Journey to Mercedes-Benz begins this weekend

Credit: Stan Awtrey

The high school football playoffs start this weekend with 112 first-round games from Ringgold to Folkston. The journey ends with eight state championship games Dec. 8-9 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

Here is an overview of the first round:

*The regulars: Of the 240 playoff teams, 189 made it last season, a retention rate of 78.8 percent. The longest state-playoff streaks belong to Lincoln County (36), Peach County (27), Marist (24), Northside (22), Commerce (21) and Washington-Wilkes (20).

*Newcomers: Howard and Towns County are making their first-ever playoff appearances this week. Howard, of Macon, is in its 10th season. The Huskies' 6-4 finish matches the school's best record. Howard travels to Americus-Sumter in the first round in Class AAAA. Towns County has played football since 1969, and its 5-5 record is the mountain school's best since 2008. Towns County will travel 325 miles to face Pelham in the Class A public-school playoffs. Also worth noting is Meadowcreek's first playoff game since 1988. The '88 appearance was in the region playoffs. The Mustangs' game at Archer this week is the first state-playoff game for Meadowcreek. Other teams breaking playoff droughts of at least 10 years are South Atlanta (1995), Harlem and Jeff Davis (both 2001), Montgomery County (2003), Campbell and Madison County (both 2006) and Paulding County (2007).

*Missing: East Coweta's streak of 20 playoff appearances is over. Sandy Creek, a playoff staple since 2002, is out. Streaks also ended for Lamar County (eight seasons), Laney and Stephens County (seven each) and Bowdon and Landmark Christian (six each). Lambert, Johns Creek and Grady - region champions in 2016 - didn't make it back.

*Defending champions: They are No. 4 Grayson (AAAAAAA), unranked Valdosta (AAAAAA), No. 1 Rome (AAAAA), No. 1 Cartersville (AAAA), No. 1 Cedar Grove (AAA), No. 1 Benedictine (AA), No. 1 Eagle's Landing Christian (A private) and No. 5 Macon County (A public).

*Best player: Cartersville's Trevor Lawrence is the reigning all-classification player of the year and the favorite to win the award again. The Clemson-committed quarterback has thrown for a state-record 13,482 yards in his career.

*Other players to watch: Major college recruits who play on state-contending teams include Rome LB Adam Anderson, Stockbridge LB Brenton Cox, Tucker WR Joshua Vann, Peach County WR Kearis Jackson, Greater Atlanta Christian WR/CB Kyler McMichael, Brookwood WR Matthew Hill and Lee County DB Otis Reese.

*Best first-round matchups: Three first-round games pit ranked teams against each other. They are Northside-Warner Robins at Brunswick (AAAAAA), Griffin at Jones County (AAAAA) and Bremen at Lovett (AA). The best game, based on projected margin of victory, is Marietta at Westlake, pegged as a toss-up by the computer Maxwell Ratings. Marietta (6-4) is the Class AAAAAAA at-large playoff team and hopes to get back its starting quarterback, Bailey Harrison, who has been injured since before mid-season. Westlake is the Region 2 champion and a 2017 semifinalist. The game most people will be watching might take place in Brunswick, where seventh-ranked Glynn Academy plays defending AAAAAA champion Valdosta.

*Good draws: Lowndes is at least 17 points better than every team in its Class AAAAAAA quarter of the draw, according to the Maxwell Ratings. ... The only ranked opponent in Glynn Academy's AAAAAA quarter is Harrison, which is without star QB Justin Fields. ... No. 4 Warner Robins is the highest-ranked AAAAA team in its half of the draw and the only ranked team in its quarter. ... No. 9 Woodward Academy is the highest-ranked team in its AAAA quarter. ... Calhoun has no ranked teams in its AAA quarter.

*Tough draws: No. 4 Grayson and No. 5 North Gwinnett could meet in the second round in Class AAAAAAA. ... Northside-Warner Robins opens on the road at No. 8 Brunswick with the winner potentially to face No. 1 Tucker in AAAAAA. ... No. 2 Buford and No. 3 Stockbridge are in the same quarter of the draw, and in the same half as No. 1 Rome in AAAAA. ... Cartersville is seeded to face four consecutive ranked teams after the first round in defense of its AAAA title. Those in the 'Canes' way - Blessed Trinity and Thomson - don't have a picnic, either. ... No. 8 Bremen and No. 9 Lovett, aside from drawing each other in the first round, are seeded to face No. 3 Greater Atlanta Christian in the AAA second round. And Lovett "won" a coin toss for the honor of that draw. ... No. 1 Benedictine and No. 2 Hapeville Charter could play in the AA quarterfinals, and Benedictine might have to beat No. 10 Jefferson County to get there.

*Where it's headed: The second round is next week, when the eight playoff draws are down to 16 teams in each classification. Class A's top eight seeds in both public and private divisions join the fray after a bye this week.

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