To the casual Georgia high school football fan, Friday’s Class AAAAA championship game may seem a mismatch.
Buford is set for its 10th straight state title shot, gunning for its 12th overall crown and 11th since 2001. Its opponent Rome, meanwhile, will make its first ever championship appearance.
(NOTE: The two teams will kick off at 4:30 p.m. at the Georgia Dome. The game will be broadcast live on 102.9 FM, WDUN AM 550, and streamed on AccessWDUN. AccessWDUN's Friday Game Night will be on hand to give live updates, a full game story, and video highlights once the title ceremony is concluded on the Georgia Dome floor.)
However, ask coaches familiar with both teams and they will tell you: Forget the history. Focus on the present.
Carrollton coach Sean Calhoun and Kell coach Derek Cook played against both Rome and Buford during the 2016 season, including playoffs, and witnessed firsthand just what made each state finalists. (Rome, Carrollton, and Kell tied for the Region 7-AAAAA title, and all three advanced to the quarterfinals of the Class AAAAA playoffs.)
And both Cook and Calhoun believe there could be a classic brewing on Friday in the Dome.
“I see this as a total toss-up,” said Calhoun, whose Trojans lost 45-28 to Rome in the regular season and 34-27 to Buford in the AAAAA quarterfinals. “Honestly, other than the (Class AAAAAAA) Grayson-Roswell game, this may be the best game of the finals.”
“It should be an absolute sledgehammer war out there,” added Cook, whose Longhorns beat Rome 33-30 on a field goal in the waning seconds and then fell to Buford in last week’s semifinals, 28-16. “It’s going to be a game for men. I’m expecting it to be one of the best games of the weekend (at the Dome).”
And even after contemplation, neither coach found a distinct advantage for either program.
Rome sports the No. 1 offense in AAAAA, averaging 43.8 points per game. It also has the No. 1 defense, yielding just 11.3 ppg, but has allowed 34 points (17 ppg) in the last two rounds.
Buford featuers the No. 2 offense, scoring 41.0 ppg and has the No. 4 defense in points allowed at 14.2 ppg. But, the Wolves have yielded 23 ppg over the last three rounds of the playoffs.
In Kell’s win over Rome, Cook said his Longhorns pounced for a 30-3 lead by throwing the ball. However, a conservative approach in the second half allowed Rome to tie the game, 30-30, in the fourth quarter before the Longhorns responded with the game-winning field goal.
He said it was a similar approach against Buford in last week’s semifinals.
“You’re not going to be able to run successfully against either defense,” Cook said. “We had success throwing the ball against both. It’s not that the secondaries aren’t good, it’s just that it’s easier to have some success in the passing game. Those (defensive) fronts are big and physical, and they just don’t give up much.
“We were able to move the ball against Buford in the air as well. That’s where both teams are going to have to attack, in my opinion. However, if one of them is able to get their run game going, that could be the difference in the game.”
For Calhoun, his Trojans' loss to Rome was more about breakdowns in special teams and eventually wearing down under the constant assault of a big offensive line. Carrollton also yielded more than 300 yards on the ground in the loss to Buford -- which also made the most of its big, physical offensive line.
“Against Rome, we gave up two big kickoff returns and roughed the punter on a key series when we were trying to get back in the game,” Calhoun said. “Buford was able to pop some big runs on us and just kind of wore us down at the end. We made mistakes against both teams, and to really have a chance you have to limit mistakes. That will play a big factor as well. You can’t make mistakes against either team.”
Another point Cook and Calhoun agreed on was that the key matchup could come between Buford's offensive line -- Hank White, Connor Mills, Garrett Scoggins, Dean Powell, and Tyler Thurmond -- and Rome's defensive line of Jamarcus Chatman, Adam Anderson, T.J. Cammack, and Gabe Allen -- each of whome are juniors.
“That’s the matchup I’m going to be watching,” Calhoun said. “Buford has probably the two best running backs in the state and a big (offensive) line. But Rome is strong on the defensive line and has four great linebackers and just gets to the ball so quick. They can pressure the quarterback also. Whichever group wins that battle wins the game, in my opinion.”
“Absolutely that is the key matchup in the game,” Cook added. “Rome will need to make Buford throw the ball. Those two running backs they have are game-changers. Buford’s quarterback (senior Mic Roof) is solid but they really only like to throw when they need too. If you can get them into long third downs, that is how you can beat them. But that’s easier said than done.”
Both teams offer playmakers that could turn the tide. Rome sophomore quarterback Knox Kadum (122-for-187, 1,731 yards, 16 TDs, 4 INTs; 603 yards rushing, 5 TDs) is more of a dual-threat. If he can slow the Buford pass rush, the classification’s No. 1 offense could thrive. Buford’s defensive line of Zack Waters, Powell, and Mick Reese, along with linebackers Mickey McMorris, Anthony Grant, AJ Wansley, TD Roof, and Jake Simpson will have to maintain their gaps.
Kadem is averaging 166.7 yards per game combined. Buford is allowing just 75.5 yards per game on the ground and just 186.1 total yards a game.
“(Kadum) had three interceptions in the first half in our game," Cook said. "We were able to put some pressure on him. But in the second half he made a bunch of plays to get them back in the game.”
Buford does have junior running backs Grant (189 carries, 1,447 yards, 24 TDs) and Christian Turner (123 carries, 1,077, 18 TDs) and has amassed 4,002 yards rushing as a team (285 ypg) with four players owning 450 yards or more on the season. And Turner has proved a difference-maker in the postseason, bouncing back from injury to rush for (since the second round) 513 yards and nine touchdowns (that's 171 yards and 3 scores per game average).
Yet Calhoun offered up the all-purpose TD Roof as someone who could be a difference-maker.
“(TD) Roof was impressive to me,” Calhoun said. “He made plays on offense, defense, and on special teams. It could be a guy like that. To me he was the best player on the field when we played them. Someone you may not expect on both teams is going to have to step up.”
Special teams could also prove a factor, as Buford has experienced problems with snaps and punt coverage in the last two rounds.
Rome is dangerous on kick returns and has used sophomore Jamious Griffin, who has five punt returns for 121 yards and junior Jordan Watkins, who has 126 punt return yards.
“We took advantage of some miscues (Buford) had early on, and if they make those kinds of mistakes against Rome I’m sure it will be costly,” Calhoun said. “Something like that could definitely change momentum.”
Region 7-AAAAA showed that, at least for 2016, it was the base of power in Class AAAAA with three teams advancing to the quarterfinals and two to the semifinals. Does that mean that both Cook and Calhoun are clearly hoping for a Rome victory on Friday?
“On one hand, I’d like to see Buford win because it would mean we lost to the state champions,” Cook said. “On the other hand, though, I’d like to see Rome win because it’s a fellow 7-AAAAA team. I’m just going to watch and see what happens. But I can tell you that when the new regions were announced, I knew 7-AAAAA was going to be the toughest one in Class AAAAA. There were three teams that went to the second round or further. I wasn’t surprised at all to see two or three teams get as far as we did as a region.”
“For us, no matter who wins we get to say we lost to a state champion,” Calhoun added. “I guess I’ll probably be rooting a little more for Rome since it’s a fellow 7-AAAAA team.”
However, both also expect that the outcome will be in doubt until the final whistle.
“I definitely think it’s going to go down to the wire. I would be surprised if it didn’t. I’m expecting a great game,” Cook said.
“I see this going all the way to the end. It may be that whoever has the last possession wins it,” Calhoun said. “I’m definitely looking forward to watching this one.”