There may only be seven teams from the northeast Georgia area still left in the Georgia High School Association playoffs, but there are more than a few compelling storylines coming into Friday's second-round showdowns.
Three games in particular have caught the attention of the AccessWDUN/Friday Game Night staff, two involving first-ever matchups. A third involves a rematch from the regular season.
Storied programs Gainesville and Blessed Trinity have never met. But they will this week at City Park in Class 6A. The same is true for Jefferson and Hiram. Those two ranked teams in Class 5A will face off at Memorial Stadium.
However, Rabun County travels to Whitefield Academy in Mableton. It is the third meeting between the two Class A Division 1 teams in just over a calendar year. The Wildcats won the first two, including a lopsided win earlier this season at WolfPack Stadium.
So, what does the crew think of each of these individual matchups? Bo Wilson, Caleb Hutchins, Walker McCrary, and Jeff Hart offer their thoughts this week:
Class 6A 2nd round
Blessed Trinity at Gainesville (-16)
The Red Elephants (11-0) were the Region 8-6A champs and are into their first back-to-back Sweet 16s since the 2014-15 seasons. GHS had to overcome another first-half deficit after a slow start and some sloppy play to beat South Paulding, 46-27, last week.
The Titans (9-2) are back in the 2nd round after beating Creekview, 24-10. The Titans defense has registered 54 TFL, including 24 sacks, and has forced 17 turnovers (10 fumbles, 7 INT) on the season.
QUESTIONS: Can Big Red afford another slow start against a Titans defense that is 5th in Class 6A and allowing just 11.25 points/game?
Is it more important for the GHS offense to start fast or for the Big Red defense to take control early against the Titans?
JEFF HART: Big Red has had several fast starts this year and will need one this week. The Titans' defense is the best by far they’ve seen this year, and GHS will need to get a consistent effort from Baxter Wright and the passing game. The O-line will need to protect Wright and open holes for Gavin Hall in the run game.
I think having the Red Elephants' defense set the tone early could be the key to the game. The Titans are very disciplined in what they do and can take the air out of the ball on offense. If the GHS defense can force some 3-and-outs and get an early turnover for the offense, that could set them on the road to a second straight quarterfinals.
CALEB HUTCHINS: Blessed Trinity will be far more equipped to take advantage of a slow start by Gainesville than South Paulding was, although Gainesville has the kind of team that can overcome mistakes because of how explosive they are on both sides of the ball.
The Red Elephants' defense is the real key to this matchup to me. I think the sheer weaponry of Gavin Hall, Baxter Wright and Sky Niblett will lead to points some way or another, but it's been a while since we've seen any team have any real sustained success against the Gainesville defense.
WALKER McCRARY: Gainesville MUST start fast. Blessed Trinity has the playoff experience to know how to win a close game. Gainesville knows how to win in the playoffs as well, sure, but against a BT defense that prides itself on keeping teams out of the end zone, if Big Red can't get going early and the Titans get the early momentum, it's going to be a stressful game in City Park.
The Gainesville offense has to start fast. Baxter Wright needs to get it going through the air early on to loosen up the front seven of the BT defense to allow for Gavin Hall to get going on the ground. If the offense starts fast, the defense can afford to take a little time to make adjustments.
BO WILSON: No (they can't start slow). We know this offense can score. We also know its ability to be explosive and just plain nasty. That’s the offense we need to see out of Big Red on Friday. BT is a better team than South Paulding, so if there are too many stumbles on offense, Big Red might be too far behind the sticks.
Good question. I think Gainesville just needs to get off to a good start. But we all know if the offense is clicking, it makes it easier on the defense. Last week, they struggled early but were able to flex in the second half for the win. It'll be much different this week against a perennial playoff contender like Blessed Trinity. I believe it’s very important for Big Red to start fast on offense, eliminate mistakes, and show everyone why they’re the favorite to win Class 6A.
Class 5A 2nd round
Hiram at Jefferson (-6)
The Dragons (11-0) were the Region 8-5A champs and snapped a three-game postseason losing streak last week with a 48-14 win over Jackson-Atlanta. The Hornets (9-2) are into the 2nd round for the second time in five years after holding off Cambridge, 31-24. However, the Hornets have never advanced to a quarterfinal round in their history.
Both teams love to run the football. The Dragons have Sammy Brown (1,542 yards, 24 TD). The Hornets have 3 players -- Kaden Hamilton (1,057), Da'Shaun Williams (703) and Kendarious Brown (604) -- with 600 or more yards and 31 combined rushing TDs on the season.
QUESTIONS: Much like Gainesville, the Dragons got off to a slow start and trailed at two different times in the first half before exploding over the final 2 1/2 quarters. Can they afford a slow start against the Hornets, who have the ability to shorten the game?
Is the Jefferson offense or the Jefferson defense a bigger key in your mind for the Dragons to be able to move on?
JEFF HART: Hiram is one of the better rushing teams in Class 5A, averaging nearly 300 yards/game on the ground. They have the ability to limit possessions with long drives. If the Dragons start slow again, they could find themselves in a bigger hole than last week.
The key may be the Dragons surging passing game. They had over 200 yards last week in the air, opening things up for Sammy Brown. If they can generate some big plays early and get a quick lead, they can put the Hornets behind the 8-ball for an offense that only averages about 5 passes a game.
CALEB HUTCHINS: I believe Jefferson can afford a slower start because Hiram is not a quick-strike team. They want to grind you out, very similarly to what Jefferson does. The real deciding factor in this game is who wins the line of scrimmage in the second half.
As Jeff said, I also think whoever can have some success through the air could be key as well. Jefferson does seem to be finding their passing game at the right time, which could change the dynamics of this one.
WALKER McCRARY: The Dragon offense can't afford a slow start. There just simply may not be enough possessions in this game to afford that. Jefferson playing at home will help with that, but if Hiram bleeds six or more minutes off the clock on their first possession and ends up in the end zone, the Dragons can't afford to miss on their possessions.
I think the Jefferson offense is the bigger key. The Dragon defense will need to stop the running game of Hiram. Pretty easy game plan to prepare for, although it's easier to plan than execute. Hiram's defense will be keying on Sammy Brown, so the Dragons need to continue building the passing game to have success with the football on Friday night.
BO WILSON: No. Every team’s game plan for the Dragons in the playoffs: stop Sammy Brown. Maynard Jackson held the Clemson commit under 100 yards rushing last week, but they didn’t account for Gavin Markey's ability to throw the ball. I think you’ll see the Dragons try to set the tone with the passing game. The next question: if the air attack is successful, how many yards will Brown pile up?
I gotta say the Jefferson defense has been somewhat underrated all season. The defensive line may not be huge, but they’re fast, physical and athletic; just ask the Jackson O-line. Add in the second level, and those guys create a really good box to stop the Hiram rushing attack. However, the secondary is vulnerable to the big play. Jackson big-played them with the pass last week in the first half – not so much in the second half. Will Hiram try to do the same? I can only assume they will try, but will it be effective for a team that has completed 78 passes all year? That said, I believe the Jefferson defense is a bigger key to moving on. The offense will follow.
Class A Division 1 2nd round
Rabun County (-13) at Whitefield Academy
The Region 8-A D1 No. 3 seed Wildcats (8-3) routed Social Circle in the first round, 49-14, while the Region 6-A D1 champ WolfPack (6-5) held off Darlington, 28-14. Rabun County has won the first two meetings in this young series, including a 38-7 drubbing of the WolfPack back on Sept. 22 in Mableton.
Rabun County has outscored Whitefield 66-21 in the first two meetings. But the WolfPack defense, despite allowing 22.82 ppg on the season, has a solid front-7 that has 64 TFL, including 22 1/2 sacks, and as a unit has forced 30 turnovers on the season (15 INT, 15 fumbles).
QUESTIONS: How much does the fact that the Wildcats beat the WolfPack earlier this season play into this one?
The Rabun defense is giving up just 17.73 ppg. After scoring just 50 points (10.0 ppg) during a 1-4 start, the Whitefield offense is averaging 41.5 ppg (166 points) during a current 4-game win streak. Is this the matchup where the game is won or lost?
JEFF HART: I think the fact that they have played each twice in less than a year can work for both teams -- positive and negative. However, the WolfPack has not been able to solve the Wildcats' offense, giving up 66 points in the previous two meetings.
Whitefield only scored 3 TDs in the first two games, so I feel the Wildcats' defense knows how to defend the WolfPack. But several younger receivers have emerged for the WolfPack over the last half of the season since the two teams last met. A quick start by the Rabun offense could go a long way for the Wildcats' defense being able to be more aggressive in defending the Whitefield offense.
CALEB HUTCHINS: Whitefield Academy is playing its best football of the year right now, but it's hard to forget a 38-7 blowout at the hands of this Rabun County team earlier this year. I expect a closer game this time around, mainly due to the WolfPack playing better right now and wanting some revenge for earlier in the year, but I don't know that it will be enough to flip the result.
I do think the Rabun County defense will decide this game. They've been outstanding ever since that early season blowout loss at Stephens County and recently put together an elite defensive performance on the road at Commerce in the region title game. I expect another strong showing from them in this one.
WALKER McCRARY: I don't see this as a factor at all. If anything, it helps the WolfPack out because they have the film from earlier this season to go back on and fix mistakes. Whitefield Academy will also want revenge, so that plays into it as well, but it's the playoffs. Everyone will be ready to go on Friday night, and only what happens inside the painted white lines for 48 minutes matters.
I see it as the reverse being where the game is won or lost. Rabun's offense hasn't been what we are used to seeing, but they have shown signs of the Wildcat offense of old. Can Rabun move the ball consistently against the WolfPack and convert in the red zone? The answers to those questions will be how this game is decided.
BO WILSON: The old saying it’s hard to beat a team twice in one season comes to mind in this one, but that doesn’t matter here. The Wildcats won big in Mableton in September and should do so again.
Come on. Two of those wins down the stretch came against teams with a combined 5-15 record. Rabun County’s three stumbles are against top-five region opponents Commerce and Elbert, and Class 3A No. 1 seed and No. 7-ranked Stephens County. The answer to this absurd question is no. Rabun has proven they can score against the Wolfpack already, and most everybody on the schedule. These garbage stats are not going to change my opinion. I’ll say it again: the Wildcats move on.