With just 10 days left in the regular season, the time is now for teams around the state and northeast Georgia to make a final push for playoff spots.
In the AccessWDUN coverage area, a handful of teams clinched playoff spots last week with many more ready to put a stamp on their postseason aspirations this week. There are 16 games on tap Friday night around the area and a dozen could decide the playoff fates for just as many teams.
Only one team -- Jefferson in Region 8-3A -- has officially clinched a region title.
With that in mind, here are three games to watch Friday night that will have huge playoff implications in their respective regions.
CLARKE CENTRAL at JOHNSON (Region 8-5A)
Every team in the region is still alive for a playoff spot, including the Knights, who have not been involved in a playoff race in 15 years. The Gladiators are a perennial playoff stalwart but have had an up-and-down season while battling injuries.
Johnson (4-4, 1-2 Region 8-5A) holds its playoff fates in its hands. If the Knights win out (Loganville next week) they will qualify for their first playoffs since 2004. It is not a must-win but a loss to the Gladiators (5-3, 2-1 Region 8-5A) would mean they would have to beat Loganville next week and have the Red Devils lose this week to Cedar Shoals.
“We’ve talked as a group and they know that if they win out, they’re in,” Johnson coach Stan Luttrell said. “But for us, this year has already been a success no matter how it turns out.”
Clarke Central certainly has history on its side having won 18 straight in the series going back to 1975, with only one game being decided by 7 points or less. But Johnson has shown steady improvement over the past month getting its first-ever Region 8-5A win and took the Jaguars down to the wire two weeks ago.
The key will be if the Knights can get their ground game going behind Jack Luttrell and Nolan Bulloch against a Gladiators defense that has struggled at times. The Gladiators have allowed 36 or more points four times this season, the most such games in any one season since the 1947 team did it four times when the school was the Athens Trojans.
Johnson had its chances two weeks ago in a narrow loss to Cedar Shoals (26-21). The Knights had a touchdown pass called back and could not convert in a late drive for another possible game-winning score.
“To me, watching them on film they look like the typical Clarke Central teams: athletic, big, fast, well-coached,” Luttrell said. “It’s going to be a huge challenge for us.
“We feel we’re close. We had our chances against Cedar. We have to learn how to win and believe that we can. But for us to be in that moment was encouraging and I think our guys are learning from that.”
COMMERCE at RIVERSIDE MILITARY (Region 8-A North)
As it stands in Class A, Commerce seems entrenched for a playoff berth in Public sitting 13th in the Power Rankings heading into the final two weeks. Riverside, however, is fighting for its playoff life.
The Eagles, who early in the season were as high as No. 4 in the Private rankings after beating Class 5A Johnson, have tumbled all the way to No. 26 after back-to-back losses, two spots out of a playoff spot if they started this week.
Eagles’ coach Nicholas Garrett did not sugarcoat his teams' recent troubles or what Friday’s showdown means.
“No doubt this is a must-win. I’m not sure how we get in if we don’t win this one,” he said. “We just haven’t been able to maintain that motivation we need since the Johnson game. We’ve got to be more competitive across the board than we have been the last couple of weeks. Hopefully it’s within us to do that.”
Recent history, however, suggests the Eagles (4-4, 1-2 Region 8-A North) have more than a chance. They knocked off the Tigers (6-2, 2-1 Region 8-A North) last year for their first win in the series since 1944.
Both teams came into this season hoping to battle once again for the subregion title. That’s gone after Hebron Christian dispatched both teams over the past two weeks.
Commerce coach Michael Brown said there is still plenty to play for even if the subregion title, and a region title, have been lost.
“Every game is important even if there isn’t a region title riding on it,” Brown said. “Nothing is guaranteed so you have to come out every week and focus just on that game. We certainly would like one, if not two, home playoff games in the playoffs, so finishing strong is very, very important.”
There are several noteworthy matchups in this one. The Commerce offense, which is averaging 39.3 points per game, against an Eagles defense that has allowed 30.2 ppg over its last five games but is much better than the stats show. The Eagles offense also has been slumping scoring just 42 points (21.5 ppg) the last two weeks after averaging 34.8 ppg over their first six games. Commerce is yielding just 16.3 ppg on the season.
“Riverside is explosive on offense,” Brown said. “They have the potential to score on every play with the number of playmakers they have. They’re going to break out of it. I just hope it’s not this week. For us it’s always the same thing: win battles up front and execute our option offense. If we can do that we feel good about things.”
“Commerce just mauls you to death with that offense so we’re going to have to find a way to slow them down,” Garrett said. “We’ve got to convert scores when we get close to the end zone, which has been a problem the last few weeks. (The playoffs) is still there for us so we’re just trying to focus on this week and see where we are then.”
DAWSON COUNTY at CHEROKEE BLUFF (Region 7-3A)
Another game where nothing officially has been clinched for either team. The Tigers (6-2, 3-1 Region 7-3A) are tied for second with North Hall and can clinch a playoff berth with a win. The Bears (3-6, 2-3 Region 7-3A) can stay alive and gain the head-to-head tiebreaker edge with a win in their season-finale.
Cherokee Bluff coach Tommy Jones has his group way ahead of schedule in just their second season and calls it a win-win scenario no matter how it plays out.
“We’re excited about still being in the playoff race. It has been an encouraging year for us,” Jones said. “We want to win every game, just like every program does. When we started this thing last year we knew it would be a slow process so for us to already be where we are is a testament to the hard work the kids have put in.
“We know it’s a must-win to stay alive so we’ll see how our group responds. Dawson is a very good team that has gotten better and better throughout the season. It’s going to be another huge challenge for us.”
Sophomore Bears running back Jayquan Smith is having a breakout season. He has 843 yards, over 500 coming in the past three weeks, with 4 100-yard games and 8 TDs.
The Dawson County offense has found its identity over the past month behind sophomore quarterback Zach Holtzclaw, who has thrown for over 600 yards the last two games. They are averaging 34.8 ppg but have scored 45 or more in 3 of their last 4 contests.
“Zach has just gotten better each week,” Tigers coach Sid Maxwell said. “We saw some sparks early but he’s just gotten more and more confident as the season has gone on and we’ve started adding stuff to the offense for his skills.”
The Bluff defense is much-improved. After giving up 42 ppg in 2018 they have allowed just 23.4 ppg in 2019.
Maxwell said they aren’t taking the Bears lightly.
“(Cherokee Bluff) has a premier running back and may be the most improved team in the region. We’ll have to find a way to slow that guy down,” Maxwell said. “Tommy and his staff are doing a tremendous job. But for us, it’s just do what we do and try to do it better than they do. I’m expecting a tough, hard-nosed, hard-hitting game.”