub was private schools and, again, a degree of manipulation of enrollment numbers to ensure a lower classification.

The FHSAA responded by forming Class 1A, at the time for football only, as an attempt to separate rural public and private schools into more equal competition.

“The state established the rural league but it has really gotten away from what was intended,” said Port St. Joe coach Greg Jordan. “It has gotten to the point that some schools were ready to leave the FHSAA for football.”

And, several years ago the FHSAA adopted a playoff system that eliminated districts and adopted a point system for determining playoff spots.

With that decision some rivalries which had defined some programs disappeared.

“That really hurt us,” said Wewahitchka coach Bobby Johns. “The effect on small schools, small communities, that is what hurt us.

“We lost that. (The Rural League) gives us something back.”

The 12 schools in the Rural League conference will still play under the FHSAA point system for playoff seeding after a 10-game, 11-week season.

Schools will schedule the first seven games over the initial eight weeks of the regular season, abiding by FHSAA dictates of a bye week in the first eight weeks.

At some point during that first eight weeks, the Rural League’s coaches will begin to rank the 12 teams.

After the first eight weeks, the top eight teams will move into a three-week playoff with the title game played on a neutral field, the winner declared the state Rural League champion.

The other four teams will complete the season with a round-robin schedule against each other.

“At the very least it gives people something to play for, the ‘Rural League’ state championship,” Johns said.

The conference playoffs wrap in time to segue into the state playoffs; the FHSAA point system will determine eligibility for the state playoffs among the conference teams.

Johns added that competition-wise, the Rural League should be a boon for the four to six Northwest Florida Class 1A programs that each year are in the hunt for a playoff spot.

Schools agreed to a two-year term for the Rural League to prevent upheaval a year from now should some schools believe the concept is not working for them.