Quarterfinals primer: Region champs set to go head-to-head

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

The football quarterfinals could be called the battle of champions. The third round represents the first time that region winners can play each other, and 17 of this week’s 32 games are champion-on-champion. Those include one No. 1-vs.-No. 2 game, Cedar Grove vs. Calvary Day, and one between two of the state’s 15 undefeated teams, Rabun County vs. Swainsboro. Here’s a closer look at those games and more.

No. 1 vs. No. 2: Defending Class 3A champion Cedar Grove plays at its home field, DeKalb County’s Godfrey Stadium, against second-ranked Calvary Day. Cedar Grove has lost twice, both to Class 7A quarterfinals teams, and is a 14-point favorite, according to the computer Maxwell Ratings, to take out the undefeated Cavaliers. Cedar Grove’s Elliott Colson and Calvary Day’s Jake Merklinger are underclassman quarterbacks with several Division I offers.

Unbeatens: Second-ranked Swainsboro and third-ranked Rabun County share perfect records and Class A Division I, but little else. Swainsboro, from South Georgia, averages 334.1 yards rushing and 51.5 passing per game. Rabun, traveling from North Georgia, averages 82.8 yards rushing and 297.5 passing.

Also unbeaten: Other undefeated teams are Colquitt County, Carrollton, Hughes, Thomas County Central, Gainesville, Ware County, Cedartown, North Oconee, Calvary Day, Fitzgerald, South Atlanta, Prince Avenue Christian and Johnson County.

Other highly ranked games: Five other games match teams ranked in the top five. They are No. 5 Woodward Academy at No. 1 Hughes and No. 3 Roswell at No. 2 Thomas Central in Class 6A, No. 3 Appling County at No. 5 Callaway and No. 4 Thomson at No. 2 South Atlanta in 2A and No. 1 Bowdon at No. 3 Early County in A Division II.

Cross-state rematch: Calhoun is going 322 miles to Ware County, the longest journey of any quarterfinalist. If the game is anything like last season’s second-rounder, it will be a gift to all. It featured five ties and six lead changes. Calhoun won 49-42. Ware County, in search of its first state title, is ranked No. 1 in Class 5A this season. Calhoun is No. 9.

Other long trips: The closer the playoffs to the end, the farther teams travel on average. In addition to Calhoun-Ware County, the longest trips in each class are North Gwinnett to Colquitt County (226 miles) in Class 7A, Roswell to Thomas County Central (226 miles) in 6A, Cedartown to Bainbridge (248 miles) in 4A, Oconee County to Carver of Columbus (173 miles) in 3A, Rockmart to Fitzgerald (227 miles) in 2A, Rabun County to Swainsboro (195 miles) in Division I and Dooly County to Lincoln County (176 miles) in Division II.

It has been a while: St. Francis is the only first-time quarterfinalist. Thirty-five of the 64 quarterfinal teams made it last year. Thomas County Central (2009), Early County (2012), Wayne County (2013) and Class A Division II’s No. 1 team, Bowdon (2013), haven’t been here in some time.

Didn’t see that coming: From a preseason perspective, the five most surprising quarterfinals teams, according to the Maxwell Ratings, are St. Francis (given a 1.5% chance), Thomas County Central (2.8%), Wayne County (3.8%), Mays (5.5%) and Mount Pisgah Christian (7.4%). Based on how things looked entering the playoffs, the most surprising are Dooly County (3.2%), Bleckley County (5.7%), Walton (10.2%), Wayne County (10.4%), Mount Pisgah Christian (10.7%) and Mays (13.2%). Those odds consider difficulty of draw.

One step from history: Schools that are one victory from their first semifinals are Bleckley County, Dutchtown, Schley County, South Atlanta and St. Francis. Houston County last made a final four in 1993. It has been more than 10 years for Bowdon, Johnson County, Early County and Thomas County Central.

Regulars: Irwin County has made the quarterfinals 10 consecutive seasons, the longest active streak. Next are Cedar Grove and Rabun County (eight in a row), Callaway and Carrollton (seven), Marist and Warner Robins (six) and Fellowship Christian and Grayson (five).

Missing: One of the eight No. 1 teams didn’t survive the first two rounds. That was Buford, beaten by Walton in Class 7A. Buford had made 22 consecutive quarterfinals. Eagle’s Landing Christian, a preseason No. 1 in Class 2A, was stopped short for the first time since 2009. Peach County’s six-year streak and Lee County’s five-year streak also came to an end.

Anybody’s guess: The hardest game to predict is Thomson vs. South Atlanta, the only toss-up. That’s according to Maxwell, which has picked 167 of the 191 winners so far (87.4%). Oconee County is a one-point pick over Carver of Columbus, and Carver of Atlanta is a two-point choice over Thomasville. Bowdon is favored by three over Early County, and Lincoln County is picked by three against Dooly County. The only team favored by more than 21 points is Irwin County, a 31-point choice over Mount Pisgah Christian, which dispatched a 24-point favorite, Darlington, last week.

Top players: Twelve of the consensus top-25 Georgia senior recruits are still playing -- No. 1 Caleb Downs of Mill Creek, No. 2 Vic Burley of Warner Robins, No. 6 Jelani Thurman and No. 8 Bo Hughley of Hughes, No. 14 Darron Reed and No. 15 Kelton Smith of Carver of Columbus, No. 17 Kayin Lee of Cedar Grove, No. 18 Whit Weeks of Oconee County, No. 20 A.J. Hoffler of Woodward Academy, No. 22 Kayden McDonald and No. 24 Grant Godfrey of North Gwinnett and No. 25 Michael Dougherty of Grayson.

Looking ahead: The semifinals are next week. A coin toss again decided home field when same-seeded teams meet. This time, it’s the team higher on the bracket that will play at home. The finals are Dec. 8-10 at Center Parc Stadium.