Class 2A blog: Predictions revisited; Coaches talk playoffs; Quarterfinals previewed

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All eyes on South Georgia, where No. 1 Rabun County, No. 2 Thomasville face off

Programming alert: With it being the week of Thanksgiving, this will be the only blog post until the quarterfinals recap, which will publish Sunday.

After Round 2, my bracket is no longer perfect. Two of my semifinalists — Bleckley County and Haralson County — suffered defeats. Here’s a look at where my predictions stand:

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Credit: Adam Krohn

For a recap of Round 2, go here. For an updated playoff bracket with scores, go here.

Episode 40 of The Class 2A Blogcast is live. Coaches for all eight quarterfinalist teams are the guests, and they breakdown how their teams got this far and what they’re expecting from their quarterfinals opponents.

Below are the quarterfinals matchups.

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Northeast Raiders (9-3) at Swainsboro Tigers (10-2)

Maxwell’s Projection: Swainsboro by 4

As has been previously discussed since the playoffs started, I was initially thrown for a loop when the Raiders lost to Lamar County in their season finale. As a result, I picked Haralson County to advance. That was a mistake. The Raiders have rebounded from the loss — which, again, had no bearing on the region standings; they were already locked into the No. 2 seed — to beat Cook 42-22 in Round 1 and Haralson County 26-20 last week.

Raiders coach Jeremy Wiggins said the team has a different mindset with their season on the line each week.

“That (loss) kind of reset us and our boys came out ready to play that following week,” Wiggins said. “They understand where we’re at now. We can go forward and look back on that and say, ‘we’re not going to do that anymore.’”

In Ep. 38 of The Class 2A Blogcast, Vidalia play-by-lay caller John Koon said he thought the Raiders were only team in this quadrant that could match up with the Tigers, who are the Indians’ region rival. Koon noted how fast and strong the Tigers are as a whole, but especially on the lines.

Wiggins said the team must account for the Tigers’ talent on both sides of the ball.

“Swainsboro is real good on defense,” Wiggins said. “They’ve got 2-3 players on offense that make that whole thing go. They’re a good football team that scores a lot of points. We’re going to try to slow them down and make it hard for them but at the same time, everybody is good at this point. So, you’ve just got to come out and play and make plays. That’s all you can do.”

The Tigers have been almost exclusively a run team in the playoffs, with dual-threat quarterback Ty Adams attempting just five pass attempts for 30 yards, a touchdown and an interception in the first two rounds. He rushed for 222 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries last week against Columbia, and posted a 14-122-3 line in the first round.

In both rounds, Adams has been complimented by a second 100-yard rusher. Last week, it was Jakari Nobles with 106 yards and a touchdown, and in Round 1 it was was Demello Jones (109 yards, two touchdowns).

The Tigers defense has allowed an average of 10 points in the playoffs. Laney came in averaging 20 points a game and were held to six, while Columbia averaged 25 and were held to 14.

The Raiders are averaging 28 points.

I had the Tigers losing to Haralson County in this round and obviously that’s not happening. The Tigers started 2-2, but those losses were to 1A Public’s No. 8 Metter and Washington County, which was ranked through much of the season. They flew largely under the radar as a result, even while outscoring Region 2 opponents 200-21 with three shutouts. That includes a 15-14 win over then No. 5 Jeff Davis on Oct. 22, which decided the region.

The Tigers crept into the rankings at No. 10 in the final release until after the playoffs conclude.

They’ll have to account for Travion Solomon who, like Adams, is a dual-threat quarterback that makes his team’s offense go. Solomon has been similarly dominant to Adams in the ground game. In Round 1 against Cook, he ran for 116 yards and two touchdowns on just six carries. Against Haralson County, he ran for 72 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries.

Solomon is aided on the ground game by D’Icey Hopkins (132 rushing yards and two scores against Cook) and Jakari Nobles (106 yards and a score on 15 carries against Columbia), with Qindaruis Brown, Lamorian Williams and Tyler Terry also in the mix.

The difference with the Raiders is they’ll throw the ball. In the playoffs, Solomon is 32-for-43 for 452 yards and three touchdowns to five different receivers with Omarion Ottman (nine catches for 168 yards and touchdown) leading the way.

Tigers coach Scott Roberts noted that stopping the Raiders’ offense won’t be easy.

“They are massive on both sides of the ball up front,” Roberts said. “They’ve got a quarterback and running back who are game breakers, and all of their wide receivers can make big plays for them. It’s going to be a tremendous challenge for us.”

The Raiders are in the quarterfinals for the first time, which would make this their first trip to the semis should they win. It would be the Tigers’ first trip to the semis since winning a Class 3A championship in 2000.

Bottom line: These teams are evenly matched. It should come down to which quarterback — Solomon or Adams — has the better game.

Prediction: I had the Tigers losing to Haralson County here. Instead, they’re at home against a No. 2 seed. The Raiders appear to be the more battle-tested team, with a higher strength of schedule rating according to MaxPreps — 19.6 to Swainsboro’s 12.7. This should be a close, back-and-forth game and in that setting, I’d bet on Solomon for his play in the clutch, best demonstrated by the Washington County win.

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Fitzgerald Purple Hurricane (10-2) at Putnam County War Eagles (12-0)

Maxwell’s Projection: Fitzgerald by 12

This matchup comes as predicted. I said in order for the War Eagles to beat Lovett, they’d have to score more than 21 points. They won 28-24 in the final seconds. I also said I expected the Cane to beat Fannin County by two scores. They won 28-14.

The Cane will once again be on the road, though they’ll only have to travel two-and-a-half hours this time instead of five-and-a-half.

Cane coach Tucker Pruitt said he expects the War Eagles to attack in a number of ways.

“The first thing that jumps out at you is their team speed,” he said. “Their quarterback (is a dual-threat). They’ve got two really good running backs (Cedrion Brundage and Tamarion Peters). They might be, from a film standpoint, the most talented offense we’ve that we’ve played against all year.”

That’s saying a lot considering the Cane have a strength-of-schedule rating of 28.6 — decimal points behind 2A’s leader, Thomasville (29.0). Opponents include Irwin County, Turner County, Dodge County, Cairo and Pierce County.

“They do a lot of guard-tackle counter and they’re reading backside in,” Pruitt said. “It can be a run all the way to the left sideline with a good athlete at running back, or the quarterback can pull it and run it back all the way to the other sideline. They’ve got some weapons out wide. They’re fairly balanced. They’re more run than pass but they do both very well. They just stretch you, vertically and horizontally. They can get athletes in space. They’re good at running through tackles and making people miss.”

Gerald Kilgore leads the offense, and last week against Lovett he was 11-for-19 for 176 yards with two touchdowns to two interceptions. He rushed for 105 yards and a touchdown on seven carries. His leading receiver was his younger brother, Jalon Kilgore, with 91 yards and a touchdown on six catches.

Brundage had 70 yards and the game-winning touchdown on 17 carries.

The Cane have a capable offense with one of the state’s more creative offensive minds in Pruitt, but their bread-and-butter, and what’s going to continue carrying them, is their defense. They’re giving up an average of 10 points in the first two rounds.

The toughest defense the War Eagles have played is likely Lovett. The Cane figure to be more of a challenge, and War Eagles coach Shaun Pope summed them up nicely with just three words.

“South Georgia football,” Pope said. “They’re going to be big, fast and physical. They’re going to be tough...They’re a quality program, one of the top in the state. They’re in it every year. They’ve been there, done that. It’s going to be an exciting, good game — I really do believe that.”

This would be the War Eagles’ first trip to the semis since 1996, when they were the 1A finalists. The Cane were in the semis last year and have been five times since 2014.

Bottom line: Like last week for the War Eagles, the defense should be able to keep the game manageable. It will be a matter of if they can score enough points against the Cane’s defense.

Prediction: For Fitzgerald, the War Eagles are somewhat similar to Fannin County. The Rebels came into Round 2 averaging 34 points with a 0.7 strength of schedule rating. The War Eagles are averaging 43.75 and have an even lower strength of schedule rating of 0.3. I expect a result similar to last week for the Cane — their defense should limit Putnam County while putting up enough points to win.

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Callaway Cavaliers (10-2) at South Atlanta Hornets (11-1)

Maxwell’s Projection: Callaway by 7

I had pegged undefeated Bleckley County to beat the defending-champion Cavaliers in Round 2, but instead the Cavs played one of their best games of the season. Now it seems like the defending champs are locked in on repeating. Heading into last week’s game, I said to flip a coin over which Callaway team got off the bus, and if the good Cavs show, they’d win. The good Cavs showed.

I had the Hornets getting this far, also, with Keyjaun Brown being the primary reason. That has also held true. Brown has 617 yards and six touchdowns on just 43 carries through the first two rounds.

This might be a reinvigorated Cavs team since trailing 21-0 at Heard County in the season finale. That two-game skid in the middle of the season looks smaller and smaller in the rearview. With all the talent they lost from last year’s team, it was expected that they’d struggle some and they did. But they’re on a five-game win streak now and playing their best football.

That should come as no surprise. As a perennially talented team that’s easily 2A’s most-heavily recruited, the Cavs are accustomed to making deep playoff runs. This is their sixth straight trip to the quarterfinals and eighth since 2009.

Though they led Pepperell 21-0 in Round 1 and let the Dragons back in the game, they held on 29-22. Their performance last week against the No. 3 team in the state, on the road, was nothing short of dominant.

Now they face the Hornets, a team they’ve never played. They’ve played against the Hornets’ coach, Michael Woolridge, however.

Woolridge was at Hardaway last season when the Cavs hosted and won 17-6.

The Hornets have continued their ascension to relevancy under Woolridge, who in his first season at South Atlanta has guided them to a second straight region title and their first-ever quarterfinals appearance.

Despite closing the regular season on a nine-game win streak that’s now reached 11, the Hornets have had the luxury of going unnoticed by pollsters. Brown is the state’s leading rusher with 2,618 yards and 38 touchdowns on 227 carries, but he’s gone largely under-recruited in the eyes of Woolridge.

Cavs coach Pete Wiggins isn’t overlooking Brown, however. In fact, he paid Brown about as high of a compliment as he could have.

“He reminds me a lot of Tank Bigsby,” he said. “He’s so explosive with a lot of lower-body strength and a lot of fight, and he’s really hard to bring down.”

Bigsby was a Class of ‘20 5-star running back at Callaway who went on to Auburn, where we won SEC Freshman of the Year honors last season.

Wiggins expects a competitive game.

“Playing against (Woolridge) at Hardaway, they bring a physicality and toughness,” he said. “I see that in South Atlanta in watching a lot of film this weekend. He’s a great leader and he’s going to put a very good product on the field...It’s two different teams as far as players now and a different atmosphere, but bottom line: I think the product will be similar as far as two good football teams getting after one another. So, it should be a good game Friday night.”

Woolridge knows what to expect from the Cavs based on his experience them and current game film and isn’t counting his team out.

“Callaway’s going to run the football,” Woolridge said. “They’re going to run their power game, and they’re going to take some shots in the slot to (Carlos Billingslea) and they like to throw the deep ball and take chances. Defensively, they’re going to be fast and they’re going to get to the ball and mix the blitzes up.

“We’re up for the challenge. We’re not contempt and we’re not complacent with where we’re at. Even though it’s (our first quarterfinals) in school history, we tell ourselves, ‘Why not us?’”

Bottom line: The Hornets will likely need around 200 rushing yards and multiple scores from Brown to overcome a strong Cavs defense and explosive offense.

Prediction: After a season of adjusting to a reloaded roster, the Cavs appear to have found themselves just in time for yet another deep postseason run. Add in their familiarity with Woolridge’s system, and their experience and talent, and that should be just enough for them to overcome the Hornets’ Brown and their home-field advantage.

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Rabun County Wildcats (11-1) at Thomasville Bulldogs (11-1)

Maxwell’s Projection: Thomasville by 1

Once the Bulldogs beat Fitzgerald 15-8 on Oct. 22 to win Region 1 it seemed, when lining up the seeding for this year’s tournament, that a matchup with the Wildcats in the second round was inevitable. It was all but a given that the Wildcats would continue their domination of Region 8 for an eighth-consecutive season.

It’s a shame these two teams are meeting in the quarterfinals and not in the championship. Both are perennial contenders accustomed to making deep runs, with the Wildcats in the quarterfinals for a seventh straight year, and the Bulldogs three years in a row and fourth time in five years.

Both have challenged themselves with tough non-region schedules in preparation for winning a long-elusive state title.

Wildcats coach Jaybo Shaw and Bulldogs coach Zach Grage anticipated this matchup as well, and drew up their schedule accordingly. They knew one of their teams would have to make the cross-state commute to play. That’s why Shaw scheduled Pierce County, and Grage Oconee County — they wanted their teams prepared for a nearly six-hour bus ride by having already experienced it.

That gives you an idea of how badly each program wants this title. In my eyes, these are the two top teams in the state, and the winner of this game will also take 2A.

The GHSA’s universal coin toss awarded the Bulldogs home-field advantage, so it will be the Wildcats who are burdened with the long road trip. They won their game at 3A’s then-No. 3 Pierce County 28-21 on Oct. 1.

“If I’m being honest, that was the sole reason I scheduled that game with Pierce,” Shaw said. “Play a top-five team on the road in South Georgia, where it was a five-plus-hour trip. I felt that was important for us as a team to go down their in the regular season and get that experience...being able to do that during the regular season, get an itinerary, travel plans, meals — all that stuff, I think definitely helps you as a team to be able to draw back on that experience and realize you’ve done this. Now we’ve got to go compete and try to play our best football game against a really, really, really talented football team in Thomasville.”

The significance of playing at home, where the Bulldogs are on an eight-game win streak dating to last season, isn’t lost on Grage.

“One of our starters said, ‘Oh coach, thank goodness because the only hotel I want to stay at is in Atlanta (for the championship),’” Grage said. “(Had we lost the coin toss), we would have had a good following and we would have made the trip and put our best foot forward, but this year’s group has just been so bent on playing at home and we’ve talked about it so much, how important it is. We’ve really had some success here at home, especially in our beginning-of-the year run with our bigger opponents Cairo, Bainbridge and (Brooks County).

“So, it was big for (the players to win the toss) and (if we had lost) I think I would have tried to spin it, but I even told my wife I lost sleep for a couple days just trying to think of how I could make it exciting to have to go five-and-a-half hours to play Rabun County at their place. A little cooler, on grass — just things we don’t really look forward to.”

Thus far, the Wildcats have blown through their first two playoff opponents, Pace Academy and Jeff Davis, by a combined 119-21. Jeff Davis hadn’t allowed more than 15 points in a game all season, but the Wildcats were up 21-0 by the end of the first quarter.

In those wins, Wildcats quarterback Gunner Stockton was 39-of-45 passing for 746 yards and nine touchdowns while rushing 23 times for 214 yards and five scores. He needs 416 passing yards to surpass Trevor Lawrence’s career record of 13,902 yards.

It’s hard to envision Stockton breaking the record against the Bulldogs’ defense, but he, Shaw and the Wildcats have said all along that it’s not about the records — it’s about winning a title.

Shaw knows the threat the Bulldogs are to their ultimate goal.

“It will be a battle,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of players at a lot of different positions and they’re vey well coached. It will be a great high school football game in the state of Georgia, for sure.”

The Bulldogs have also been on a playoff tear this season, beating Washington County and Heard County — both ranked at points in the season — by a combined 84-23. The pace and scheme of their offense isn’t designed to be the juggernaut the Wildcats are, but they should be effective at moving the ball and scoring on Rabun County.

Quarterback Shannen White is 15-for-23 passing for 493 yards and seven touchdowns without an interception. Malik Harper (1,051 yards and 19 touchdowns on 173 carries) and Ricky Fulton (766-6-147) are the team’s leading rushers.

As mentioned previously, no 2A team has a tougher strength-of-schedule rating than the Bulldogs, and despite that they’re still only giving up an average of 14.25 points.

The Wildcats’ season-low was 13 in their opening loss to Jefferson. Since then, they’ve averaged 54 points a game. Slowing down the Wildcats’ offense will be the key for Thomasville.

“If you start feeling good about yourself just look at their stats,” Grage said. “Their offense and defense and what they’ve done all season, it will put yourself back in your humble place really quick...Their defense has actually given up less points (12.5 points) than ours, so I expect an extremely well-coached team, an unbelievable battle with intensity and energy — it’s everything it’s hyped up to be.”

The game will be televised on PeachtreeTV.

Bottom line: If Stockton can run and throw for a combined 300 yards and three scores, he will have done his part. But that still might not be enough, depending on how the Wildcats defense fares.

Prediction: At the time I released my predictions, I didn’t have the luxury of knowing which team would host. The Wildcats are traveling but I put a lot of stock in the Pierce County win. They’re the only team I see capable of beating the Bulldogs at their home and they can pull it off — likely by the thinnest of margins.

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