Journey to the Georgia Dome begins

The six No. 1-ranked teams in Georgia high school football have remained the same since Sept. 21. Change is on the way, if history is a guide.

Take a snapshot of Colquitt County (AAAAAA), Ware County (AAAAA), Buford (AAAA), Washington County (AAA), Greater Atlanta Christian (AA) and Aquinas (A). Check back in December. Over the past five seasons, only six of 27 teams that were ranked No. 1 entering the state playoffs went on to win a title.

The playoffs start this weekend with 80 first-round games in classes AA to AAAAAA. The Class A playoffs get going next week. They will end with seven state championship games on Dec. 12-13 at the Georgia Dome.

Here is an overview of the 185-game culmination to the 2014 season.

*The regulars: Of the 192 playoff teams, 137 made it last season, a retention rate of 71 percent. The longest playoff streaks belong to Lincoln County (41 seasons), Marist (31), Peach County (23), Northside-Warner Robins (22) and Charlton County (20).

*Missing: Carrollton’s streak of 26 seasons in the state playoffs is over. So is Camden County’s streak of 25. Others notable absences are Statesboro (15 seasons), Brookwood (12), M.L. King (11), Newnan (11), Flowery Branch (11), Thomas County Central (9) and Lowndes (7).

*Newcomers: Jackson-Atlanta, New Manchester, Northview and St. Francis are in the playoffs for the first time. Tattnall Square, Stratford Academy and Pinecrest Academy, former GISA schools, are making their GHSA playoff debuts. Those breaking the longest droughts are Southeast Whitfield (1986), Jenkins County (1987), Berrien (1993) and Monticello (1999).

*National implications: Colquitt County is ranked in the top five in three national polls. No Georgia team has been recognized as a national champion since Valdosta in 1992.

*Search for the Holy Grail: Two No. 1-ranked teams have never won state titles in football. They are GAC, which started football in 1991, and Ware County, which opened in 1958. New Ware coach Franklin Stephens became the fastest in state history to win 100 games last week. He’s 100-8-1. He also could become the 15th coach in state history to win titles at two schools. He won with Tucker in 2008 and 2011.

*Cobb County drought watch: No team from Cobb County has won a state championship since Marietta in 1967. This season, Cobb sends three 10-0 teams into the playoffs. They are Kell and Allatoona in AAAAA and Mount Paran Christian in A.

*Best player: Washington County quarterback A.J. Gray, who has more than 1,000 yards rushing and passing, plus four interception returns on defense, is the leading candidate for all-class player of the year, but it’s usually an award that is won or lost in the playoffs. The race is wide open.

*Other players to watch: Colquitt County’s Sihiem King, Aquinas’ Ruben Garnett and GAC’s Darius Slayton are big-time players on contenders. So are AJC Super 11 picks Roquan Smith of Macon County, Kaleb Kim of Mill Creek and Mitch Hyatt of North Gwinnett. The state’s top-rated prospect, defensive tackle Trenton Thompson of Westover, opens at Mary Persons.

*Good draws: No. 6 Lee Coumty (AAAAAA), No. 7 St. Pius (AAAA), No. 1 Washington County (AAA) and No. 5 Fitzgerald (AA) have no ranked opponents in their path to the semifinals. Lee County is a No. 3 seed, however, which means that quarter is perhaps also a good place to be for region champions Hillgrove and Archer, which have 7-3 records.

*Bad draws: Defending AAAA champion Griffin, winner of 25 consecutive games, could face No. 1-ranked Buford, winner of 35 straight, in the quarterfinals. Griffin quarterback Anforne Stroud is out for two to three weeks with a dislocated thumb on his throwing hand. No. 1-ranked GAC and No. 2 Vidalia aren’t loving their luck, either. They are the only 10-0 teams in AA, and they could face off in the quarterfinals.

*Best first-round matchup: Grayson (9-1) is ranked No. 2 in AAAAAA but tied for first in its region, didn’t fare well in a coin-flip solution and must play No. 7 Mill Creek on the road.

*Others first-round gems: Marist and Whitewater are both ranked in the AAAA Top 10. So are AA opponents Thomasville and Benedictine. The north-south rivalry that stokes many message boards will be played out most heatedly when Lee County plays at Lovejoy and Tift County visits Tucker, both in AAAAAA.

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