Class 2A blog: Playoff predictions

2020 GHSA state football championships at Centre Park.

Credit: Adam Krohn

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2020 GHSA state football championships at Centre Park.

Credit: Adam Krohn

Credit: Adam Krohn

Crystal ball: No. 1 Rabun County Wildcats top No. 4 Fitzgerald Purple Hurricane for 1st title in program history

The playoffs are here!

As part of this ultimate preview guide, check out Ep. 38 of The Class 2A Blogcast. Guests include a member of the media for each region: Chris Beckham, Friday Night Football Show (Region 1); John Koon, voice of the Vidalia Indians (Region 2); Dave Whitaker, The Bleckley Progress (Region 3); Wynston Wilcox, The Augusta Chronicle (Region 4); Matt Skinner, Gradick Sports (Region 5); Mark Brock, DeKalb Schools (Region 6); Tim Towe, voice of the Fannin County Rebels (Region 7); Brian Carter, Blitz (Region 8).

Also, it’s time for my annual predictions. Please note: I’m not good at this. The last time I picked a winner in football was Benedictine in 2016. So to the team I picked to win, I’m sorry. You’ve possibly been cursed. But curses are made to be broken, as demonstrated by the 2021 Atlanta Braves.

Enough blather, here are my predictions:

(right-click to enlarge)

ajc.com

Credit: Adam Krohn

Credit: Adam Krohn

For me, this is the Rabun County Wildcats’ year. They have one of the best quarterbacks the state has ever seen in Gunner Stockton, who will continue his career at Georgia, and who broke a number of state records, including Trevor Lawrence’s career passing yards and touchdowns, and Deshaun Watson’s combined passing/rushing yards and touchdowns.

But it’s not just Stockton, who this year is 183-of-254 passing for 44 touchdowns to just one interception, with 630 yards and nine touchdowns on 94 carries. Junior receiver Jaden Gibson has 1,497 yards and 13 touchdowns on 67 catches. Senior Baxley O’Brien has 12 touchdown receptions. Junior Lang Windham has 663 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground.

On defense, Will Turpin leads with 91 tackles and six sacks, and sophomores Jarret Giles and Willie Goodwin each have three interceptions.

There are 19 returning starters, many of whom have played together since youth league.

The Wildcats have won eight consecutive region titles. They’re the No. 1-ranked team in 2A with a 9-1 record. Their resume includes road wins over 3A’s No. 3 Pierce County, South Carolina’s Saluda — ranked No. 3 in in that state’s 2A — and a 47-14 win over the Pace Academy Knights, who they play in the first round. Their lone loss was 22-13 to then-No. 1 Jefferson, last year’s finalists in 4A.

The Wildcats’ postseason success extends beyond the tenures of Stockton and coach Jaybo Shaw, who took over in 2019. They’ve reached at least the quarterfinals every year since since 2014, with Shaw’s father, Rabun County class of ‘84 alum Lee Shaw, laying the foundation as coach from 2012-18. They reached the 2A championship in 2017.

Last season, they reached the semifinals, where they lost to eventual champions Callaway.

With this being Stockton and the Wildcats senior class’ last opportunity to win a state title, it seems as all the sustained success has been culminating toward this moment.

Perhaps Stockton said it best: “This is the year to do it, and if we don’t, it’s a bust year.”

(Listen: Gunner Stockton, his father and Wildcats defensive coordinator Rob Stockton, coach Jaybo Shaw and lineman Bear Old discuss championship expectations and more in Episode 29 of The Class 2A Blogcast.)

Of course, there are teams standing in Rabun County’s way of what would be the only championship for a Wildcats program that began in 1949.

Here’s a quadrant-by-quadrant breakdown:

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For me, this is the toughest quadrant to predict. I see the No. 6 Haralson County Rebels (9-1), No. 8 Northeast Raiders (7-3) and No. 10 Swainsboro Tigers (8-2) all with an equal shot at reaching the semis.

I ultimately went with the Rebels, who dominated their 5-2A competition, including leveling then-No. 5 Callaway 42-14 on Oct. 8. In all, they outscored Callaway, Temple, Heard County and Bremen a combined 147-44. They also beat 1A Public’s then-No. 6 Bowdon 14-10. Their lone loss was 18-15 to 1A Public’s Manchester.

The Rebels will be a tough out because their unique “Ugly Eagle” double-wing offense is not something opponents see during the regular season.

(Listen: Rebels coach Scott Peavey discusses the Ugly Eagle in Ep. 34 of The Class 2A Blogcast)

They lean almost exclusively on the run — they’ve attempted just 16 passes all season — and their defense, which has long been a proven formula for postseason success. They have perhaps 2A’s best two-way player in Clay Hyatt, who, through nine games, rushed for 729 yards and seven touchdowns on 82 carries from the quarterback position. As a linebacker, he has 86 tackles — 10 for loss — with two caused fumbles, two fumble recoveries and two pass deflections.*

*At publishing time, Haralson County had yet to post stats from their 10th game, a 35-16 win over Bremen on Nov. 5.

The Rebels are riding an eight-game win streak that began Sept. 3.

Though I have the Rebels reaching the semifinals, they’re already in uncharted territory. For a program that dates to 1968, they’d only reached the playoffs three times before coach Scott Peavey arrived in 2017. Though he’s taken them to the playoffs in each of the last four seasons, they’ve yet to win a playoff game, and before this year, they’d never won a region title.

Just getting out of the second round will be difficult, because that’s where they’ll likely face Northeast.

I might have had the Raiders reaching the semifinals, but their regular season-ending 28-20 loss to unranked Lamar County has given me pause.

For the Week 12 recap, go here.

It’s worth noting the Raiders were already locked into the No. 2 seed, so the game had no bearing on their season moving forward. Further, Lamar County was playing for an outside shot at the No. 4 seed, though they needed Washington County to lose, but that didn’t happen. Nonetheless, Raiders coach Jeremy Wiggins said he didn’t rest his starters for the game, so it was a legitimate loss.

The Raiders are still one of the best teams in 2A. Their only other losses were 10-7 to 4A’s Dougherty and 9-6 to undefeated 3-2A champs Bleckley County. They beat three ranked opponents in 5A’s No. 7 Jones County, No. 8 Washington County and No. 6 Dodge County.

Outside of Stockton, they have arguably the best quarterback in 2A in Travion Solomon, who is 95 of 151 passing with nine touchdowns to two interceptions, and he has 434 yards and seven touchdowns on 75 carries. He seems to play his best the bigger the stage, as demonstrated by him leading the Raiders to an improbable come-from-behind road win over Washington County on Oct. 1. In that game, he accounted for three touchdowns as the Raiders outscored the Golden Hawks 21-3 in the fourth quarter to escape with a 27-23 win.

(Listen: Raiders coach Jeremy Wiggins discusses their success in Episode 33 of The Class 2A Blogcast)

Then there’s the Tigers, winners of Region 2. They beat then-No. 5 Jeff Davis 15-14 on Oct. 22 and finished 5-0 in league play. They also beat 1A Public’s No. 7 Dublin on Sept. 17. Their losses were on the road to 1A Public’s No. 8 Metter (32-20) and Washington County (22-21).

Tigers junior quarterback Ty Adams has rushed for 1,293 yards and 17 touchdowns on 159 carries while completing 25 of his 55 passes for 374 yards and three touchdowns to one interception. Sophomore Jerrod Stewart leads the team with 108 tackles and another sophomore, Damello Jones, has a team-leading three interceptions.

John Koon, voice of the Vidalia Indians, called Swainsboro’s season finale — a 48-0 shutout of the Indians — and had this to say about the Tigers:

“I think Northeast may be the only team that fits perfectly to be able to beat Swainsboro,” Koon said. “You’re going to have to have very fast linebackers who can make tackles on the spot, and fast corners who close in a hurry. And you’re going to have to have a couple linemen that can stand up to what they offer on the offensive line, because that’s probably the fastest team (the Indians) have played all year. And to tell you the truth, probably one of the more physical teams I’ve seen all year.”

The Columbia Eagles (7-3), are my dark horse for this quadrant.

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The No. 4 Fitzgerald Purple Hurricane (8-2), who were last year’s finalists, appear to be in a class of their own when it comes to this quadrant. They hail as the No. 2 seed from Region 1 after losing to 15-8 No. 2 Thomasville on Oct. 22. Their only other loss was 17-0 to 3A’s No. 3 Pierce County. Wins include 18-15 in overtime over 1A Public’s top-ranked Irwin County and 15-6 over No. 8 Dodge County.

They’ve adapted nicely to life without Chance Gamble, who lined up quarterback, running back, receiver and defensive back before graduating last year. Florida commit EJ Lightsey has anchored a defense that the team leans on more so than last year with the loss of Gamble and others on the offensive side. Cane coach Tucker Pruitt has lined Lightsey up occasionally at running back this season, and opponents should expect to see more of that in the playoffs.

Running back Jakorrian Paulk is the workhorse on offense.

The Cane have a difficult first-round matchup, a rematch with the now-No. 9 Dodge County Indians (7-3). The teams played on Sept. 10 in Eastman, but the Cane will host this time around. The Indians’ other losses were to Bleckley County (21-19) and Northeast (21-7). They beat then-No. 4 Dublin of 1A Public and No. 10 Washington County.

The Indians are winning with freshman Duke Johnson at quarterback. Heading into the Indians’ regular season finale, he was 63 of 120 passing for 948 yards and 11 touchdowns to five interceptions and had 452 yards and a team-high seven touchdowns on 88 carries.

Should the Cane beat Dodge County a second time, standing in their way in the second round could be the Fannin County Rebels, champions of Region 7 for the second year in a row. The Rebels would be seeking to avenge last year’s loss to the Cane in the quarterfinals, where Fitzgerald won 48-14 on the road.

However, if a No. 4 seed is to beat a No. 1 seed this year in 2A, it could be the Bremen Blue Devils (5-5) out of Region 5 topping the Rebels.

The Rebels (9-1) have remained highly competitive — perhaps overlooked by pollsters — despite losing 20 seniors from last year’s team. Senior Seth Reece has stepped up to lead the Rebels, completing 58 of 99 passes for 704 yards and 10 touchdowns to three interceptions while rushing for 1,081 yards and 11 touchdowns on 152 carries. In the Rebels’ two-quarterback system, he’s also caught 13 passes for 171 yards and three touchdowns. He also has 32 tackles, a fumble caused and a pass deflection on defense.

(Listen: Rebels coach Chad Cheatham discusses the team in Ep. 35 of The Class 2A Blogcast)

Before the Rebels can plot revenge against Fitzgerald, they have to get past the Blue Devils who, along with the Lovett Lions (7-3) are my dark horses for this quadrant.

The Blue Devils have been inconsistent this year but, for the second year in a row, beat Temple to reach the playoffs. Last year they advanced the quarterfinals as a No. 3 seed.

The Lions have struggled on offense in each of the past two seasons but are still giving opponents fits on the defensive end, allowing just 9.2 points this year, including four shutouts.

The No. 6 Putnam County War Eagles (10-0) are a challenger to win the quadrant but, despite their undefeated record, the jury is out on them because they’ve yet to play a ranked opponent. Still, they’ve outscored the competition 435-94 and conquered the class of Region 4, Jefferson County, with a 28-21 win on Oct. 22.

War Eagles quarterback Gerald Kilgore is 78 of 147 passing for 1,510 yards and 17 touchdowns to one interception, and he has rushed for nine touchdowns and 355 yards on 56 carries. Cedrion Brundage has 806 yards and 11 touchdowns on 97 carries. Both are seniors.

(Listen: War Eagles coach Shaun Pope discusses his team in Ep. 31 of The Class 2A Blogcast)

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The No. 3 Bleckley County Royals (10-0) appear to be the team to beat in this quadrant, though the South Atlanta Hornets (9-1), No. 7 Callaway Cavaliers (7-2) and Westside Patriots (8-2) stand as viable challengers.

Similar to Haralson County, the Royals are a team with a long history of not doing much until a new coach came along and changed the culture. In this case, it was Von Lassiter, who arrived in 2017. This season, he was able to deliver the program, founded in 1977, its first-ever region title and second undefeated regular season. The Royals have reached the playoffs in each of the last three seasons, including the quarterfinals last year as a No. 4 seed — the furthest they’ve been. They were also quarterfinalists in 2006.

They’ve had a historic season despite losing 5-star lineman Amarius Mims, quarterback Dominic Sasser, and a number of other playmakers, as well defensive coordinator John Ford. Stepping up in their absence has been Jahvon Butler, one of the state’s leading rushers with 1,333 yards and 15 touchdowns on 213 carries. Ford was replaced by Brad Harber, who guided Crisp County to a 3A championship appearance and the semifinals in each of the last two seasons.

The Royals were 4-0 against ranked teams, beating 1A Public’s No. 7 Wilcox County, No. 7 Dodge County, No. 6 Northeast and No. 10 Washington County.

(Listen: Royals coach Von Lassiter discusses the team’s historic season in Ep. 36 of The Class 2A Blogcast)

The Royals could see the defending-champion Cavs in the second round. Though most all of their playmakers from last year’s team are gone, the Cavs are still loaded with talent, albeit young, inexperienced and inconsistent.

The Cavs started 4-0 with wins over Opelika (Ala.), 4A’s Troup and Hardaway and 3A’s Douglass, but then hit an ugly two-game skid at home in which they lost 24-8 to 4A’s Thomas County Central and 42-14 to Haralson County, with both opponents unranked at the time. That dropped them from the polls for all of one week, and they closed with three wins as part of a nine-game regular season.

Perhaps the Cavs have turned the corner based on their regular season finale against Heard County. With second place and home field advantage through at least the first round on the line, the Cavs trailed 21-0 on the road and rallied for a 24-21 win. That game was a microcosm of their season as a hole. If they play like the first half, they won’t get out of the second round. If they play like the second half, repeating as state champions isn’t out of the realm of possibilities.

Class 2A hasn’t had consecutive champions since the Buford Wolves, who won four in a row from 2007-10.

I don’t have a dark horse for this quadrant, but the Hornets are my dark horse to win it all. If not for a slip-up in their season opener to Heard County — they lost 16-12 in Franklin — the Hornets are standing undefeated and most likely ranked. As of now, though, they’ll settle for being Region 6 champions for the second year in a row, flying under the radar despite having the state’s leading rusher in junior Keyjaun Brown, who has 2001 yards and 32 touchdowns on 184 carries.

The Hornets are arguably better than last year under first-year coach Michael Woolridge, who comes from Hardaway, his alma mater, after turning that program around, taking it to the playoffs in each of the last three seasons — the longest streak for a program that began in 1965.

Woolridge took the torch from Brad Stephens, who laid the groundwork and took the Hornets to historic heights, winning the program its first region title and playoff game last year.

(Listen: Hornets coach Michael Woolridge discusses sustaining success at South Atlanta in Ep. 30 of The Class 2A Blogcast)

The Patriots are another team that’s come into its own this season. After losing two close games in a row to 1A Public’s No. 10 Lincoln County (23-17) and Putnam County (19-7), the Patriots reeled of six straight wins to close the regular season, including 14-12 over Jefferson County.

They’ll likely face South Atlanta in the second round, and though it should be considered an upset if they win, no one in Macon will be surprised. Second-year coach Lee Hutto has the team believing it can make a deep run.

(Listen: Patriots coach Lee Hutto talks about turning the program around in Episode 37 of The Class 2A Blogcast)

The Patriots are led on offense by Xzavier Green, who has 1,312 yards and 15 touchdowns on 193 carries. On defense, Kaleb Hutchinson has 45 tackles and three interceptions, both team-highs. Both are seniors.

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If all goes how I see it, the winner of the Rabun County-Thomasville Bulldogs game could decide the state title. Like Rabun County, the No. 2 Bulldogs (9-1) have been in the championship conversation for the past few years. Under sixth-year coach Zach Grage, they’ve reached at least the quarterfinals in three of the past four seasons, including the quarterfinals last year and the semifinals the year before.

The Region 1-champion Bulldogs won arguably the best region in 2A, but they also went 4-1 against a brutal non-region schedule. Four of their five non-region opponents were ranked, and the one that wasn’t, Thomas County Central, beat Callaway. The Bulldogs beat Thomas County Central 23-14, along with 1A Public’s No. 1 Brooks County (42-34), 4A’s No. 10 Cairo (26-21) and 4A’s No. 8 Bainbridge (28-10). Their lone setback was 20-6 to 3A’s No. 2 Oconee County.

Bulldogs running back Malik Harper has rushed for for 957 yards and 18 touchdowns on 155 carries, and quarterback Shannen White is 76 of 132 passing with 12 touchdowns to five interceptions. Linebacker Ty Anderson anchors the defense with 118 tackles, 14 for loss, and 10 sacks. Jimmy Bowdry has four interceptions. All are seniors.

Should the Wildcats and Bulldogs meet in the quarterfinals, home-field advantage will come down to the GHSA’s universal coin toss. That toss is of most significance, as the two schools are on the opposite ends of the state, 330 miles apart. That’s a five-and-a-half hour bus ride.

Fortunately for both teams, they have that road trip experience this season. Rabun County traveled five-and-a-half hours to play Pierce County, and Thomasville traveled four hours, 10 minutes to Oconee County.

There are other teams here that could have potentially made deeper runs had they been placed in another quadrant, such as the Jeff Davis Yellow Jackets (9-1), Heard County Braves (5-5) and Washington County Golden Hawks (5-4). Rabun County or Thomasville seem like too big of an obstacle for any of them to overcome, however.

The Jackets probably have the most impressive resume of the three by being one of 2A’s highest scoring teams, averaging 33.3 points, while also giving up the fewest points in 2A — a minuscule six per game. However, not only have they yet to play a ranked opponent, but just three of the nine teams they played — they collected a forfeit-win over Atkinson County — had a winning record: 4A’s Jenkins (5-4), Swainsboro (8-2) and East Laurens (6-4). They lost 15-14 to Swainsboro, with the Tigers unranked at the time, and that dropped the Jackets out of the polls for good from No. 5.

It’s no guarantee the Jackets escape the first round against the Jefferson County Warriors (6-4), who have advanced in the playoffs in each of the last eight seasons. Even if the Jackets win, a trip to Rabun County awaits them in Round 2.

The Braves flashed potential early by starting 3-0, beating South Atlanta and 1A Public’s No. 7 Manchester on Sept. 3, which earned them a one-week stay in the rankings at No. 10. From there, they lost three straight and five of their last seven, including the collapse at home to Callaway in the regular season finale.

The Braves are backing into the playoffs and also have a tough Round 1 matchup against an up-and-coming Dade County Wolverines team that finished 7-3. The winner of that game has to travel to Thomasville for Round 2.

The Golden Hawks will pull off one of the biggest upsets in the playoffs — regardless of classification — if they can beat Thomasville in Round 1. That’s no slight on the Golden Hawks — they’ve been in the playoffs every year since 2008 under long-time coach Joel Ingram, who arrived in 2006. They’ve missed the playoffs just once since 1991. However, this year there’s nothing on their resume that would suggest a win against the Bulldogs is possible.

They went 0-4 against ranked teams, losing 27-23 to No. 9 Northeast, 37-24 to 4A’s No. 10 Perry, 28-23 to No. 4 Bleckley County, and 26-19 to No. 9 Dodge County. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that they were competitive in those games. In all likelihood, being competitive against Thomasville while coming up short is the best-case scenario.

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