Semifinals primer: Carrollton-Colquitt County, Cedartown-North Oconee headline round

It’s all big-boy football from now to the end of the high school playoffs, which resume Friday with 16 semifinals games in eight classifications.

Cinderella didn’t get an invitation. Thirty-one of the 32 semifinals teams are ranked. Fellowship Christian of Class 2A is the top-10 exception, but the Paladins were a 2021 semifinals team that started No. 5 in preseason and now carry an eight-game win streak to Fitzgerald to challenge the defending champion.

Two semifinals games match undefeated teams, and one pits No. 1 against No. 2.

Here’s a closer look at the eight final fours.

Teams to beat: No. 1-ranked teams still playing are Hughes (6A), Ware County (5A), Cedartown (4A), Cedar Grove (3A), Fitzgerald (2A), Prince Avenue Christian (A Division I) and Bowdon (A Division II). The only absent No. 1 team is Class 7A’s Buford, eliminated in the second round.

Most intriguing game: Carrollton, playing in the highest classification for the first time and unranked in preseason, is 13-0 and chasing its first state finals appearance since 2013. Its quarterback, Julian “Ju Ju” Lewis, is the state’s most heralded freshman since Trevor Lawrence, whose high school coach, Joey King, now is Carrollton’s coach. Lewis has thrown for 3,339 yards. (Lawrence threw for 3,053 yards as a Cartersville freshman.) Carrollton is traveling 200 miles to Colquitt County, which also is 13-0. The Packers’ new coach, Sean Calhoun, is Carrollton’s former coach. Calhoun, hired in the offseason, was Colquitt County’s offensive coordinator during its 2014 and 2015 championship seasons and is 43-0 when a member of Colquitt County’s coaching staff.

No. 1 vs. No. 2: One game matches the two highest-ranked teams in their classification. That would be No. 2 North Oconee (13-0) at No. 1 Cedartown (13-0). It’s one of two semifinals between undefeated teams joining Carrollton-Colquitt County. North Oconee, in its 19th season, has never reached a state final. Cedartown last made it in 2001 and won its only championship in 1963.

Breaking new ground: Dutchtown, Schley County and St. Francis are in the semifinals for the first time. Appling County, Mill Creek, North Oconee and Troup are one victory from their first state finals.

Small-town opportunity: Aside from the first-timers, the three schools breaking the longest semifinal droughts are Bowdon and Johnson County (last made it in 2005) and Lincoln County (2012). Those three and semifinals newcomer Schley County play in Class A Division II, and that’s no coincidence. Until this season, the threshold for the lowest classification was about 600 students. Now, it’s around 400, a big victory for the little guy.

Regulars: Irwin County and Warner Robins are in the semifinals for the sixth consecutive season, and they’re 5-0 in those games. Either can join Buford (2007-16) and Eagle’s Landing Christian (2014-19) as only teams in state history reach six consecutive championship games. Benedictine, Fitzgerald and Irwin County are the only other schools that have made the semifinals each of the past three seasons.

Football towns: The three cities with two semifinals teams are Bogart (North Oconee, Prince Avenue Christian), Milton (St. Francis, Milton) and Roswell (Fellowship Christian, Roswell). School systems with multiple semifinals teams are Oconee (North Oconee, Oconee County) and Fulton (Milton, Roswell, Hughes).

Well-traveled: Oconee County is the only team to win three consecutive road games to reach the semifinals. The Warriors can become the 12th team in history to reach a championship game with four victories away from home. Their coach, Ben Hall, was the offensive coordinator for the 2008 Flowery Branch team that did it. Oconee County is a 23-point underdog to defending 3A champion Cedar Grove, according to the computer Maxwell Ratings.

Hard to predict: The lone pure tossup, according to Maxwell, is No. 2 Swainsboro (13-0) at No. 4 Irwin County (11-1) in A Division I. One-point favorites are Appling County over Thomson in 2A, Colquitt County over Carrollton in 7A and Johnson County over Schley County in A Division I.

Historic coaches: Ware County’s Jason Strickland is the 10th coach in GHSA history to lead three schools to the semifinals (Ware, Fitzgerald, Pierce County). Current St. Francis and former Cartersville coach Frank Barden and current Oconee County and former Jefferson coach Hall now have reached the semifinals with two schools.

Making themselves at home: The GHSA has minimum seating requirements for the semifinals, and three Fulton County schools had to move games elsewhere. Roswell is playing against Gainesville at McEachern’s Cantrell Stadium. Milton is playing Mill Creek, and Hughes is playing Rome at Atlanta’s Lakewood Stadium in a doubleheader. The minimums for classes 6A and 7A are 6,000 permanent seats.

What’s next: The championship games are Dec. 8-10 at Center Parc Stadium.