What to watch: Rockmart in an upset?

2017 AA football bracket ROUND 2

Predictions made before the postseason began, by Adam Krohn/AJC.

Round 2 of the Class AA playoffs begins on Friday and by the time the dust settles, we will know who the quarterfinalists are. GHSF Daily previews second round matchups for all classifications, including AA, and those can be read here. For Maxwell’s Round 2 projections, go here.

(For AA playoff predictions made before the tournament began, go here.)

There are many second round games that should be competitive and there are two matchups which pin top 10 teams against each other. But for my money, the game to keep an eye on is the No. 9 Callaway Cavaliers (10-1) at the Rockmart Yellow Jackets (9-2).

I’ve picked Callaway to advance to the quarterfinals after reaching the semifinals last season. It would be the Cavs’ fourth trip to the quarterfinals since 2008, all led by coach Pete Wiggins, who came to Callaway in 2005. The Cavs are riding a four-game win streak, including a 28-8 win over Douglass in the opening round. Their only hiccup was a 35-28 defeat at the hands of Heard County, which is ranked No. 8.

Callaway returns a handful of playmakers from last year’s semifinalist team, most notably running backs D.J. Atkins and Cartavious Bigsby. While standout receiver Braylon Sanders is now at Ole Miss, Jacob Freeman and DQ Wilkerson are excelling in his place.

I have the Cavs winning for a couple of reasons. First, they have more experience winning big games in the postseason, the best example being their epic, come-from-behind win over Screven County in last year’s quarterfinals. Second, they played a tougher schedule according to Maxpreps.

That being said, I still think the Yellow Jackets have an excellent shot at winning this game. For starters, it’s a home game for them. Playing in front of the home crowd for the Jackets is an element that can’t be overlooked. The community has been electrified by the team’s run, which has produced their first region title since 1988 — the last time they reached the quarterfinals. The Rockmart community isn’t just hopeful the Jackets will win, they’re expecting it (also see here and here.)

And for good reason. Led by running back Zabrion Whatley, Rockmart brings a strong resume to the table. They started 1-2, but the one win was 36-22 over Piedmont (Alabama). That ended up being the only regular-season loss for Piedmont, which was the Yellowhammer State’s No. 1-ranked team in Class AAA heading into the playoffs. The Jackets’ opening season loss was respectable at 34-26 to Cedartown, the No. 8 team in AAAA. Their only true blemish was a 31-30 loss to a Woodland-Cartersville team that finished 3-7 in AAAAA. But from there, they’ve reeled off eight consecutive wins, including a 47-7 win over Monticello in their playoff opener.

The game will be intense, and fans are already going back and forth on social media. I expect a competitive game that may be decided by a score or less. Maxwell’s projections have Callaway as just a 2-point favorite.

Along with Rockmart, I dubbed Toombs County as a darkhorse heading into the playoffs. That’s why I believe the Toombs County Bulldogs (10-1) at the No. 3 Screven County Gamecocks (10-0) to be an intriguing one.

I expect this game to be a grinder, with Screven County’s stingy defense colliding with the Bulldogs’ stout running attack. The Bulldogs have already passed a tough test in beating back-to-back state runner-ups Fitzgerald, 34-31 — a game in which they overcame a 10-point deficit in the second half. If their defense can stand up to the Gamecocks, which haven’t scored less than 35 points all season, this could be a closer game than the 13 points Screven County is projected to win by.

As for the two matchups involving ranked teams facing off, there’s No. 10 Jefferson County (10-1) at No. 1 Benedictine (11-0) and No. 6 Brooks County (10-1 at No. 7 Dodge County (10-0).

With Benedictine projected to beat Jefferson County by 25, I’ll focus on the Brooks County Trojans at the Dodge County Indians. This game is just one of the many examples of incredibly tough predictions that had to be made on the left side of the bracket. In my opinion, Brooks County, Rabun County and Screven County are all on equal footing when it comes to reaching the title game. And in a tier ever-so-slightly below those three are Callaway, Rockmart and Dodge County. That’s six teams I think have a real shot of playing in the title game, and that’s not just me trying to cover my bases by lazily saying every team that’s still alive has a chance.

I see the Trojans — Maxwell projections have them as a 5-point favorite — winning because they came out of a highly competitive Region 1 that includes No. 4 Thomasville and Fitzgerald. They had Thomasville on the ropes, up 20-0 at halftime before eventually giving in to a monster Thomasville comeback that turned into a 23-20 Trojans loss.

In addition to the strong schedule, I just can’t look past coach Maurice Freeman’s postseason success since his second stint with the Trojans began in 2008. Not only have they advanced in the postseason every year since then, but he’s been to the semifinals and quarterfinals three times each in that span. His teams have been eliminated in the second round the past two seasons, however. They’re coming off a 38-7 win over Vidalia.

Speaking of Vidalia, that was Dodge County’s season-opening opponent and Dodge County barely escaped with a 14-13 win. Given the common opponent the Trojans and Indians have, their results against Vidalia could be telling. Granted, transitive property isn’t always reliable when it comes to high school football, but I can’t help but to see that as a barometer worth gaging. In addition, Dodge County played just three teams with winning records during the regular season, none with more than six wins. Two of those teams were in Dodge County’s 3-AA region and failed to make the playoffs. Not only that, but the Indians drew a favorable first-round draw against a Butler team that was 4-6 entering the playoffs.

Dodge County took care of business, beating Butler 44-8, but Brooks County is easily the toughest team the Indians have faced thus far. I’m not saying the Indians can’t win, but there’s nothing on their resume convincing enough for me to predict them to.

One other darkhorse to keep an eye on: the Pepperell Dragons (8-3) when they take on the No. 9 Heard County Braves (9-1). The Braves are a 15-point favorite but the Dragons have shutout two of their last three opponents, including Banks County, 57-0, in Round 1. They’re also a season removed from the quarterfinals. The Braves, however, are undefeated against Georgia teams — their only loss was 17-14 to Saraland (Alabama) — and they have the better resume, highlighted by a 35-28 win over Callaway. They beat South Atlanta 42-3 last week. I think the Braves will win at home, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s closer than the 15 points they’re favorited by.

Here’s to a fun-filled Round 2 on Friday. Check back on Saturday morning for a recap of all the action.

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