This week, it's all about the ring. And three area high school football teams have a chance to grab it, as the state championship round gets underway beginning Friday at the Georgia Dome.
Each program took an interesting path to Atlanta, and Buford, Gainesville and Jefferson each have a unique story to tell. This week on Access North Georgia, we'll do our best to chronicle each of them, both in print and on video.
On Friday, Buford will look to regain its place at the top, facing St. Pius X at 5:30 p.m., while Gainesville will look to break fight its way to the summit for the first time later that evening with a showdown against Ware County at 8:30 p.m..
And on Saturday, Jefferson will take its shot at glory when the Dragons take on defending Class AA champ Calhoun at 2:30 p.m.
Jefferson (13-1) cruised past Greater Atlanta Christian 42-14 in the state semifinal round last week, earning its first state championship berth in 35 years in the process.
The Dragons have never won a GHSA crown, falling in their previous two attempts -- 1975 to Irwin County and 1977 to Lincoln County. Yet coach T McFerrin has taken a team to a state crown, winning the Class AA title in 1995 with Elbert County.
Jefferson is already riding a school-best 13-game win streak and quarterback Bryant Shirreffs could prove a difference maker -- even against a Calhoun team that derailed Buford's run at five straight state titles in 2011.
The Yellow Jackets (14-0) are looking for their 30th straight win and feature a number of playmakers on both sides of the ball, including quarterback Taylor Lamb and running back Alex Urbano, who rushed for 160 yards in last week's 21-14 defeat of Lamar County. Receivers Josh Barnes and Tydus Curtis are also weapons for an offense scoring 44.7 points per game. Defensively, Calhoun is allowing 13.6 points per game, with last week's two touchdowns the most allowed in postseason play so far.
It took four straight attempts for the Yellow Jackets to break through to claim their first state title since 1952, defeating Buford last season after three straight Dome defeats to the Wolves.
Gainesville, meanwhile, is gunning to rid itself of the mantle "best program never to win a GHSA title," this weekend. The Red Elephants (11-3) own over 700 program wins and a bevy of region titles and deep postseason runs, but dropped all of their previous title shots -- in 1960, '68, '69, '72, '82 and '09 -- with the last five coming by an average of 3.8 points per game.
After reaching last season's Class AAA semifinals, Gainesville feels ready to take the next, and biggest, step in Class AAAAA, though the Red Elephants know it won't come easy against a Ware County team also looking for its first championship.
The Gators (13-1) last played for a state title in 2007, falling to Northside, Warner Robins in the Class AAAA finale. Ware County defeated Northside 24-17 in overtime last week, breaking through to the title game after reaching the Class AAAA quarterfinals in each of the last two seasons.
The Gators have been doing it with defense this season, allowing just 8.6 points per game. They will face a Red Elephants offense scoring 45.1 points per contest, including 48.5 through four playoff wins. Gainesville quarterback Deshaun Watson, a junior, will enter the showdown 30 yards short of the GHSA's career passing yardage mark.
Ware County's offense leans on its ground game, rushing for over 3,000 yards, though quarterback Jamar Johnson has also hurt defenses with his arm.
The showdown for Gainesville will immediately follow a Class AAA title contest for Buford, as the Wolves (11-3) look to claim their eighth state championship since 2001.
Buford has reloaded to reach the title game, replacing all but three starters from last year's team that fell in overtime. St. Pius, meanwhile, is looking to claim its first crown since 1968 and will be making its first ever state title appearance in the Georgia Dome.
Both teams will look to run the ball and stop the run -- in very different manners, as Pius relies on the triple option, while Buford will try to power over the Golden Lions (12-2) via a multiple-I attack.
Pius comes in averaging 34.9 points per game on offense, including a 31-6 defeat of North Hall in the Class AAA semifinals. The Golden Lions will face a Buford defense that is allowing just 7.5 points per game and has been downright nasty during the postseason, allowing just 17 points in its last three playoff victories.
Pius' defense has also played well for much of the season, yielding just 13.8 ppg and will try to slow a Buford offense that looks to be hitting its stride at the right time, as leading rusher Dontravious Wilson leads the charge.
All three teams will bank on plenty of area support making the trek south, and Access North Georgia will be right alongside as each prepares for the ultimate game of the season this week.
SEMIFINAL RESULTS FOR AREA FOOTBALL TEAMS, Dec. 7
Buford 21, Cartersville 10
Gainesville 28, Whitewater 14
Jefferson 42, Greater Atlanta Christian 14
St. Pius X 31, North Hall 6
STATE CHAMPIONSHIP SCHEDULE FOR AREA TEAMS
At the Georgia Dome, Atlanta
5:30 p.m., Class AAA, Buford vs. St. Pius
8:30 p.m., Class AAAAA, Gainesville vs. Ware County
2:30 p.m., Class AA, Jefferson vs. Calhoun