Below are eight of the most intriguing stories of the 2020 season:
*And we’re off: Georgia kicked off its regular season Sept. 2, two weeks later than scheduled. Only Alabama and Tennessee in the South began sooner. South Carolina wouldn’t go for another three weeks. North Carolina and Virginia still haven’t started. About one-fifth of Georgia’s teams delayed their seasons further than Sept. 2, most from big school districts such as Fulton and Bibb (until Sept. 18) and DeKalb, Dougherty and Savannah-Chatham (until Oct. 2). Savannah’s teams decided to play only among themselves, leaving Benedictine and Southeast Bulloch to win regions largely unopposed. Rockdale County announced it wouldn’t play at all, but its three teams — Heritage, Salem, and Rockdale County — reversed field and returned to non-region schedules last month. Others, such as Druid Hills, Douglass and McNair, dropped out along the way. In the end, only five GHSA schools with football teams didn’t play at all.
*Am I eligible yet? There have been no more transfers than usual, GHSA executive director Robin Hines said, but the path of three high-profile recruits who transferred twice, each getting it right the second time, was unprecedented. Chief Borders and Carlos Del Rio, with McEachern in their pasts and the University of Florida in the futures, were declared ineligible at Carrollton and Grayson, respectively, for failing to complete what the GHSA calls a bona-fide move in residency. Same for Jake Garcia, who came from California, which shut down fall football, and landed at Valdosta. Garcia even played a game, leading the Wildcats to a season-opening victory, until he was benched by the GHSA. Now, the three are thriving — Borders at Heard County, Del Rio at Cartersville and Garcia at Grayson. Learning from their transfer mistakes, they followed GHSA guidelines the second time around. Hines has indicated he’ll propose a new bylaw for next season that would ban those mulligans, making a transfer ineligible at any GHSA school once declared ineligible at the first. But this year, these three have found happy endings on contending teams.
*Garcia to Grayson: Of course, Garcia’s adventures transcended the transfer deal. His decision to enroll at Grayson was the culmination of the biggest high school news story by far from a national perspective in Georgia. Garcia is a four-star recruit committed to Southern Cal, with followers from coast to coast. Grayson was undefeated six games into its season and ranked in the top 10 of several national polls when Garcia arrived. Garcia wanted to play at Valdosta with coach Rush Propst, and Garcia’s parents reportedly separated legally to skirt the GHSA’s transfer bylaws. That didn’t fly in the end, but Garcia suited up as a Grayson Ram for the first time Oct. 30. He’s 20-of-35 passing for 514 yards and five touchdowns. It has been off the bench so far, but likely not for long on the state’s most talented team.
*Players that shined: Most of the state’s best-known players are having the seasons expected of them. Gunner Stockton of Rabun County has thrown for six touchdown passes in a game three times. He outshined another five-star QB recruit, Prince Avenue Christian’s Brock Vandagriff, when the two met Sept. 11 in an ESPN2-televised game won 38-31 by Rabun County. But Vandagriff has been all that, too, passing for 2,195 yards and 26 touchdowns, and his team is ranked No. 1 in Class A Private. Grayson’s Phil Mafah (1,080 yards rushing) and Collins Hill’s Travis Hunter (91 receptions, 1,219 yards) have emerged as strong player-of-the-year candidates. So has Blessed Trinity RB Justice Haynes with 1,052 yards rushing in only five games. The state has missed out on some of its stars. Grayson’s Daejon Reynolds and Paulding County’s Smael Mondon of the AJC Super 11 have suffered season-ending injuries.
*Fitted for glass slippers: River Ridge is the most surprisingly good team in Georgia this season, according to the computer Maxwell Ratings, which have determined that the Knights (8-0) are 21 points better than projected in preseason. River Ridge had never beaten a fellow Cherokee County opponent. This season, the Knights have beaten all four they’ve played. They’re ranked sixth in Class 6A. Other surprises? Hancock Central and Cherokee Bluff have won region titles for the first time. Richmond Academy is a region champ for the first time since 1976. And Haralson County is on the verge of its first region title in 53 years of varsity football.
*Not our year: Everybody is entitled to a down season, especially defending state champions. The Marietta-Harrison game Nov. 6 was hyped in preseason as a rare meeting of reigning state champions, Marietta from Class 7A, Harrison from 6A, now Region 3-7A rivals. By the time the game came around, Marietta was 2-5, Harrison 1-4. Harrison won the game, and now Marietta likely must beat Walton this week to make the playoffs. It happens. Stockbridge’s 10-season streak of making the playoffs is over. McEachern will get through in a five-team region, but at 3-5, its streak of winning seasons dating to 2007 is in trouble. The most disappointed team is probably Douglass. Coming off an 11-2 season and its best state finish (quarterfinals) in 24 years, the Astros were hit hard by COVID-19 issues and went 0-5 against a gauntlet of top-10 teams before shutting down the season.
*Four forfeits: It was only one player, and he didn’t make the difference in any wins, but he played while ineligible (failed to transfer legally), forcing two-time defending Class 2A champion Cedar Grove to forfeit four victories and handing Greater Atlanta Christian the region title. Cedar Grove initially figured it needed to win this week to make the playoffs, but Sandy Creek has canceled, citing COVID-19, so the Saints appear safe while awkwardly holding the No. 1 ranking despite an official 1-4 record. Other big-name teams have suffered mid-season forfeits, including 2012 state champion Buford and 2018 runner-up Warner Robins, but never four assessed on a top-ranked team. That likely puts Cedar Grove on the road for any playoff game.
*Teams to beat: It hasn’t changed much from the start, which had Grayson (7A), Valdosta (6A), Warner Robins (5A), Marist (4A), Cedar Grove (3A), Rabun County (2A), Eagle’s Landing Christian (A Private) and Irwin County (A public) ranked No. 1. All remain in the vicinity. But do watch Metter. The most serious threat to win a state title that was overlooked in preseason is the Tigers, a Class A Public team that is 9-0 and ranked No. 1 for the first time since 1982. Metter has never won a state title in football.
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