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Opinion: Area teams travel to Atlanta with plenty of reason for confidence

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
Bruce Miller's postgame words spoke volumes on Friday night.

Seconds after watching his team soar into its second state title showdown in four seasons, the Red Elephants head coach was in no mood for celebrations.

"If our goal is just going to the (Georgia) Dome, then we're not thinking right," Miller implored his team following a 28-14 defeat of Whitewater in the Class AAAAA semifinals. "We want the state championship; don't you lose your hunger."

By the way things have played out this postseason, three area teams could well find themselves satiated after this weekend's state championship games in Atlanta. And it is a reflection of the strength and growth of northeast Georgia football that Gainesville, Buford and Jefferson each enter their respective finales with more than just hope on their side.

Certainly I could be accused of homer-ism by those dwelling outside our corner of the state, but, after watching all three teams stomp their way to the Georgia Dome in 2012 -- evolving tremendously in the process -- I too believe that the Red Elephants, Wolves and Dragons should enter this weekend full of genuine confidence.

Not that their respective opponents are championship fodder -- far from it, as Ware County (facing Gainesville), St. Pius (facing Buford) and Calhoun (facing Jefferson) are each sensational programs. Yet each northeast Georgia team does something uniquely special -- the types of things that imbue the local trio with legitimate title opportunities.

First off there are those quarterbacks.

Gainesville's Deshaun Watson and Jefferson's Bryant Shirreffs are once-in-a-generation type players, and area fans have been doubly blessed in witnessing their dual threat abilities.

Then there is that Buford defense, surging back into championship-caliber territory after replacing a slew of starters. And while area fans have grown to expect these type of postseason charges from the Wolves -- who will be making their sixth straight state championship appearance -- how many would have expected this year's defense to match the 2011 unit that featured a line-up almost entirely made up of Football Bowl Subdivision signees? Yet here it is, allowing just 7.5 points per game, compared with last year's 7.4.

And that's just scratching the surface.

The Red Elephants and Dragons go far beyond their signal caller's considerable abilities.

Gainesville's offense features an ultra-talented grouping of receivers and backs, whose combination of speed and playmaking -- as a group -- may never have been matched in that program's considerable offensive history. The Red Elephants offensive line is also paving the way for a unit averaging a jaw-dropping 45.1 points per game.

Gainesville's defense is also overlooked as a playmaking unit. And while the Red Elephants may not always shut down opposing offenses, they have forced a number of game-changing moments this season, utilizing team speed to disrupt, confuse and frustrate.

Jefferson's defense is in much the same boat and has provided a platform for the Dragons' historic march to the championship round -- its first title shot in 35 years -- by largely shutting down three playoff foes and then making enough key plays in Jefferson's three-overtime defeat of Fitzgerald in the quarterfinals.

Meanwhile, the Dragons' offense has shown the kind of depth that keeps defensive coordinators up nights.

Speaking of which, Buford has found its power ground attack groove at just the right time, using a tried-and-true formula to pound two straight road playoff foes. And, should an opponent decide to over-commit to stopping the run, the Wolves' two-headed quarterback of Taylor Mitchell and Montgomery VanGorder are more than capable of leading the team through the air.

Again, I'm not claiming that a clean sweep is imminent, nor even likely -- this weekend's opposition will surely provide just as many challenges for the area's title challengers and require nothing short of their best in order to prevail.

I am suggesting, however, that thanks to their abilities and current form, each area team has a legitimate shot at glory come this weekend. And a legitimate shot is all that any coach or player hungers for.

Come this weekend, the table is indeed set for the feast.


-- Morgan Lee is sports editor for Access North Georgia.com


STATE CHAMPIONSHIP SCHEDULE FOR AREA TEAMS
At the Georgia Dome, Atlanta

Friday
5:30 p.m., Class AAA, Buford vs. St. Pius
8:30 p.m., Class AAAAA, Gainesville vs. Ware County

Saturday
2:30 p.m., Class AA, Jefferson vs. Calhoun
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