The first round of the state playoffs is often devoid of interesting matchups. That isn’t true this season. There are two outstanding openers in Class AAAAA, games in which a good team will be eliminated right out of the box: Griffin at Jones County and Kell at Flowery Branch. The schedule has more than its share of interesting first-rounders.
It might be argued that any of those teams in the featured games — Griffin, Jones County, Kell and Flowery Branch — could easily be found in the quarterfinal round – or deeper. Instead, two of them will be sitting at home after Friday night.
Griffin (9-1) at Jones County (9-1): This game features two state-ranked teams who have played at a high level all year. No. 9 Griffin was the odd-team out in the tiebreaker used by Region 3, despite only one regular-season loss to No. 8 Starr’s Mill. No. 5 Jones County was runner-up in Region 4, losing only to No. 3-ranked Stockbridge.
“It should a good game,” Griffin coach Antonio Andrews said. “It’s going to be their high-powered offense against our defense and we’ll see what happens.”
The two staffs are quite familiar with each other. Jones County coach Justin Rogers was the offensive coordinator at Griffin and left quite an impression.
“He’s one of the hardest-working coaches I know,” Andrews said of his former associate. “And he’s got a great, innovative mind.”
Jones County’s offense is led by quarterback Teldrick Ross, who has thrown for 935 yards and nine touchdowns and run for 863 yards and 12 touchdowns. Running back Drake Bolus has rushed for 984 yards and 11 touchdowns and is a breakaway waiting to happen.
Griffin quarterback Avious Nelson has grown into the role and last week threw his 21st touchdown. But the Bears strength lies in its experienced defense, which will need to have a great night.
Griffin leads the series 2-1. They last played in 2011, when both teams were in Region 3-AAAA. Jones County won that meeting 21-7.
Kell (5-5) at Flowery Branch (8-2): This game features two teams who have appeared in the state rankings and could be a shootout. Kell may be the best .500 club in the division, but the Longhorns were stunned last week by Hiram in the regular season finale. Flowery Branch hung with Buford for nearly three quarters in the Region 8 championship game.
Kell quarterback Evan Conley has completed 64.1 percent of his passes for 2,034 yards and 22 touchdowns. Running back Josiah Futral is a game-breaker – he’s just 31 yards short of 1,000 – and has 15 rushing touchdowns and is a dangerous receiver. Michael Luckie averages 17.5 yards on 50 catches and has seven touchdowns.
Flowery Branch has made quick progress under first-year coach Ben Hall. Sophomore quarterback Elijah Gainey has grown into the job and has thrown for 1,370 yards and 10 touchdowns. The two-head Malik Monsters in the backfield offer varying looks – Malik Damons, the bigger of the two, has rushed for 1,189 yards and 18 touchdowns, and Malik Drayton, a smaller more elusive back, has rushed for 772 yards and 13 touchdowns. Jalin Strown (30 catches, eight TDs) is an excellent receiver.
This will be the second meeting between the two teams. Kell won 21-13 in 2010 in the second round of the Class AAAA playoffs.
Here’s a look at the some of other first-round playoff games:
Banneker (8-2) at Southwest DeKalb (7-3), Saturday, Godfrey Stadium, 7:30 p.m.: SWD is led by quarterback Justin Tomlin, who has thrown for 1,535 yards and 13 touchdowns but missed two games with an injury. If he can’t go, the Panthers will rely even more heavily on running back Francisco Hunter, who has rushed for 1,388 yards and eight touchdowns, and Jamel Starks. Banneker, under first-year coach Mario Allen, produced their best record since 2002 and are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2013. The Trojans feature exciting quarterback Dionte Donneau, who has rushed for 521 yards and nine touchdowns and thrown for 708 yards and five touchdowns. Southwest DeKalb leads the series 2-0, but they haven’t played since 1997.
Dutchtown (7-3) at Starr’s Mill (9-1): The Dutchtown defense has held seven opponents to 10 or fewer points this season and last week limited the powerful Jones County offense to 23 points in the season finale. The Bulldogs, under first-year coach Clifford Fedd, will be tested by the healthy Starr’s Mill offense that averages 37 points. The Panthers have a deep and talented group of running backs, four of them with 600-plus yards, and quarterback Joey Deluca. Starr’s Mill leads the series 5-0 and won 45-7 in 2015.
Eagle’s Landing (6-4) at Whitewater (7-3): Whitewater has won three straight and five of its last six, the only setback a loss to Starr’s Mill. The Wildcats have a balanced attack behind quarterback Maddox Mueller (1,057 yards, 11 touchdowns) and sophomore running back Mike Montgomery (1,100 yards, 13 touchdowns). Eagle’s Landing is led by quarterback Cameron Lewis, who has thrown for 1,560 yards and 12 touchdowns and rushed for another 376 yards and five touchdowns, despite a late-season injury that caused him to miss a couple of games. This will be the first meeting between the two programs.
Miller Grove (5-5) at Jackson (8-2), Saturday, Grady Stadium, 7:30 p.m.: Jackson quarterback Roderick Hammond has thrown for 1,650 yards and 15 touchdowns and rushed for 270 yards. Hassan Hall is the top rusher with 589 yards and four touchdowns. Coby Dixon has 12 sacks and 79 tackles to lead the defense. Miller Grove is a pass-oriented team led by quarterback Jamaal Roach, who has thrown for 1,174 yards and 13 touchdowns. Linemen Mustafa Arnold and linebacker Caleb Tannor are at the heart of the young defense.
Clarke Central (7-3) at Carrollton (8-2): Two of the state’s iconic programs meet in the first round – surprisingly for the first time. Clarke is led by quarterback Jack Mangel (1,616 yards, 12 touchdowns) and Jonathan Sewell (1,109 yards, nine touchdowns rushing), a pair of juniors who have helped the program regain its footing. Elijah Smith (66 tackles, 14 tackles for loss) leads a quick defense. No. 10 Carrollton has gotten great leadership and performance from senior running back Jaylan Thomas, who has rushed for 1,254 yards and 14 touchdowns. Sophomore Kashif Taylor has done well at quarterback since Mark West was injured, throwing six touchdown passes over the last three games he’s started.
Columbia (5-5) vs. Carver (9-1), Grady Stadium, 7:30 p.m.: Carver finished the season with seven straight wins and captured its first region championship since 2007. Coach Darren Myles’ team has been an offensive machine, averaging 33 points. The Panthers’ attack features quarterback Octavious Battle (2,392 yards, 17 touchdowns passing) and tailback Jo’Quavious Marks, a sophomore who has rushed for 1,527 yards and 13 touchdowns. Marks is already getting big-time D-I offers. Columbia quarterback Tramaine Calloway has thrown for 1,134 yards and 12 touchdowns and the backfield is led by Khalon Manuel, who has rushed for 959 yards and six touchdowns. The teams have split two previous meetings and last played in 2013.
North Springs (6-4) vs. Arabia Mountain (8-2), Hallford Stadium, 7:30 p.m.: Arabia Mountain closed the season with five wins. Quarterback Bryson Williams ranks second in DeKalb County with 1,623 passing yards and 19 touchdowns and the defense is led by linemen Demetric Barnes and Thomas Rayton and linebackers Christian Phillips and Javon Watkins. The Rams will be challenged to slow North Springs quarterback Brian Adams, who has thrown for 2,367 yards and 21 touchdowns and led the Spartans to their second straight playoff appearance. This is the first meeting between the two teams.