State football finals: Previews of 8 championship games

Credit: Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

Class 7A

Carrollton vs. Mill Creek

When, where: 7 p.m. Saturday, Center Parc Stadium, Atlanta

Records, rankings: Carrollton is 14-0, the No. 1 seed from Region 2-7A and No. 4; Mill Creek is 13-1, the No. 2 seed from 8-7A and No. 3.

Last meeting: This is the teams’ first meeting.

Things to know: Mill Creek is a 19-year-old Gwinnett County school playing in its first state final after reaching the quarterfinals or better four of the past seven seasons. The Hawks’ loss this season was to No. 1-ranked Buford 39-27 on Oct. 14. The Hawks have won seven straight games since, finishing each with running clocks. Those include three playoff victories over top-10 teams. Mill Creek’s defense features major Division I recruits Caleb Downs, a safety/wide receiver committed to Alabama, and Jamal Anderson, a linebacker committed to Clemson. Both are sons of former NFL players. Mill Creek’s main offensive playmakers are QB Hayden Clark (5,001 career passing yards, 51 TD passes, both school records), RB Cam Robinson (1,550 yards rushing this season) and Makhail Wood (the program’s first 1,000-yard receiver with 1,015). Carrollton has won seven state titles but all in classes 2A or A, and none since 1998. The Trojans moved into the highest class for the first time this season and were unranked to start the year despite a Class 6A semifinal finish in 2021. Carrollton can become the first team outside of metro Atlanta and south Georgia to win the highest class since LaGrange in 1991. Carrollton beat Colquitt County 35-27 in the semifinals in a game between 7A’s remaining undefeated teams. Julian “Ju Ju” Lewis has thrown for 3,587 yards and 43 touchdowns, which are freshman state records. Bryce Hicks has rushed for 1,544 yards, caught 55 passes for 553 yards and scored 30 touchdowns. Caleb Odom has 57 catches for 954 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Maxwell Ratings’ projected score: Mill Creek 28, Carrollton 27

Class 6A

Gainesville vs. Hughes

When, where: 7 p.m. Friday, Center Parc Stadium, Atlanta

Records, rankings: Gainesville is 14-0, the No. 1 seed from Region 8-6A and No. 4; Hughes is 14-0, the No. 1 seed from 5-6A and No. 1.

Last meeting: This is the teams’ first meeting.

Things to know: Gainesville was 5-5 last season in Class 7A but is one victory from its first state title since 2012 and first undefeated, untied season since 1925. The Red Elephants’ new coach, Josh Niblett, has validated the hype of his seven state titles won in Alabama. First-year starting QB Baxter Wright has thrown for 3,152 yards and 38 touchdowns. Naim Cheeks has 2,316 yards from scrimmage, 1,775 rushing, and scored 23 touchdowns. Leading tackler Jeremiah Telander, a linebacker committed to Tennessee, is the team’s only major Power 5-conference commit. Hughes’ has a trove of committed D-I talent that includes DB Terrance Love (Auburn), DL Josh Horton (Miami), OL Bo Hughley (Georgia) and TE Jelani Thurman (Ohio State). Hughes has two 1,000-yard rushers (Jekail Middlebrook and Justus Savage) and a 1,000-yard receiver (Jaden Barnes). Prentiss “Air” Noland has thrown for 3,832 yards. His 52 TD passes are four short of the state record set by Macon County’s K’Hari Lane in 2016. The Panthers need two points to break the state record for points in a season set by Rome with 758 in 2017. They can become the first team in GHSA history to score at least 40 points in every game, and they can become the second, after Valdosta in 1971, to beat every opponent by more than 20 points. Hughes, a south Fulton County school that opened in 2009, was the 2021 runner-up to Buford. The Panthers have been ranked No. 1 since preseason. They’ve never won a state title.

Maxwell Ratings’ projected score: Hughes 38, Gainesville 22

Class 5A

Ware County vs. Warner Robins

When, where: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Center Parc Stadium, Atlanta

Records, rankings: Ware County is 13-0, the No. 1 seed from Region 1-5A and No. 1; Warner Robins is 10-4, the No. 2 seed from 2-5A and No. 8.

Last meeting: Ware County won 29-21 in 2021.

Things to know: Ware County is a 64-year-old school seeking it first state title. The Gators have been state runners-up three times, most recently in 2012. They’re a perennial playoff team that has advanced at least one round each of the past 16 years. Ware was ranked conservatively in preseason, at No. 7, partly because of the graduation of all-state QB Thomas Castellanos, a four-year starter now at Central Florida. The new guy, Niko Smith, has thrown for 2,236 yards. Top target Jarvis Hayes has 963 receiving yards. Dae’jeaun Dennis has rushed for 1,149 yards and 17 touchdowns. But Ware’s strength is its defense. No opponent has scored more than 16 points in a game, and Ware’s 6.2 points-allowed average is the lowest in any classification. Warner Robins can become the 14th team in GHSA history to win three consecutive championships. The Demons are the third program to reach six straight state finals. Warner Robins is the only finalist outside the top five in the rankings in any class. The Demons started 1-4 while averaging 8.4 points per game. They’ve since won nine straight games while averaging 39.8 points. The average is 33.8 in the playoffs. Backup QB Isiah Canion has started the past three games and is 41-of-59 passing for 581 yards and five touchdowns. Malcolm Brown rushed for a season-high 190 yards in the semifinals and has 3,253 yards for his career. This game’s marquee player is Warner Robins DL Vic Burley, a three-year starter committed to Clemson.

Maxwell Ratings’ projected score: Ware County 24, Warner Robins 7

Class 4A

Cedartown vs. Benedictine

When, where: 3:30 p.m. Friday, Center Parc Stadium, Atlanta

Records, rankings: Cedartown is 14-0, the No. 1 seed from Region 7-4A and No. 1; Benedictine is 12-2, the No. 1 seed from 3-4A and No. 4.

Last meeting: This is the teams’ first meeting.

Things to know: Benedictine, a Savannah Catholic military school, is going for its second straight title and fourth in nine seasons. Cedartown, a northwest Georgia school, is chasing its first championship since 1963. Benedictine has won 10 straight games since a 14-10 loss to Class 5A finalist Ware County on Sept. 9. The Cadets’ other loss came against Miami’s Christopher Columbus, which is playing for a Florida title this week. Benedictine’s most outstanding players are QB Luke Kromenhoek, a Florida State-committed quarterback with 2,495 passing yards and 24 touchdowns in his first season as a starter, and Za’Quan Bryan, a Minnesota-committed receiver/defensive back with 1,413 all-purpose yards. Cedartown averages 315.6 yards and attempts only seven passes per game. Two-way starter Harlem Diamond has 1,218 yards rushing, 1,944 all-purpose yards and 32 touchdowns. All-state LB Eli Barrow has 124 solo tackles, nearly three times that of his nearest teammate.

Maxwell Ratings’ projected score: Cedartown 21, Benedictine 19

Class 3A

Sandy Creek vs. Cedar Grove

When, where: Noon Saturday, Center Parc Stadium, Atlanta

Records, rankings: Sandy Creek is 12-2, the No. 2 seed from Region 5-3A and No. 3; Cedar Grove is 11-2, the No. 1 seed from 5-3A and No. 1.

Last meeting: Cedar Grove won 49-34 on Oct. 21.

Things to know: In their regular-season game, Cedar Grove sophomore QB Elliott Colson was 19-of-28 passing for 369 yards and six touchdowns. Barry Jackson had six receptions for 155 yards and three touchdowns. Cedar Grove trailed 12-0, then scored four unanswered touchdowns, and Sandy Creek never got back within striking distance. Sandy Creek QB Geimere Latimer was 11-of-18 passing for 248 yards and five touchdowns and rushed for 96 yards. The year before, Latimer led Sandy Creek to a 40-35 victory over Cedar Grove by throwing for 311 yards with a hand in six touchdowns. That’s one of only four on-field losses that Cedar Grove has suffered to Class 3A opponents during a seven-year run over which the Saints are 67-4 in-class with four state titles. This season’s Saints play their typical defense (two straight playoff shutouts) but are far more dangerous passing. Colson has thrown for 2,599 yards, and four receivers have at least six TD receptions. Sandy Creek, playing in its first final since its 2012 Class 4A championship team, also passes well. Latimer has thrown for 2,757 yards and 37 touchdowns. His top targets are Cameron Watts (918 yards, 15 touchdowns) and Kaleb Cost (740, 10).

Maxwell Ratings’ projected score: Cedar Grove 28, Sandy Creek 18

Class 2A

Fitzgerald vs. Thomson

When, where: Noon Friday, Center Parc Stadium, Atlanta

Records, rankings: Fitzgerald is 14-0, the No. 1 seed from Region 1-2A and No. 1; Thomson is 13-1, the No. 1 seed from 4-2A and No. 4.

Last meeting: Fitzgerald won 20-6 in the 1971 Class 2A quarterfinals.

Things to know: This is the only final between teams that get more than two-thirds of their total yards rushing. Thomson averages 260.4 rushing, 125.1 passing, with two 1,000-yard rushers. Javaris Curry has run for 1,265 yards with 19 touchdowns; Tre Tre Jeffries has run for 1,012 with 18 touchdowns. Curry, GHSF Daily’s Player of the Week for his good work in the quarterfinals, is an elite return man and good receiver with 2,038 all-purpose yards. The Bulldogs are trying to beat the three highest-ranked 2A teams in consecutive weeks after taking out No. 2 South Atlanta and No. 3 Appling County, both on the road. Fitzgerald averages 226.6 yards rushing, 97.71 passing, and employs multiple backs. Ty Solomon leads the team with 621 yards. Fitzgerald won its first state title since 1948 last season. This is the Purple Hurricane’s fifth finals appearance in eight seasons. Thomson most recently was in the finals in 2016 and last won in 2002. These teams haven’t met in more than 50 years, but Fitzgerald ended Thomson’s 36-game winning streak in 1969. The programs have the most combined victories this century (448) of any pair of finalists this week. Fitzgerald is 244-58-2. Thomson is 204-72-1.

Maxwell Ratings’ projected score: Fitzgerald 20, Thomson 17

Class A Division I

Swainsboro vs. Prince Avenue

When, where: 8 p.m. Thursday, Center Parc Stadium, Atlanta

Records, rankings: Swainsboro is 13-0, the No. 1 seed from Region 2-A Division I and No. 2; Prince Avenue Christian is 13-0, the No. 1 seed from 5-A Division I and No. 1.

Last meeting: This is the teams’ first meeting.

Things to know: No other final provides such a contrast in offensive styles. Prince Avenue Christian junior Aaron Philo last week became the first quarterback in state history to pass for more than 4,000 yards in two seasons. Prince Avenue has three 1,000-yard receivers – Bailey Stockton (1,280), Ethan Christian (1,014) and Josh Britt (1,002). Meanwhile, Swainsboro was 0-for-7 passing last week and averages about four attempts per game. That not to say the Tigers can’t pass. They threw for more than 100 yards in their first three playoff games. But they prefer to feed 1,000-yard rushers Demello Jones (1,247) and Qin Brown (1,142). Three other backs, including QB Ty Adams, have more than 500 yards rushing. Adams is committed to North Carolina as a cornerback. Aided by time-consuming drives, Swainsboro holds opponents to 7.0 points per game, second-lowest in any class behind Ware County. This is Swainsboro’s first state final since its 2000 Class 2A championship. Prince Avenue, an Athens-area team, has made three straight finals and won Class A Private in 2020.

Maxwell Ratings’ projected score: Swainsboro 25, Prince Avenue Christian 19

Class A Division II

Bowdon vs. Schley County

When, where: 5 p.m. Thursday, Center Parc Stadium, Atlanta

Records, rankings: Bowdon is 13-1, the No. 1 seed from Region 7-A Division II and No. 1; Schley County is 12-2, the No. 1 seed from 6-A Division II and No. 5.

Last meeting: This is the teams’ first meeting.

Things to know: Schley (rhymes with sly) County, a Class A school about 15 miles north of Americus, is playing in its first title game. Coming off a 10-2 finish and their first region title, the Wildcats were ranked No. 1 in preseason and given four spots on GHSF Daily’s preseason all-state team. Those players were junior QB Jay Kanazawa (5,708 passing yards, 61 touchdowns for his career), junior WR Jalewis Solomon (2,098 receiving yards, 23 touchdowns the past two seasons), sophomore LB Jayden Walker (No. 3 recruit nationally in his class, per On3) and senior WR/DB Clinton Jackson (1,130 career all-purpose yards, 11 interceptions). Schley’s two losses, to Early County and Bleckley County in September, were played without Walker. Bowdon, a Carroll County school, is in its first final since 2001 and seeking its first championship since 1992. The team went 1-9 in coach Richard Fendley’s first season of 2018 and now has won three consecutive region titles, and the 13 victories are the most since 1992. Bowdon has a pair of game-breaking backs. T.J. Harvison has rushed for 1,607 yards and 19 touchdowns despite missing two games. He’s surpassed 200 yards three times and scored eight touchdowns in the playoffs. Robert McNeal, the quarterback, has run for 1,177 yards and 15 touchdowns and thrown for 1,233 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Maxwell Ratings’ projected score: Bowdon 25, Schley County 21