What to watch: Semifinals

Forty-one points. That’s the combined margin that the top-ranked Benedictine Cadets and the No. 2 Fitzgerald Purple Hurricane are favored to win by on their way to the Georgia Dome, according to Maxwell Projections.

(For the projections, which are included in GHSF Daily’s Class AA semifinals preview, go here.)

The Cadets are favored to beat the No. 3 Callaway Cavaliers by 17, while the Purple Hurricane are favored by 24 over the No. 10 Hapeville Charter Hornets. Both Benedictine and Fitzgerald are the home teams.

Should both the Cadets and Purple Hurricane take care of business as expected, the stage will be set for a long-anticipated rematch between the two schools, who met in last year’s quarterfinals, where Fitzgerald won convincingly. Only this time they would meet to decide the AA championship.

But we’re not there yet. And despite the projections heavily favoring Benedictine (13-0; Region 2, No. 1 seed) and Fitzgerald (12-1; R1, No. 1), the Cavs (13-0; R5, No. 1) and Hornets (10-3; R6, No. 1) will do all they can to prevent them from advancing to play in the Dome. Both underdogs have plenty of talent to keep their games competitive.

We’ll start with the Cavs and their matchup with Benedictine. They’ve already set a program record for wins in a season, and they’ve done something the Cadets haven’t  – come from behind to win a close game. As mentioned here, the Cavs faced elimination head on last week against Screven County and lived to tell about it after a two-minute, 98-yard drive gave them the 35-34 win. And the Cavs did that on the road. The week before in the second round, they fell into a 14-0 hole in the first quarter against Brooks County before taking charge in the second half to win 28-14.

Two takeaways from that: 1) It’s good the Cavs have been battle-tested and have demonstrated they can come from behind to win, when in most games they’ve won comfortably. Benedictine is not really all that battle-tested. The fewest amount of points the Cadets won by is 14, and that was on the road, hundreds of miles away against a St. Pius X team that was ranked No. 6 in AAAA at the time. Further, the Cadets have only trailed once this season, 6-0 in the first quarter against Southeast Bulloch on the way to a 33-6 win. 2) There’s no way the Cavs can fall behind multiple scores at Benedictine and expect the same magic of the past two rounds to arrive and will them to victory.

The Cavs’ best shot is to keep the game close heading into the fourth quarter. That could make the Cadets uncomfortable, as it’s a situation they haven’t been in all season. The Cavs’ shouldn’t plan on jumping out to a big lead over Benedictine, but they can expect to keep the game close. While the Cadets have playmakers in athletes John Wesley Kennedy and Tyleek Collins and quarterback Nick Iannone, the Cavs have running back D.J. Atkins, receiver Braylon Sanders and quarterback Dylan Johnson to counter.

All that said, the Cavs have had to come from behind the past two rounds against lesser opponents and that’s not a good sign for them. Maxwell’s projection for this game seems about right.

As for the Hornets, who knows what to make of their matchup with Fitzgerald? Hapeville was widely overlooked as a team that would make it this far, barely cracking the top 10 at the end of the regular season. For reasons stated earlier, I chose not to give them the benefit of the doubt in my predictions and marked them down for a first-round exit, even though at the time I admitted that was highly unlikely.

As I mentioned on Tuesday, everything Hapeville has done the past month has been historic for the program. At least from an outsider’s perspective, they have outperformed expectations all season long. So it would be fitting if they played the Purple Hurricane a lot closer than the 24 points they’re projected to lose by.

Another tidbit: last year when I made AA football playoff predictions, I picked the team that would eventually win it all to lose in the first round. That team was also from Region 6. It was Pace Academy. Is history repeating itself? Maybe. Am I that bad at predictions? Yeah. Unless, of course, Benedictine and Fitzgerald win on Friday, and then the Cadets win the title the following week.

Based on being so wrong about the Hornets, I’ll go with their game at Fitzgerald being a lot closer than the projections. Junior quarterback Hajj-Malik Williams was named the Region 6-AA Offensive Player of the Year and his top receiver, Rory Starkey, along with tight end Christian Nelson and lineman Ousman Traore, were named to the All-Region first team offense. The nationally-recruited and Georgia-committed William Poole anchors the defense along with Cameron Merrell, who was named the region’s defensive player of the year.

Of course, the Purple Hurricane can hold their own in this matchup. Returning nearly all key players from last year’s runner-up finish to Pace, they opened the season ranked No. 1 and, if not for a hiccup against a Tift County team that reached the AAAAAAA playoffs – a game in which key players were lost to injury – they’d likely still be the No. 1 team. That loss came on Sept. 30 and they’ve rolled to eight consecutive wins since.

In the playoffs, the Purple Hurricane have dominated, outscoring opponents 125-44. That includes last week’s quarterfinal matchup against undefeated Rabun County, where they held a Wildcats offense averaging 53 points a game to a season-low 16 points. The Hornets, on the other hand, have merely survived the last two rounds by edging Jefferson County 14-6 and Chattooga 30-21 last week, with both of those games at home.

Now Hapeville is on the road, where AJC Super 11 selection and Player of the Year finalist JD King, a senior running back, is determined on ending his prep career with a state title after coming so close last season. He’s backed by quarterback James Graham, who was named the Region 1 Offensive Player of the Year. King and Graham are two of 17 Purple Huricane players selected to the all-region team.

So while projections don’t give the underdogs much of a chance, for the sake of competitive playoff football and with a trip to the Dome on the line, here’s hoping to two instant classics being played on Friday.

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