Class 2A blog: Playoff predictions

Cane positioned to become first repeat champions in 12 years

The playoffs have arrived, which means it’s time for my annual predictions. This also where I remind you, the reader, that there hasn’t been a back-to-back Class 2A champion since Buford won four in a row from 2007-2010.

Now, go ahead and grab some makeshift drumsticks. Drum roll, please...Here are my predictions.

Wah-lah:

Credit: Predictions by Adam Krohn

Credit: Predictions by Adam Krohn

Given the 13-year absence of a repeat champion, it’s only natural that I pick Fitzgerald to win it all this year. Should the Purple Hurricane do so, they will have waited approximately 12 months between title celebrations. Before last year, they’d waited 876 months since their only title, which came in 1948.

With the influx of talented teams that joined 2A after the latest reclassification this offseason, the season to this point has been finding out who’s who amongst the new-look class.

ELCA was initially bestowed the No. 1 ranking in the preseason, with their five consecutive 1A titles from 2015-19. Tim McFarlin entered 2021 in his second season at Fellowship Christian and the Paladins, along with Athens Academy, joined a completely revamped Region 8 that was without a defending champion after Rabun County moved into 1A. In addition to those three, Thomson, Appling County, Rockmart and Pierce County entered 2A with perennial playoff success.

Each of those teams have lived up to their billings and reached the playoffs, joining top holdovers from the old 2A — Callaway, Cook, Columbia, Northeast and South Atlanta, among others.

And with any year, regardless of reclassification, there are teams that entered the season under the radar to blow past pundit expectations. Those team this year are playoff-bound ACE Charter, Spencer and Worth County.

Of all of these teams, however, none have played the part of a would-be champion this season more than Fitzgerald. That the Cane began the season ranked No. 2 was out of their control, but they quickly showed on the field who they were. They won their opener against 1A Division I’s No. 4 Irwin County 28-20, and then beat 1A-DI’s Turner County 57-6 to claim the poll’s top spot.

The Cane have stayed there ever since, and now they’re 10-0. If they repeat as champions, they will have posted the first undefeated championship season in a program that dates back to at least 1908.

If the saying, “good things come to those who wait,” holds any value, it would be hard to find a example than a Fitzgerald community that waited 73 years between state titles.

The 10-0 record was earned. Already playing in one of 2A’s toughest regions — admittedly, the Cane being in Region 1 is part of what makes it so tough — they filled their four-game non-region schedule with two ranked teams — Irwin and Northeast — perennial playoff contender and 2021 quarterfinalists Turner County (they stumbled to 2-8 this season), and Florida’s Madison County, which won its state association’s 1A title last year.

They bulldozed through Region 1, though they got a 20-12 scare from Dodge County in their league opener. It was the same score they beat Madison County by the game before, and the eight-point margin was the closest any opponent got to the Cane in the regular season.

They’ll open with Central, which went 3-4 in Region 2 play, emerging from a three-way tiebreaker between Rutland and Southwest for the No. 4 seed.

There are tough, championship caliber teams on Fitzgerald’s side of the bracket with ELCA, Fellowship Christian and Pierce County.

With Columbia, North Cobb Christian, Rockmart, Putnam County, Laney and Spencer and Toombs County all having potential to be major postseason disrupters, this is arguably the toughest quadrant of the 2A tournament.

The Cane may be more primed to reach the title game than any team in the field. They’re the defending champions. They haven’t lost, even though they have the second-highest strength of schedule rating on MaxPreps amongst its Class 2A top 10 teams. It’s worth noting here that Cook has the highest strength of schedule rating, in large part because it lost to 36-14 to Fitzgerald on Oct. 28.

Yes, there is significant turnover from last year’s championship team, particularly on the defensive side with the graduation of EJ Lightsey. However, they returned eight of 11 starters on offense. Most if not all contributors on this year’s team were there for last season’s championship ride, so experience is on their side as well. Should they reach Atlanta, it will be the third year in a row they’ve played for a 2A championship.

Here’s a quick breakdown of each quadrant.

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This bracket includes Fitzgerald and the Cane have already been discussed. Is there a team in this quadrant that has a chance against them? Possibly Columbia. The Eagles have big-game experience with their 13-10 win at Camden County in their season opener. Though the game was played in August, there’s no replicating the feeling of going five minutes from the Florida border and winning with 10,000 fans in attendance. They lost 32-12 to Callaway and 28-25 to ELCA in Region 5, which is why they’re a No. 3 seed. It’s no given they get bast North Cobb Christian, either.

Rockmart is another team to watch. The Yellow Jackets return to 2A after two years in 3A. In 2018, they went 14-1 and lost to Heard County in the 2A championship. They’ve been to the playoffs every year since 2016 and they’ve won their region in each of the past five seasons, including 7-2A this year. Their only two losses came to ranked opponents. They lost their opener 27-14 to 4A’s No. 3 Cedartown, and on Sept. 16, Irwin County beat them 28-14, less than a month after Irwin lost to Fitzgerald. The Jackets will have to beat East Jackson and one of Columbia or North Cobb Christian to meet Fitzgerald in the quarterfinals.

Columbia at North Cobb Christian, and Toombs County at Putnam County are two of the most intriguing first-round matchups in this tournament.

Though MaxPreps has North Cobb Christian’s strength of schedule rating at negative-8.1, which is by far the lowest, as well as the only with a negative rating among MP’s top 25, it enters the playoffs with a shiny 9-1 record, with their only loss 30-12 to No. 2 South Atlanta in Region 6. Columbia played a much tougher schedule and was ranked five weeks in a row. Though they lost 42-0 to 5A’s No. 1 Cartersville, and 32-12 to Callaway, they were competitive against ELCA in a 28-25 loss that gave them the No. 3 seed.

Putnam County is 8-2 the year after reaching the quarterfinals for the first time since 1994. The War Eagles are a run team, with 313 carries to 106 pass attempts, so they’ll look to win on the round and with defense. They’ll match up well against Toombs County, which had 357 carries to 158 pass attempts. The Bulldogs are the No. 3 seed, but they were beat 1A-DII’s No. 8 Wheeler County 21-0, and they were competitive in a 31-28 loss to No. 5 Pierce County.

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Pierce County shows the most promise of this group to reach the semifinals. They come from 3A, and had semifinal and championship-winning finishes the last two seasons. They’re 9-1, including 2-0 against ranked teams, beating 1A-DI’s No. 9 Metter and 1A-DII’s No. 7 Charlton County. Appling County was unranked when it won 28-17 over the Bears to claim the No. 1 seed. This is also a sendoff for standout running back DJ Bell, 2A’s No. 4 rusher with 1,361 yards and 22 touchdowns on 156 carries.

That’s not to say Fellowship Christian and ELCA, who are on track to meet in the second round, won’t win this quadrant. The Paladins went 7-3 and undefeated in Region 8 play under McFarlin, who won championships at each of his previous stops, Roswell and Blessed Trinity.

ELCA has a new coach this year in Tanner Rogers, but he was promoted from within after serving as an assistant, plus he played under Jonathan Gess, who left after last season to coach Hebron Christian. The Chargers, along with Callaway, might have the most D-I talent in 2A, and they’re also accustomed to deep playoff runs. Regardless of how the Chargers may have struggled at times this season along the way to a 6-4 finish, one fact cannot be ignored: They’ve reached at least the quarterfinals every year since 2010. All but two of those years resulted in at least a semis appearance.

The Spencer Owls are another team to watch out for. They’re coming off their first region championship since joining the GHSA in 1968, and they’re doing it with defense. In the region title game last week, they held an ACE Charter team averaging 46 points to a season-low in a 16-6 win. They’ll likely face Pierce County in Round 2.

The Laney Wildcats are another team with upset potential. They’re stuck with a No. 3 seed because they lost to both Thomson and Putnam County by just one point. The Thomson game was postponed and later not completed after gun shots were fired near the stadium while the game was being played. Had they been able to continue playing, the Wildcats were gaining momentum and threatening to take the lead. Working against the Wildcats, however, is the incredibly tough Round 1 draw of Pierce County.

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This is a competitive bracket, and the chaos could begin as early as Round 1, where only Callaway should be considered a lock to win. The Cavs are two years removed from a state title and reached the semifinals last year. They started 0-3 for the first time since coach Pete Wiggins’ debut season in 2005, but they they closed on a seven-game win streak, good for their third region title in four years. They can never be counted out, and they enter the postseason playing as well as anyone in 2A.

Worth County and Northeast in Round 1 should be one of the best matchups of the opening round. The Raiders, under Jeremy Wiggins, are a consistent playoff qualifier now, and reached the quarterfinals last season for the first time since the program was founded in 1970. They’re 7-3 and have 2A’s second-leading rusher, Nick Woodford, who has 2,008 yards and 30 touchdowns on 197 carries. They have size on both of the lines and could make a run.

Worth County was a team without expectations after the coach who it was assumed would return them to prominence, Phillip Ironside, left after a pair of 4-6 seasons. However, first-year coach Jeff Hammond has breathed new life into the Rams and, at 8-2, they’re in the playoffs for the first time since 2016. They have 2A’s second-leading passer in Chip Cooper, who has 2,050 yards and 19 touchdowns to three interceptions on 156-for-252 passing.

No team in this quadrant has a better shot at beating Callaway than Appling County, which reached the semifinals of last year’s 3A tournament, and the quarterfinals the year before. The Pirates, under second-year coach Jordan Mullis, are on a seven-game win streak, including a 42-0 win in the finale over a Brantley County team trying to earn 3-2A’s final playoff spot.

In Round 1, the Pirates meet a Washington County team that started 1-5 but ended 3-1 to take the No. 4 seed. An upset here is unlikely, but not impossible either. The Golden Hawks are led by one of their own, Robert Edwards, who starred for the team alongside NFL Pro Bowler Takeo Spikes in the 1990s. Edwards is in his first season after coaching Riverwood to a 32-11 record and two region titles in four years.

Fannin County at Athens Academy should be another good game of perennial playoff qualifiers with coaching stability, but the winner will have major underdog status against Callaway the following week.

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This might be the most competitive quadrant when it comes to a semifinalist emerging. No. 2 South Atlanta is undefeated and have 2A’s leading rusher, Keyjuan Brown, a Super 11 selection and Purdue commit, who’s arguably the best player in this tournament. With a strong postseason, Brown could again lead the state in rushing, as he did last year. The Hornets are 9-0. They’re coming off a quarterfinals finish in coach Michael Woolridge’s first season, and they’ve improved every season since 2016. Lack of a kicking game, however, makes them vulnerable to teams less talented than them, though running Brown two yards for a 2-point conversion isn’t exactly a plan that’s bound to fail.

Thomson and Cook are also capable of winning this quadrant, and they would meet in Round 2. Cook has to get by the surprising ACE Charter Gryphons in Round 1, first though. The Gryphons, at 8-2, are searching for their first playoff win since launching the program in 2018 under first-year coach Keith Hatcher. Cook has been in the playoffs every season since 2000, so experience won’t be an issue. They are 7-3 with first-year coach Byron Slack, and they’ve been ranked all but the first three weeks of the season.

Thomson lost its opener 24-21 to 4A’s Burke County and hasn’t lost since. The Bulldogs destroyed Region 4 competition, going 6-0 and scoring 324 points while allowing just 37. They’ve been in the playoffs every year since 2010, though this is their first year in 2A after competing in 3A or 4A since 1977. They reached the 3A quarterfinals last year, and have the best chance among teams in this quadrant at beating the Hornets.

Union County at Model should make for a great first-round game, but the winner gets South Atlanta in Round 2.

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Be on the lookout for a playoff preview episode of The Class 2A Blogcast, and check back here on Thursday for Round 1 games to watch.