Here's a look at five things we learned from the first week of the GHSA state football playoffs...
1. Northeast Georgia programs more than hold their own
Eighteen area teams entered the first round of the state playoffs on Friday -- nine moved on to the second round, and that was with four of them playing each other. Judging by Jefferson's hardfought win over White County there could have been more. The winners often did so impressively, including lopsided wins for North Gwinnett, Winder-Barrow (more on that below), Buford, Dawson County and Rabun County. Meanwhile, gritty wins for teams like Flowery Branch (more on that below, as well), in its first postseason in four years, over playoff stalwart Kell, and East Hall's No. 4 seed turnover of Region 8-AAA champion Morgan County (more on that below, too) showed that northeast Georgia programs can also make a splash in other ways. And just looking at the brackets this week, there are plenty more opportunities for area programs to show that high school football is as good here than anywhere else in the state.
2. East Hall shows the rest of the state what we already knew
If anyone else wants to underestimate the Vikings now, then they are downright foolish. East Hall notched its first playoff win since 1993 on Friday -- and did so in the manner in which they have beaten so many other foes this season, exploding offensively for a 50-36 upset defeat of 8-AAA champ Morgan County. East Hall actually trailed 20-7 at the half -- only to score 24 unanswered points to take the lead and never look back in storming to the historic victory. We had an idea the Vikings could pull off the road win (yes, that is very easy to type now -- but it was much-discussed here) because of their abilities on offense, including the leading passer in the state in Austin Parker (who passed for 6 TDs Friday night), a top receiver in Sedrion Morse (who caught 4 TDs) and further weapons in players like Tripp Ryder, Austin Brock, Cambren Harrison, Amir Ellison and on and on... They also showed they have an opportunistic defense, snagging some key interceptions and recording some big sacks that helped keep the momentum on East Hall's sideline. Can they keep it going against No. 3 seed Westminster? We certainly aren't doubting their abilities.
3. Winder-Barrow is indeed ready for primetime
We all wondered how the Bulldoggs would respond to a lopsided defeat to Dacula in a game that could have netted the program's first ever region title. We shouldn't have. Winder responded impressively to its only previous defeat of the season (38-16 to Gainesville with a 40-28 win at Habersham Central), and did so again this week, storming past Chattahoochee 36-7 in the first round of the postseason. The weight of history could easily have dragged the Bulldoggs under -- Winder had not played a home playoff game since 2003, had not won a postseason contest since 1993. Instead, the Bulldoggs stormed to the victory, jumping in front with a defensive score and never letting up to gain a comfy win. And now the rest of the Class AAAAAA bracket lies in front with a chance to make it their own. Winder must travel to Harrison this week. But the Hoyas had to battle to defeat four seed Alexander in the first round (33-28), and this is a Harrison team missing one of the top players in the nation in quarterback Justin Fields (injured). Pull off the road win this week, and Winder could be in for something gigantic -- and from what we've seen, that's certainly within this team's grasp.
4. Flowery Branch displays its psychological credentials
With none of its players having experienced the playoffs before, the Branch could easily have folded on Friday against a Kell team more than used to state play (the Longhorns made their 10th straight state appearance last week, having reached the state semifinals as a three seed last season). Kell entered as a three seed again on Friday, and tested the Falcons' mental toughness. The home team more than passed the test, however, battering their way to a lead and then holding off a determined Longhorns response. In fact, the Branch came up with perhaps the most impressive win of the first round, stopping Kell at the one-inch line on fourth and goal with less than a minute to play to preserve a 21-14 win. It was the type of win that could set this team on its way to something even bigger. Sixth-ranked Carver, Atlanta stands in the way in the second round, but it's a dead certainty that the Falcons head south on Friday with plenty of momentum and self-belief. The old Branch used to make a habit of postseason road wins, and this team certainly looks like it has that in its sites again.
5. Region 6-AAAAAAA made quite an impression -- chance to do so again
With three of its four teams winning in the first round, including North Gwinnett dominating and Mill Creek winning without much fuss (not to mention four-seeded Mountain View shocking sixth-ranked South Forsyth in the first round), 6-AAAAAAA showed it is one of the power leagues in the state's biggest classification. This week its teams have the chance to show it is the toughest conference around thanks to matchups with top 10 teams in the second round. The No. 7 Bulldogs play host to No. 3 Grayson (coming off a state championship in 2016) and the Hawks get a second shot at No. 2 Archer. Mill Creek fell to the Tigers in a 16-13 slugfest earlier this season, and if the Hawks can return the favor this time around and reach a third straight state quarterfinal, no one will question Mill Creek's credentials. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, have come a long way in Bill Stewart's first season in charge, and can show that they are serious championship contenders by knocking off the defending champs. It should be a lot of fun watching the showdowns.
FRIDAY'S FIRST ROUND STATE PLAYOFF SCORES, NOV. 10
(Scores listed by Classification, largest to smallest)
North Gwinnett 55, North Forsyth 7
Mill Creek 29, West Forsyth 14
Winder-Barrow 36, Chattahoochee 7
Centennial 48, Lanier 14
Alpharetta 40, Gainesville 24
Buford 54, Paulding County 23
Flowery Branch 21, Kell 14
Jefferson 29, White County 13
St. Pius 44, West Hall 31
Dawson County 49, Hart County 14
East Hall 50, Morgan County 36
Monroe Area 42, North Hall 7
GAC 49, Jackson County 0
Rabun County 49, Chattooga 6
Pepperell 57, Banks County 0
Class A Public
Pelham 41, Towns County 14
SECOND STATE PLAYOFF SCHEDULE, NOV. 17
(Games listed by Classification, largest to smallest)
Grayson at North Gwinnett
Mill Creek at Archer
Winder-Barrow at Harrison
Maynard Jackson at Buford
Flowery Branch at Carver (Atlanta)
Jefferson at Ridgeland
Dawson County at Cedar Grove
East Hall at Westminster
BEST Academy at Rabun County
Class A Public
Charlton County at Commerce