Fellowship Christian is the only unranked team remaining, but with the benefit of hindsight, the Paladins should have entered the postseason ranked at least No. 8, ahead of ELCA, Cook and North Cobb Christian — all of whom were eliminated Friday. The Paladins’ only losses this season were 21-18 to Mount Pisgah, 35-28 to St. Francis and 21-16 to Rabun County. All three are quarterfinalists in the 1A Division I tournament.
Further, the Paladins are the lone remaining team that competed 1A last season.
As for my predictions, well, I correctly picked the quarterfinalists. I recall doing that a few years back also. Here’s how that started, here’s where it went.
As for this week, here’s where we are:
The Yellow Jackets just beat North Cobb Christian 63-10, an encore to their 65-7 win over East Jackson in Round 1. No team has scored more points through the first two rounds. Further, it’s the third game in a row, and fourth in the last five, that they’ve scored more than 60 points.
That’s what makes their matchup with defending champions Fitzgerald, which edged a very tough Putnam County team 28-20, so intriguing. On paper, this matchup looks even. Both teams use a stable of more than five running backs to control the ball in the ground game. Both have championship-level defenses. Both are used to playoff runs.
My gut tells me to stick with Fitzgerald, and I will since, duh, they’re my pick to win it all. But with the Jackets having to play in 3A the past two seasons, dropping down may have been appropriate from a competitive balance standpoint, and the break they needed to get back to the title game, which they reached in 2018 — the final season of their last 2A stint.
The Bears look every bit the part of a state champion, and they’re only two seasons removed from that distinction, winning a higher classification in 3A much less. Against the tournament’s lone-remaining No. 4 seed, Berrien, the Bears posted Round 2′s only shutout, winning 52-0.
They’ll face the Paladins, who ended ELCA’s remarkable streak of 12-straight quarterfinals appearances with a 26-15 win in a game they controlled from start to finish. The Paladins have been fast-rising since coach Tim McFarlin arrived last season, and though championship expectations were a tall order until very recently, they’re realistic for the second year in a row.
If the Paladins are going to win this game, it will be likely be close and low-to-mid-scoring. The Bears put up 41.5 points and the Paladins average 29.83. If the Bears are scoring at will, that would require a shootout for the Paladins to keep up, and that’s not a good situation for them. However, they have a strong enough defense to keep the score in the 28-24 range.
If the Paladins can manage that, I give them a 50/50 chance to win. And with home-field advantage, that’s an attainable goal. If the Bears score at least 35 points, though, that should be enough for their defense to hold the lead, and they’ll advance. That’s what I’ll pick to happen, since I have the Bears advancing anyway.
Appling County once again looked great in Round 2, this time against Northeast in a 35-13 win. That follows a 65-13 walloping of Washington County. The Pirates are yet another team with a stout defense, giving up an average of 11.18 points. They beat Pierce County 28-17, holding the Bears to by far their lowest scoring output of the season.
Now comes a Callaway team that’s seemingly always in the 2A quarterfinals. The Cavaliers survived Fannin County 20-13 at home in a game they were trailing late and held onto with a defensive stand. It wasn’t a pretty win, but the Cavs have never been one to go for style points. As always, they played an ultra-competitive non-region schedule, but this time they emerged from it 0-3 for their worst start in 17 years. So again, no style points — just athletes, coaching and championship aspirations, every season.
Just advance. That’s the only goal at this point in the season, and the Cavs did. And as I said in last week’s preview, they have shown a tendency to play to the level of their competition and make any game close. I expect the same this week at home, but I’m not so sure at this point whether that will be enough to beat the Pirates.
I did pick Callaway to win, though, so I’m going to stick with that. Though last week’s game was a little closer than expected — the Cavs were 13-point favorites — maybe that was a reflection of just how good a team Fannin County had.
Which leads me to say that Fannin County was a much better team than the 6-4 record it took into the playoffs suggested. Despite the losses, the Rebels still showed flashes of last year’s quarterfinals team, with highlights including a 68-42 win over North Murray and the program’s first road playoff win, 28-13 over perennial playoff contender Athens Academy. They almost got playoff road win No. 2.
Thomson looked dominant in its 42-10 win over Cook. In fact, outside of their season-opening loss and a 15-14 win over Laney in a game that was called before four quarters could be completed, the Bulldogs have dominated all season. Averaging 42.25 points while giving up 7.5, they’ll head to undefeated South Atlanta in what might be the best and most exciting matchup of the quarterfinals.
The Hornets rolled past Union County 42-14. Keyjuan Brown, chasing a second consecutive state rushing title, went for 177 yards and touchdowns on 21 carries. He also threw a 34-yard touchdown on his only pass attempt.
The Bulldogs’ defense hasn’t seen a running back of Brown’s caliber this season but to be fair, most 2A teams won’t. How they contain him will dictate what type of game this is. The Bulldogs will likely try to make everyone except Brown beat them and they may have the talent on defense to excecute. One would assume that works to the Bulldogs advantage, and it might.
However, the Hornets have athletes aside from Brown who can create all kinds of havoc, even in the return game. The question is if those other offensive playmakers — quarterback Jontez Adams, TJ Summerall, Steven Moore and Nick Brown, among others — can step up enough for the Hornets to advance should Brown be stifled.
As mentioned previously, the Hornets don’t use a placekicker for field goals and extra points, so there’s always a chance they leave game-deciding points on the table.
If the Bulldogs can contain Brown — let’s define that as holding him to less than 100 yards rushing and no more than two rushing touchdowns — that, coupled with the Hornets’ lack of a kicking game, should be enough for them to win. However, if Brown runs through the Bulldogs defense the way he has against just about every other defense he’s faced the past two seasons, I see the Hornets rallying around him and advancing.
I think this game will be close, and I think both teams will be able to score. I see something along the lines of a 42-35 game but maybe that’s not giving the defenses enough credit. I’ll stick with the Hornets moving on to the next round, because that was my pick, and because they have the talent to do it, with home-field advantage on their side.