Here's a look at five things we learned from the state football playoff semifinals...
1. Rabun County has a championship-level defense
Rabun County quarterback Bailey Fisher has grabbed headlines -- with good reason -- all season. But the first thing the senior signal caller made sure of in postgame interviews on Friday was that the Wildcats defense got some love. "People want to talk about our offense, but our defense makes plays all the time and doesn't get the credit," Fisher said. And that defense is a big reason why Rabun is headed for a state championship showdown with Hapeville Charter on Saturday in Atlanta. The Wildcats picked off five -- FIVE -- Brooks County passes in their 23-12 semifinal victory. The reason the ball was in the air, and available to be picked off, so many times (43 pass attempts) was due to Rabun's stout run defense shutting down Brooks' normal offensive gameplan. The Wildcats yielded just 84 yards on the ground to a Trojans team that came in averaging 201 rushing. The display was an eye-opening mix of physicality, effort and speed -- yes, plenty of speed. Brooks County was fast, but they were matched step for step by a Wildcats secondary that includes standouts like Austin Jones and Cole Keener (who had three of the five picks). So when Rabun County takes the floor of the Benz on Saturday -- even though the pre-game hype will most likely center on Rabun's explosive offense -- there is no doubt that the Wildcats' defense is a huge factor in history in the making.
2. North Gwinnett is good enough to overcome mistakes -- even in a semifinal
The Bulldogs got off to about as bad a start as they could have nightmarishly dreamt in Friday's semifinal, fumbling the first two times they touched the ball twice and falling behind 7-0 to a hot McEachern team. It was the first deficit North Gwinnett had faced in the postseason. And yet there was no panic -- just a stout Bulldogs defense to keep things from snowballing and a calm response from the entire team to slowly take control and roll back to the school's first state championship game since 2013. North Gwinnett reeled off 21 straight points to regain control and then responded again when McEachern pulled within 24-17 in the fourth quarter. The fact that the Bulldogs could roll through a semifinal game in which they were not at their best -- with a group of players that had not won a single state match-up prior to this year -- speaks volumes for their abilities and (moreso) their mental make-up. This is a team that now knows how to win and will not panic under stress. Facing a Colquitt County team that has won two state titles in the last three seasons, North Gwinnett will need every ounce of its self-belief. And you know the Bulldogs are headed to the Benz with utimate focus.
3. Surprising results for most of Gwinnett County
We only cover a handful of teams in Gwinnett, but we readily acknowledge that, over the last decade or so, the county has become the gold standard for high school football in the state of Georgia. Between programs like Buford, Grayson, Mill Creek, North Gwinnett, Greater Atlanta Christian, etc., Gwinnett football has dominated the state scene like no other county. Last season three teams from the county played for state titles, with one, Grayson, winning it. And while 2015 provided just one Gwinnett team in the finals (Buford) and no championships, Gwinnett schools have won 12 state championships combined over the last decade. So when you look at the state bracket this time around and see just one Gwinnett school -- North Gwinnett -- it provides a bit of a shock. The Bulldogs won't be thinking about carrying the mantle for an entire county -- they'll only be thinking about North Gwinnett (as they should). But it is certainly intriguing to see this campaign's changing fortunes.
4. State championships will be true state-wide showdown
So if there's only one Gwinnett school, where are the rest from? All over the state. You have the furthest northeast corner represented in Rabun County (Class AA), as well as the southern swamps in Clinch County (Class A Public), on the doorstep of the Okefenokee Swamp. South Georgia has plenty of representation in Lee County and Coffee County -- facing off for the Class AAAAAA championship (a rematch of the Region 1-AAAAAA title showdown). Colquitt County (Class AAAAAAA) and Irwin County (Class A Public) are also headed north, while Warner Robins (Class AAAAA) and Peach County (Class AAA) are on hand from middle-ish Georgia (I admit as a northeast Georgian I am opening myself up for quite a debate over what is South and Middle Georgia, so if I'm wrong let me know). Meanwhile, Rome (Class AAAAA) and Calhoun (Class AAA) are on hand from northwest Georgia. Athens Academy (Class A Private) also made the trip, while metro Atlanta has plenty of representatives, including Hapeville Charter (Class AA) and Marist and Blessed Trinity re-matching for the Class AAAA championship (they finished 1-2 in Region 7-AAAA). It should be a fun group to take in at the Benz.
5. Get ready for a fun time at the Benz
OK, this one is not so much something we learned from high school football, but something we've learned from multiple trips to Atlanta's impressive new stadium already. Those of you who have not visited Mercedes-Benz Stadium are in for a treat. We have been for Atlanta United matches and this weekend's SEC Championship. There is not a bad seat in the house (from our experience anyway), and the setting itself as is impressive as we've seen. From the huge window looking toward downtown Atlanta and Centennial Park, to the huge councourses, to the large concession stands/restaurants and the massive, circular video board, "big" is the name of the game. But it's not just the size that impresses, it's the little things that will catch your eye as well. The seats themselves -- and the leg room provided -- will make you comfortable, and the sightlines are worth every minute. If you're a fan, get down there and see for yourself.
STATE FOOTBALL SEMIFINAL SCORES
North Gwinnett 38, McEachern 17
Rome 45, Buford 7
Rabun County 23, Brooks County 12
STATE FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP SCHEDULE
At Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta
1 p.m., Class AA Final
Rabun County vs. Hapeville Charter
8 p.m., Class AAAAAAA Final
North Gwinnett vs. Colquitt County