Class 6A blog: 2021 runner-up Hughes the favorite as playoffs begin

The Class 6A football playoffs begin Friday night with 16 first-round games, and there will be a new champion this year.

Buford has departed to the highest classification after winning back-to-back championships during its two-season layover in 6A, leaving the field open for someone else to get a shot.

Here’s a look at some of the storylines of the first round:

*The favorites: Top-ranked Hughes came agonizingly close to knocking off Buford in the 2021 championship. Now the Panthers are back, 10-0 for the first time in the program’s 14-season history and a region champion for the second consecutive season. They steamrolled through the regular season, outscoring opponents 533-96 (and 377-47 in region games), and their closest game was a 47-21 victory at Class 7A McEachern on Aug. 26. Hughes is one four 10-0 teams in Class 6A, joining No. 2 Thomas County Central, No. 4 Gainesville and No. 8 Brunswick.

*Toughest draw: Hughes won’t have an easy path to the final. The Panthers are one of three ranked teams in the upper-right quarter of the bracket, which also includes No. 5 Woodward Academy and No. 9 Lee County. Other teams in that part of the bracket are No. 2 seeds North Forsyth and Effingham County, which lost close contests against undefeated top-10 teams in games that decided their region championships. Lee County and Blessed Trinity are possibly the two best No. 3 seeds in the Class 6A field. And whichever team advances to the semifinals could be looking at game against Northside-Warner Robins, No. 7 Marist or No. 6 Rome.

*Best first-round game: Tenth-ranked Houston County finished in a tie for second place with Lee County and Northside in Region 1, but region tiebreakers pushed the Bears down to the No. 4 seed. That put them in a first-round matchup with No. 8 Brunswick in the only 6A game this weekend between top-10 teams. Brunswick ranks No. 7 in points allowed at 13.3 points per game, but that defense will be tested by a Houston County team that scores 45.10 per game, second best in 6A. Brunswick coach Garrett Grady said of the Bears, “I think they may be the best No. 4 seed I have ever seen before.” The winner will face North Atlanta or Lovejoy next week.

*Fresh faces on top: Five of the eight teams that won region titles in 6A this year didn’t play in the classification last season. The most notable was Thomas County Central, which was a 5-6 team in 4A last season but won rugged Region 1 this year and finished 10-0 and ranked No. 2. Marist also moved up two classes but won Region 4 for its third consecutive region title. Woodward Academy moved up one class from 5A and won Region 3 for its seventh region championship in nine seasons. Roswell (Region 7) and Gainesville (Region 8) moved down from 7A and won their regions. Roswell was 10-3 and a quarterfinalist last year, while Gainesville went 5-5 and missed the playoffs. The returning teams that earned titles this year – Brunswick (Region 2), Hughes (Region 5) and Rome (Region 6) – all won their regions for the second consecutive season.

*Barely made it: Allatoona won its final four regular-season games to keep alive its streak of making the playoffs every year since it began playing a region schedule in 2010. The Buccaneers needed a victory in the finale against River Ridge or the streak would have ended. Instead, they won 31-0 and ended up with the second seed in Region 6 behind Rome. … Riverwood lost to Marist in its finale but clinched a playoff berth in Region 4 when North Atlanta eliminated Dunwoody that same night. … Houston County defeated Veterans, Evans beat South Effingham and Sprayberry knocked off Pope last week in games that determined the No. 4 spots in their regions.

*The projections: Here are the Maxwell Ratings’ picks for all 16 of Friday’s games in Class 6A. The computer projects that the higher-seeded (home) teams will win 11, with two of the other five being virtual toss-ups.

Alpharetta vs. Shiloh -16

Blessed Trinity at North Forsyth -8

Douglas County at Allatoona -1

Gainesville vs. Sprayberry -29

Houston County at Brunswick -7

Hughes vs. River Ridge -42

Lee County at Effingham Co. -18

Marist vs. Morrow -42

North Atlanta at Lovejoy -2

Northside-Warner Robins vs. Glynn Academy -32

Rome vs. Paulding County -28

Roswell vs. Lanier -40

South Paulding vs. Sequoyah -13

St. Pius vs. Mundy’s Mill -10

Thomas County Central vs. Evans -46

Woodward Academy vs. Riverwood -42