The time has come for my annual Class AA playoff predictions. As you can see, I have the top-ranked Hapeville Charter Hornets repeating as state champions in a rematch of last year’s title game against the Rabun County Wildcats. Last year, the Hornets won 35-23 for their first title in program history.
As you may remember, the game was postponed for a week after weather forced the GHSA’s hand. The association opted to postpone all remaining championship games and move the venue from Mercedes-Benz Stadium to one of the participating teams’ home field, with a coin flip determining home field advantage.
The coin toss was the Hornets’ worst enemy last season, as they lost all three in the playoffs to play every game on the road after the second round. Their road wins included top-ranked, defending state champion Benedictine and No. 8 Heard County on the way to Rabun County, which was undefeated and ranked No. 5 heading into the championship.
There’s a chance this year’s championship games could be postponed too. Should the Atlanta United wind up hosting the MLS Cup Finals, that would be played on Saturday, Dec. 8, at Mercedes-Benz. That’s Day 2 of the GHSA state football championships. In that event, the championship games would be played on Tuesday, Dec. 11 and Wednesday, Dec. 12 at Mercedes-Benz.
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Though the GHSA will again use a universal coin toss to determine home field after the second round in the cases where same-seeded teams play each other, at least the Hornets know they’ll get to play at Mercedes-Benz this season should they advance to the finals. They’ve probably already resigned to the fact they’ll lose every coin toss again this year, though. But who knows, maybe their fortunes will change. Even if they do win coin tosses, they don’t even have a home stadium. They used Banneker’s stadium for their home games, of which there were only three. They played all other regular season games either on the road or at a neutral site. And now Banneker isn’t even available to them, as the Trojans finished with the No. 1 seed in 6-AAAAA and will host the first two rounds, relegating the Hornets to Langston Hughes’ field for the first two rounds.
Before the Hornets can think about coin flips or a trip to The Benz, they’ll have to take yet another difficult path — perhaps the most difficult — to the title game. The only likely gimmie is their first-round game against Coosa (4-6). From there, in all likelihood, they’ll play against some of the state’s best. Round 2 will likely be against No. 4 Callaway, so long as the Cavaliers beat Elbert County at home. If the Hornets survive that test, they could see the No. 5 Brooks County Trojans, would would have to beat Screven County and No. 10 Washington County. The Trojans are also a No. 1 seed, so a coin toss would come into play.
Should the Hornets advance to the semifinals, I have them playing the No. 2 Rockmart Yellow Jackets, who finished 10-0 and are in the midst of their best season since 1989, when they also finished the regular season undefeated but lost 19-16 in the first round to West Rome. In fact, they didn’t even win their region that year because 7-AA had two divisions and Adairsville, which also had an undefeated region record, took the No. 1 seed. This year’s Jackets team is built to make a run. In fact, I give them a good chance to win the championship. Only one team played them close and that was Cedartown — then ranked No. 10 in AAAA — in the season opener and the Jackets won that game 20-14. Since then, no team has come closer than 30 points and that includes the then-No. 3 Heard County Braves , whom the Jackets beat 33-0.
Speaking of the Braves, I have them returning to the semifinals on the other side of the bracket, where they advanced to last year before losing 28-21 to the Hornets. I have the Braves — who returned to the No. 3 spot in this weeks’ rankings — beating a tough Douglass team in the second round, followed by a win over No. 6 Dublin. I have them again coming up one game short of the championship game, this time falling to the No. 8 Rabun County Wildcats.
Do not let the Wildcats’ No. 8 ranking fool you. In fact, they were ranked No. 6 heading into last week’s 8-AA championship game against then-undefeated Union County. Their reward for winning that game 56-28 was to slip two spots in the rankings. Why the slide? You’ll have to ask the pollsters, but I can guarantee you it lit a fire under coach Lee Shaw and his Wildcats, who took exception to a proclamation I made earlier this season that 8-AA was Union County’s to lose. Shaw texted me after I wrote that, reminding me his team was 4-1. The Wildcats then won the next week’s game 68-7 over Banks County, setting the program record for points scored. So, it’s never a safe bet to go against a Shaw-coached team.
I have the Wildcats knocking off a very tough Swainsboro team in the quarterfinals, followed by the Braves, which will set up an epic showdown and rematch with the Hornets.
Both the Hornets and Wildcats lost significant talent from last year’s squads, but both have carried on their perennially high level of play.
The Wildcats dropped their season opener to then-No. 3 Bremen, 13-10, on a Bremen field goal as time expired. They haven’t lost since and are 37-1 in the regular season dating back to their second game of 2015. Bailey Fisher, the AJC Player of the Year nominee, graduated and has been replaced by freshman Gunner Stockton, who is playing at just as high a level as his predecessor. He enters the playoffs 148-of-217 passing — that’s a 68.2 completion percentage — for 2,203 yards and 25 touchdowns to five interceptions while rushing 78 times for 560 yards and another 15 scores.
The Hornets, on the other hand, reloaded after watching a number of key contributors go on to play at the next level, including defensive end Kingsley Enagbare (South Carolina), linebacker Caleb Kelly (Stanford), quarterback Hajj-Malik Williams (Army), defensive back Christopher Smith (Georgia) and receiver Rory Starkey (Penn). This year, defensive back Malik Fleming, who is an East Carolina commit, leads the defensive unit. They’ve dominated on that side of the ball with six shutouts. Only once did they allow more than six points and that was to AAAAAA’s then-No. 9 Allatoona in a 23-14 loss. They’ve outscored opponents 400-38.
It’s my guess that the Hornets’ defense will once again prevail throughout the playoffs and in the championship game.
- There are three first-round matchups I feel could go either way. Washington (7-3, No. 3, Region 6) at Chattooga (8-2; No. 2; Region 7) is one. The two have no common opponents, lost by double-digits to the only ranked teams they played and played well against everyone else. Further they’re side-by-side in the Maxwell computer-generated rankings for Class AA, with Washington at 19 and Chattooga 20. I picked Washington. The other is No. 7 Bremen (8-2; No. 3, Region 5) at Union County (9-1; No. 2, Region 8). While it’s entirely possible the Panthers close the season out with consecutive losses after starting 9-0, I have them surviving at home with an upset. This is perhaps the best first-round matchup of the bracket. Another could be No. 10 Washington County (8-2; No. 3, Region 3) at Vidalia (9-1; No. 2, Region 2). They have a common opponent in Swainsboro, with Vidalia losing to them 15-8 at home, and Washington County beating them 47-45 on the road. Though transitive properties don’t usually apply to sports, I’m using that as the barometer and picking the Golden Hawks to win.
- The game I most struggled with picking for the second round — assuming both teams advance, of course — is Fitzgerald (7-3; No. 3; Region 4) at Swainsboro (8-2; No. 1, Region 2). Both teams could be ranked and, in fact, both are in the aforementioned-mentioned Maxwell rankings; Fitzgerald is No. 8, Swainsboro is No. 10. The two appear evenly-matched and even have a common opponent in Bacon County; Fitzgerald beat them 45-7 in its season opener and Swainsboro beat them 40-0 on Oct. 5. I’ll take Swainsboro at home.
- In the quarterfinals, I can see No. 6 Dublin (9-1; No. 1, Region 3) beating No. 3 Heard County (8-2; No. 1, Region 5).
- I feel compelled to note that the GHSA either cannot, or refuses to, spell Douglass’ name correctly in the playoff bracket. I pointed this out to the association last year during basketball season and it was corrected, but now it appears the spell-checker has gone back to insisting the school be spelled with just one “s.” So again, if someone at the GHSA is reading this, it’s spelled D-O-U-G-L-A-S-S, not “Douglas.” It’s really not that hard.
The AJC released its final poll before the playoffs end and the top 10 remains intact, though there was some shuffling. For a review of how the ranked teams fared last Friday, go here.
Below are the updated rankings, with the team’s previous week’s ranking in parenthesis:
1. (1) Hapeville Charter (9-1)
2. (2) Rockmart (10-0)
3. (3) Heard County (8-2)
4. (4) Callaway (8-2)
5. (7) Brooks County (8-2)
6. (8) Dublin (9-1)
7. (5) Bremen (8-2)
8. (6) Rabun County (9-1)
9. (9) Dodge County (9-1)
10. (10) Washington County (8-2)
- Heard County’s Zaylin Wood earned his place in GHSF Daily’s top five weekly performances with nine tackles — six for a loss — three sacks, four quarterback hurries, a pass breakup and a safety. Other AA players earning “best of the rest” honors include: Dublin’s Jermaine Cooley (229 rushing yards, two touchdowns), Elbert County’s Metrius Fleming (231 receiving yards, two touchdowns), Jefferson County’s Jaden Jenkins (2-3 rushing yards, three touchdowns), Laney’s Jarvis Washington (183 rushing yards, three touchdowns; 25-yard touchdown pass), Social Circle’s Tate Peters (18-of-30 passing for 343 yards), Social Circle’s Davis Smith (208 receiving yards), Swainsboro’s Armaine Sims (nine tackles — five for loss — and two sacks), Thomasville’s Karey Lee (84 receiving yards, 40-yard punt return touchdown, 25-yard interception return touchdown) and Vidalia’s Chris Gay (168 rushing yards, four touchdowns on just seven carries). The offensive lines of Harlem, Monticello and Rabun County earned “lines of distinction” honors.
- With their fifth consecutive region title, the Rabun County Wildcats joined exclusive company. Before coach Lee Shaw arrived in 2012, they’d won just one region title (1998) in a program history that dates back to 1949. Here’s coach Shaw speaking with Blitz following clinching the region title. Access
- Rabun County quarterback Gunner Stockton earned accessWDUN “Athlete of the Week” honors.
- Casie Bryant of All On Georgia has a game story of Chattooga’s 19-7 win over Pepperell.
- Rockmart’s offense and defense continue to shine as the Jackets finished 10-0 for the first time since 1989.
- Former AA players performing at the next level last weekend include Jamar Smith (Toombs County) and Bailey Fisher (Rabun County).
- The Heard Citizen has details of Heard County’s win over Bremen that decided 5-AA.
- Thomasville lost an all-time Bulldogs great recently. Here’s more on Dickey Thompson.
- You can buy state playoff tickets online.
- Thoughts are with Gordon Central junior running back/linebacker Nelson Gravitt as he has surgery to repair his collar bone.
- Hephzibah’s Rayquan Riley was recently named The Augusta Chronicle’s Player of the Week.
- Next time Rockmart punts you might want to call fair catch.
- WMAZ has highlights of Dublin’s win over Washington County.
- Harlem’s A.J. Brown made school history on the way to becoming a member of the 2,000 rushing yards club.
- Douglass celebrated its 50-year anniversary with a win to improve to 9-1 for the first time since 2004.
- Tim Morse of the Thomasville Times-Enterprise has a game story on Thomasville’s win over Early County.
- If I were the Coosa Eagles, I wouldn’t want Hapeville Charter marking me on its calendar.
- ToombsNow has details of Swainsboro’s win over Toombs County.
- The Walton Tribune has details of Monticello’s win over Social Circle.
- With Halloween last week, a number of teams celebrated including Heard County, Jeff Davis, Banks County and Brooks County.
- Bleckley County’s Amarius Mims has been invited to compete in the GACA Football All-Star Classic.
- Here’s the SportalSpace coaches poll heading into the final week of the regular season.
Follow the AJC’s Class AA coverage on Twitter.