Thanksgiving is fast approaching and with this being a holiday week, I’m combining Tuesday and Thursday’s posts into one megablog, where 1) we’ll go over my predictions from the second round, 2) preview the quarterfinals and 3) take a look at Class AA in brief.
My predictions have gone unscathed through two rounds even though there were tough choices to make. Going in, I considered Callaway at Rockmart and No. 6 Brooks County at No. 7 Dodge County to be the toughest to call.
As it would turn out, there was no closer game than Callaway-Rockmart, which the Cavaliers won 40-35 on the road. Perhaps the game would have had a different ending if not for Courtney Williams’ 95-yard pick six with less than two minutes remaining, which turned the game upside down from the Yellow Jackets being in position to take a 35-33 lead to trailing 40-28.
It’s the second consecutive year they’ve used an amazing, late-fourth quarter touchdown on the road to advance in the playoffs. Last year, of course, was their quarterfinals game at Screven County, where they needed to drive 98 yards with a little more than two minutes remaining. Braylon Sanders’ 47-yard reception on fourth-and-7 with 17 seconds remaining gave the Cavs a 35-34 victory.
If No. 9 Callaway beats No. 6 Brooks County on Friday, and No. 3 Screven County beats No. 5 Rabun County on Friday, it would set up an epic rematch of last year’s thriller. And with the Cavs a No. 2 seed and Gamecocks a one-seed, the game would again be played at Screven County. The only difference is instead of it being for a trip to the quarterfinals, they’d be playing for a semifinals appearance.
I have Brooks County ending Callaway’s season, however, with Screven County beating Rabun County.
Speaking of Brooks County, I had the Trojans beating Dodge County but I thought it would be closer than the 35-17 score they won by, given that they were playing on the road against an undefeated Indians team. But the Trojans won handily and are in the quarterfinals for the fourth time since 2010. If they beat Callaway, they’ll be in the semifinals for the third time since 2013 and the fourth time since Freeman returned to Brooks County in 2008. Freeman also coached the Trojans from 1994-1997, winning the program’s only state title in ’94.
As for the rest of the games, nothing out of the ordinary — just double-digit wins across the board.
While my bracket is looking good so far, a lot can go wrong in the next round. All teams in the quarterfinals truly have a chance of advancing, as no win would be considered an upset. We’ll talk more about these games in the next section.
For GHSF Daily’s AA quarterfinals previews, go here.
If your team has made it this far, you can taste a trip to Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Every one of the eight teams alive are on the cusp of playing for a title, and all know they have what it takes to get there. But after Friday, half of those teams will be eliminated.
An important development ahead of the quarterfinals: the GHSA conducted a universal coin flip on Tuesday to determine home field advantage in the semifinals between equal-seeded teams that play each other. The coin came up “heads,” meaning teams on the top side of the GHSA’s official bracket will host. So the winner of the Thomasville-Heard County game will host the winner of Hapeville Charter-Benedictine. The Callaway-Brooks County winner travels even though both teams are on the top of the bracket, because both are No. 2 seeds and would play the winner of Rabun County-Screven County — two No. 1 seeds.
Last week’s universal coin toss for the quarterfinals came up “tails,” giving teams in the bottom half of the GHSA bracket home field in instances where equal seeds meet.
Let’s take a look at the four quarterfinals matchups, all of which feature top 10 teams, including six No. 1 seeds and two No. 2 seeds.
We’ll start with a game I’ve said all along would have made for a great AA title game: the No. 2 Hapeville Charter Hornets at the No. 1 Benedictine Cadets. It’s a classic North-South instant rivalry game between two programs that have never met. One program is up-and-coming — the Hornets won their first-ever playoff game last season and entered this year with five preseason all-state selections. The other has been building a dynasty in AA over the past half-decade — the Cadets have won two titles in the last three years, have reached at least the quarterfinals in each of the past five seasons and are on a 26-game win streak.
(For a scouting report provided by Benedictine, go here.)
The question I have is simple: have the fast-rising Hornets already caught up to the juggernaut Cadets? My answer, as reflected in the predictions, is: not yet. Of course, I could be wrong and I know the Hapeville Charter community and other prominent Georgia high school football figures think that I am. And I could be. I certainly think the Hornets can win this game and it wouldn’t be an upset if they did. But when it came to making a prediction, for me all the available information points to Benedictine winning.
The Hornets have some quality wins that don’t include their playoff victories. The first was their season opener, when they beat then-No. 3 Fitzgerald 25-22. The Purple Hurricane would end up limping into the playoffs with a losing record, as starting quarterback James Graham suffered an injury that caused him to miss a month. But at the time they played Hapeville they were still considered one of the state’s best. Another was Wesleyan, Class A-public’s No. 4-ranked team, which they beat 35-0.
Then, of course, is their lone hiccup — a 21-20 loss in Alabama to Thompson, which entered the playoffs undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the state’s highest classification. In that game, the Hornets coughed up a 17-0 lead.
Since that loss, the defense has been dominant, having allowed just 8.2 points a game including five shutouts. They beat Spencer 24-0 in the first round and Elbert County 56-10 last week.
And one more twist to this startup rivalry between Hornets and Cadets is Tyleek Collins (pictured left)
who in the offseason transferred from Benedictine to Hapeville Charter. Collins, a senior, rushed for 95 yards and two touchdowns for Benedictine in last year’s AA title game, which the Cadets won 49-26 over Fitzgerald. Collins has been a major contributor to the Hornets’ offense and is likely chomping at the bit to return to Savannah, where he may be greeted with a few boos.
As impressive as Hapeville Charter’s been, the Cadets have been too, if not more. They’ve lived up to their No. 1 billing all year long and no team has come closer than two scores to them. That was Toombs County, which they beat 28-14. They haven’t lost since 2015 and they’ve put up 126 points in their first two playoff games, including 70 last week against No. 10 Jefferson County.
So for everything Hapeville Charter has put up resume-wise, the Cadets have credentials that either match or top them. With the added advantage of playing in Savannah, I see the Cadets moving on.
Either way, I see the winner of this game becoming state champion.
The only No. 2 seeds remaining will play each other in Quitman when the No. 9 Callaway Cavaliers (11-1) travel to play the No. 6 Brooks County Trojans (10-1). It will be a rematch of last year’s Round 2 game, which Callaway won 28-14 in their first-ever meeting. In that game, the Trojans jumped to a 14-0 lead before the Cavs ripped off four consecutive scores, including two touchdown receptions from Braylon Sanders, who’s now at Ole Miss.
This is the Cavs’ second straight quarterfinals appearance and fourth since 2008 — all under Pete Wiggins, who took over the program in 2005. To reach the round of eight, they beat Douglass 28-8 in Round 1 and Rockmart — as mentioned above — last week. They’re on a five-game win streak after losing 35-28 to No. 8 Heard County in what decided Region 5.
I have the Cavs losing this one. Given the Trojans’ greater strength of schedule and the way they’ve played recently and, really, all season, I believe they’re in the best position to walk away from this game with a win.
The Trojans came very close to being undefeated if not for the previously mentioned Thomasville game. However, that loss — especially how they lost — is the kind of wake-up call that can prepare a team for a deep postseason run. Though the Trojans would obviously rather be undefeated, they have a clear point of reference to draw from that lets them know to not take any lead or opponent for granted. And that’s exactly how the Trojans have played since that loss, going 3-0 including a 39-7 Round 1 win over Vidalia and a 35-17 win over Dodge County.
Trojans coach Maurice Freeman recently spoke to Clint Thompson of The Valdosta Daily Times about moving on from the Thomasville game. For the LaGrange Daily News’ preview by Kevin Eckleberry, click here.
In Sylvania, the No. 3 Screven County Gamecocks host the No. 5 Rabun County Wildcats. I have the Gamecocks advancing to the semifinals for the first time since 2002, when they won the AAA state championship. The reason why is that dominant defenses win in the playoffs, and the Gamecocks have one of the best in the state. As has been documented in this space more than once leading up to the playoffs and beyond, they put together six consecutive shutouts. Regardless of the opponent — all shutouts came against a weak Region 4 field — shutting out 60 percent of the teams on your schedule is impressive, especially considering the removal of starters later in the game.
I expect the Gamecocks’ defense to present challenges to a Rabun County team averaging 48.5 points that it has yet to see. That’s been the Wildcats’ story the past two seasons. They’ve dominated offensively all through the season, but have hit a wall in the quarterfinals. Last season, they went into their quarterfinals matchup against Fitzgerald averaging 44 points, winning their first two playoff games 55-20 over B.E.S.T. Academy and 42-7 over Vidalia. But the Purple Hurricane held them to a season-low points total on the way to a 35-16 win.
The Gamecocks won’t have to rely solely on their defense either, because the offense is more than capable. In fact, they’re averaging 43 points a game — just 5.5 behind Rabun County. Of course, you also can’t discount Rabun County’s defense. The Wildcats are giving up just 9.25 points a game — two points behind Screven County’s 7.27.
On paper, this has the makings of a great game and it should play out that way too. However, I’m not counting on a shootout. I wouldn’t be surprised for the winner to score 35 or less. I’m reminded of Screven County’s regular season finale against Jefferson County, with the Region 4 title at stake. The Warriors came in averaging an eye-opening 52.4 points a game. The Gamecocks held them to a season-low point total on the way to a 44-20 win.
This game could end in similar fashion, but I’m expecting the margin of victory to be closer.
Finally, there’s the No. 8 Heard County Braves at the No. 4 Thomasville Bulldogs. I have the Bulldogs advancing based on the way they barged into the playoffs with a perfect record, which includes — as stated many times before — their 23-20 come-from-behind win over Brooks County. They also have quality wins over Cairo and Fitzgerald.
However, in comparison to their regular season performance, the Bulldogs looked underwhelming and mortal in their opening round matchup against Jeff Davis. Although they won 35-14, they committed four turnovers. However, they returned to form on Friday and disposed of Dublin 44-22 and should be ready to play at a high level at home against the Braves.
Given the historic run the Bulldogs are on this season, with all the individual and team records they’ve broken — their kicker twice set the longest field goal record, their quarterback broke numerous records, the team scored the most points in program history, etc. — and the adversity they’ve overcome, I just don’t see them losing yet.
That’s no knock on the Braves, who are undefeated against Georgia schools, including defeating Region 5 rival Callaway, 35-38. Their only loss was 17-14 to a Saraland team that finished 8-4 and reached the second round of Alabama’s Class AAAAAA playoffs. The Braves, led by talented dual-threat quarterback and Ohio State commit Emory Jones, have impressed in the playoffs so far with a 42-3 win over South Atlanta and a 41-28 win over Pepperell.
A win isn’t out of the question for Heard County, but in the end I expect the Bulldogs to be in the semifinals for the first time since 1993.
David Almeda previews the game for the Thomasville Times-Enterprise.
Check back on Saturday morning for a recap of the quarterfinals. And Happy Thanksgiving!
- Former Callaway receiver Braylon Sanders has been mentioned a few times in this megablog post, so we might as well acknowledge him here too. He caught the first touchdown pass of his college career on Saturday.
- Hapeville Charter defensive back Taijiri Smith, Pepperell’s Trevor Thomas (quarterback) and Marquedon Watkins (receiver), and Rockmart’s Reed Couch (tight end) and Jabari Burge (defensive end) have been selected to play in the Georgia Elite Classic.
- WSAV and WJCL have highlights of Benedictine’s win over Jefferson County.
- Here’s a look at Rabun County quarterback Bailey Fisher’s five touchdown performance as provided by Blitz. Fisher is on the AJC/GHSF Daily Player of the Year watch.
- Hapeville Charter receiver Rory Starkey was recently named a Wendy’s High School Heisman Winner for his academic and athletic achievements. Starkey is a three-star recruit committed to play for Penn of the Ivy League.
- Here’s Benedictine’s Dennis Bailey with a pick-six from last week’s game against Jefferson County.
- Benedictine’s Travis Blackshear had a long touchdown run in the same game. He had another run that was even more impressive.
- Here’s the all-region team for 2-AA. The player of the year is Benedictine’s Nick Iannone.
- Iannone is also up for the Michael Finocchiaro Award, which is given to the top football player in Chatham County.
- Here’s the all-region team for 6-AA.
- Rabun County’s win over B.E.S.T. was coach Lee Shaw’s 150th of his career.
- Benedictine’s Johan Griffin has been invited to participate in the NoKaOi Senior Bowl in Honolulu.
- Longtime Model coach Gordon Powers retired last week. Here’s his press conference. He coached nearly 40 years, including at Model from 2003-17, where he compiled a 60-67 record and guided the Blue Devils to five consecutive playoff appearances from 2012 to 2016.
- Thomasville’s band went viral for its performance during the Jeff Davis game, apparently.
Follow the AJC’s Class AA coverage on Twitter.