Here's a look at five things we learned from the quarterfinal round of the state football playoffs...
1. Playoff runs are built on complete teams
Championships are built on defense, right? Well, sorta. Yes teams with great defenses win lots of titles, but if you look closer, you'll find those same teams either have underrated offenses/special teams or offenses that match their defensive personalities perfectly. For example look no further than Buford and Gainesville. The Wolves and Red Elephants are very good on both sides of the ball (along with stellar special teams -- please DO NOT underrate that), but, most importantly, their offenses and defenses compliment each other. Buford's smothering defense would make a lot of programs great -- the Wolves allowed 48 TOTAL YARDS in the quarterfinal -- but it suits them to a T that their offense gives opponents no break physically. And if Buford's not grinding on you with their defense, you can bet they're leaning on you with their offense. That's not to say the Wolves can't hit you with big plays, but that's generally the exception -- the straw that breaks your back once you're physically (and psychologically) bruised and battered. Gainesville, meanwhile, comes out throwing haymaker after haymaker on both sides. Or, to borrow another metaphor, the Red Elephants put you in a track meet and dare you to keep up. And while most people think of their offense as the explosive piece, their defensive play is just as key. With playmakers and speed, the Red Elephants can turn the game with a big defensive play just as much as with a long touchdown pass and have done so time and again this postseason. In short, these two teams are where they are not just because of one great side of the ball, but because of complete teams that punish opponents and force mistakes. They do it differently, but both are extremely effective.
2. North Hall may have been just inches from another semifinal berth
It will not lessen the hurt by any stretch, but the Trojans may just have been the unluckiest team in the entire playoff bracket. North Hall had Ringgold on the ropes in the first round and literally missed upsetting the Tigers by inches, as a last-second field goal attempt hit the crossbar only to carom the wrong way. Now Ringgold is in the Class AAA semifinals. That's no guarantee that North Hall would have gone on to do the same, but you have to think the Trojans would have had a great shot to copy Ringgold's run.
3. For the most part, the pollsters got it right -- but rankings don't mean much
We're not going to bang on about some of the misses in the polls -- we have filled out enough rankings forms to know how difficult it is to predict high school football teams and the games they play. We will say, however, that the rankings make for great debate and little else. For example look no further than the teams remaining in each classification. There are five programs currently playing that entered the playoffs unranked in the sports writers poll (three of them in the Class A public bracket and one in Class AAAAAA), while two of the No. 1-ranked programs are no longer alive. That said, of the 24 teams ranked inside the top four of each classification in the final regular season poll (the teams that, ostensibly, should be in the semifinals) the voters got more than half correct (14). Four No. 1s are still playing (Class AAAAA: Tucker, Class AAA: Buford, Class AA: Lamar County, Class A: Eagles Landing Christian Academy), as are four No. 2s (Class AAAAA: Kell, Class AAAA: Griffin, Class AA: Lovett, Class A: Aquinas). The rankings were dead on in Class AAAAA, with 1-4 all still playing -- in order: Tucker, Kell, Gainesville, Creekside, while the public/private split made things nearly impossible to predict, with only one Class A public semifinalist -- Irwin County (No. 7) -- making the final regular season rankings. It's not an easy job, but it's one that fans appreciate (whether they admit it or not) because of the talk it generates. But the talk is now finished, and it will be interesting to see where the next couple of weeks take us on the field.
4. Home-field advantage still counts for something -- but not everything
Playing at home is generally considered a big plus, but it is by no means a guarantee of victory. For example look no further than state quarterfinal round, where 11 of the 28 contests played were won by the visitors. That's over a third of the games played and no small slice. That stat should only hearten fans of teams like Gainesville and North Gwinnett even further this week, as both programs head on the road for the semifinals -- not that Bulldog fans should be worried after watching their team win three straight road games to reach the last four for the first time since 2007. The Red Elephants, meanwhile, won three straight road contests en route to the 2012 Class AAAAA crown. Of course everyone would rather be on home turf come Friday, but visitors have plenty of fun too.
5. Momentum is what a program makes of it
Speaking of Gainesville, every Red Elephant fan will remember that last year's title run followed two straight regular season losses. It was an improbable feat but not unheard of by any means. In fact this year's semifinalists across all classes include five teams that lost their regular season finales only to right the ship in timely fashion. In the largest classification there are two teams -- McEachern and Colquitt County -- that suffered setbacks just prior to the playoffs, while Wayne County (Class AAAA), Ringgold (Class AAA) and Charlton County (Class A) did the same. The prevailing thought is that you want to enter the postseason hitting peak form, so doing so on the back of a loss is not necessarily ideal. But these five programs show that everything is relative, and that serious momentum can pick up speed quickly -- even from a standstill.
FRIDAY'S STATE QUARTERFINAL RESULTS FOR AREA TEAMS
Buford 36, Carver, Columbus 6
Gainesville 42, Mundy's Mill 28
Lamar County 35, Jefferson 24
North Gwinnett 35, Hillgrove 31
SEMIFINAL MATCH-UPS FOR AREA TEAMS
North Gwinnett at McEachern
Gainesville at Tucker
Callaway at Buford