FLOWERY BRANCH — It’s not something Ben Hall wants to even contemplate.
And why would he? The Flowery Branch coach has never missed a postseason in his eight years as a head coach -- four with Jefferson and four and counting, hopefully, with the Falcons.
But the fate of the 2021 campaign, one that started with a top-10 ranking and filled with conversations of the Falcons having perhaps their most complete team in over a decade, may come down to Friday night’s Region 8-4A showdown against Madison County in Danielsville.
“Anything can happen on a Friday night in high school football,” Hall said this week while preparing for the Red Raiders. “But no matter what, we control things for ourselves. It’s all right there in front of us.”
As it stands right now, everything is definitely still very much in front of Flowery Branch (4-3, 1-2 Region 8-4A) despite sitting in a three-way tie for fifth with Madison County and Chestatee. A fifth-straight playoff appearance. A winning record. Maybe even a home playoff game, though they will need some serious help over the final three weeks. It's all within their grasp.
The Falcons had experience returning on offense with senior quarterback David Renard, who led Class 4A in passing in 2020. They had junior Myles Ivey returning in the backfield. They had depth on both sides of the line. They had youth and experience on a defense that was forced to grow up under fire in 2020.
Madison County (4-3, 1-2 Region 8-4A) was a team many expected to be much-improved after a rebuilding season (3-7) in 2020. The Red Raiders won two of their final four games last season and opened with a pair of wins to begin 2021. They are right in the middle of the playoff race.
After Friday, however, one team will be looking in from the outside.
A loss for either team could have them walking the tightrope. The Red Raiders lost to North Oconee and then Cedar Shoals in overtime. They will close out their season against No. 1 Jefferson on the road. The Falcons' two losses were to Jefferson and North Oconee, the top two teams in the region.
The good thing for the Falcons is that the Red Raiders employ a triple-option attack similar to St. Pius and Jefferson, two teams they already have seen in 2021.
Branch opened the season with what seemed like a signature win for the program, knocking off St. Pius, 21-14, on the road and overcoming an early 14-0 deficit. But three weeks later, the No. 1 Dragons manhandled them in a 27-7 loss. And North Oconee scored early and held on for a 14-7 win in Bogart two weeks ago.
“What plays to our strengths is that this is the third team with that offense that we will have played,” Hall said. “I thought we did a very good job against St. Pius after the first couple of drives. Jefferson just has so many different guys. To hold that group to 27 was a strong effort I think.
“We held North Oconee scoreless over the last three-plus quarters so, again, another solid defensive effort. Being more efficient on offense is the key for us.”
It’s been somewhat of an underwhelming season on offense so far for the Falcons. Or at least it seems that way on the surface. In 2020, then-junior Renard was leading Class 4A in passing yards. They averaged 30.8 points/game through their first seven games last year.
This season, they are averaging 27.2 ppg at the same point. Renard is just in the middle of the pack in 4A in passing. However, Ivey and sophomore Malik Dryden have boosted a running game that has allowed them to be more proactive in their approach.
“When you look at the numbers compared to last year, we’re about the same as far as total yards and points,” Hall said. “With Myles and Malik, and our (offensive) line has played pretty well, we’ve been able to control the ball on the ground more this year. I feel like we’re more balanced in the run game this year.
“Production is a relative thing. We haven't needed David to carry us as much this year. Controlling the ball more also means taking the pressure off our defense more often. I think that has definitely helped our defense.”
But against a pair of solid defenses like Jefferson and North Oconee, the Falcons could muster up little production.
“I thought we played better than those scores indicate. But we do need to find a way to make more plays at crucial times,” Hall said.
Madison County is giving up 22.8 ppg on defense, but that balloons to 25.3 ppg in region play. Last week, in a 34-14 win over Cedar Shoals, the Falcons offense had its best outing in a month.
Hall said a key to ensuring that the playoffs are always in the conversation is to not discuss it.
“We don’t talk about the playoffs or region standings or anything like that in our meetings,” he said. “Our focus is always on the game that week. If you just focus on that game, then most things will work themselves out over the course of a season.
“Madison County is playing as well as anyone right now. They play hard. We’re definitely not taking them, or anyone, lightly.
“The schedule has made us better. The kids are playing hard. Overall, I’m pleased with where we are right now. Hopefully, we’re in a better position on Saturday than where we started. That’s the goal.”
FLOWERY BRANCH at MADISON COUNTY
-- WHEN: 7:30 p.m.
-- WHERE: Red Raider Stadium, Danielsville
-- FLOWERY BRANCH (4-3, 1-2 Region 8-4A): Defeated Cedar Shoals 34-14 last week
-- MADISON COUNTY (4-3, 1-2 Region 8-4A): Defeated Chestatee 24-21 last week
-- NOTABLE: Flowery Branch leads series 3-0. The Falcons won 49-7 in 2020 in Flowery Branch. ... A huge game for both teams. Both are locked in a three-way tie with Chestatee for fourth place. Chestatee takes on No. 1 Jefferson so the winner of this one is likely to have sole possession of the final spot with two games left. ... The Falcons finally got their offense going last week. After managing just 14 total points in losses to Jefferson and North Oconee, they rushed for 224 yards, with So. Malik Dryden accounting for 110 yards and a score and Jr. Myles Ivey having 63 yards and a TD. ... The Branch defense also held the Jaguars to just 38 yards rushing and under 200 for the game. ... The key number for the Red Raiders is 20. When scoring more than 20, they are 3-0. When scoring 20 or less, they are 0-3.