First-round primer: It starts Friday with 254 teams

The Georgia high school football playoffs begin this week with 254 of the GHSA’s 424 football-playing schools advancing beyond the regular season.

This season, the eight champions will be home before Christmas. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic effectively pushed the state finals beyond Dec. 25.

This time, the champions will be crowned Dec. 9-11 at Georgia State’s Center Parc Stadium after five weekly rounds of playoffs.

Here’s a closer look at the playoffs, which kick off Friday from Dade County in the northwest Georgia mountains to Brunswick on the coast.

Favorites: The No. 1-ranked teams are Collins Hill (Class 7A), Buford (6A), Cartersville (5A), Marist (4A), Monroe Area (3A), Rabun County (2A), Trinity Christian (A Private) and Irwin County (A Public). Collins Hill, Monroe Area, Rabun County and Trinity Christian have never won state titles. Buford, Marist and Irwin County won in 2020.

Regulars: Seven schools have made the playoffs each season this century. They are Buford, Calhoun, Commerce, Cook, Fitzgerald, Marist and Peach County. Gainesville and Stephenson each missed this season for the first time since 2000.

Newbies: Long County and ACE Charter are the only teams in the playoffs for the first time. Long County lost its first 51 varsity games until breaking through in 2005 and was 0-10 last season, but first-year coach Mike Pfiester has the Blue Tide 5-5 this year and traveling to Southeast Bulloch in the first round. ACE started varsity football in 2018. Teams breaking long droughts are Duluth (last appearance 1994), Crawford County (1998), Cass (2006) and Apalachee (2009).

Cinderella: Georgia Military has won its first region title since 1960 and finished 10-0 for the first time since 1934, when Wally Butts was the coach. The Cadets are playing Manchester in their first home playoff game since the 1930s.

Delay of game: Instead of virtually every game being played Friday night, Classes 6A and A will be contested a day later, on Saturday, because the GHSA doesn’t have enough officials who meet playoff standards. A similar thing occurred for the first time last year, and now it’s the new normal. In 2019, the GHSA had 1,107 qualified playoff officials. This year, they have 881, as it’s getting tougher to recruit young officials into the profession.

Good story line: East Laurens is in the playoffs for the first time since 2012 after breaking a 46-game losing streak in region games this year. East Laurens clinched its playoff berth Friday in a must-win game. It was one day after a traffic accident resulted in the death of East Laurens student Breanna Dice. “Everybody’s hurting,” coach Bin Turner said. “This (playoff berth) gave us some glimmer of happiness in a dark couple of days.”

Bad story line: King’s Ridge Christian and Heritage of Newnan forfeited first-round Class A Private games to top-10 opponents. King’s Ridge cited injuries and competitiveness concerns. Heritage (0-10) didn’t give a reason.

Best first-round games: No. 9 Walton is playing at No. 6 Colquitt County in Class 7A, and No. 7 Coffee is playing at No. 5 Creekside in Class 5A. All four teams have been ranked each week this season, and each has reached the top four at some point.

Hardest to pick: The computer Maxwell Ratings put four games as pure toss-ups. They are North Gwinnett at South Forsyth (7A), Hart County at Ringgold (3A), St. Francis at Athens Christian (A Private) and Charlton County at Wilcox County (A Public). Seventh-ranked Carrollton is a one-point favorite at home against 10th-ranked Creekview in Class 6A.

Best players: Nine of the AJC’s Super 11 are playing this weekend. Amehre Morrison’s River Ridge team is out despite a 6-4 record, and Travis Hunter’s Collins Hill team is in, but he’s out with a leg injury and hopes to return. Those with the best chances at a state title are probably Hunter and quarterback Sam Horn of No. 1 Collins Hill in 7A, quarterback Gunner Stockton of No. 1 Rabun County in 2A, tight end Jake Johnson of No. 2 Oconee County in 3A and quarterback Thomas Castellanos of No. 3 Ware County in 5A.

What’s next: The second round is next week. If all favored teams advance, the rounds of 16 could include Warner Robins at Cartersville in a rematch of the 2020 Class 5A final; No. 6 Calhoun at No. 3 Ware County, also in 5A; and No. 8 Marietta at No. 3 Milton in 7A.