High school third-round playoffs: 3 games match No. 1 vs. No. 2

Time to celebrate: The Marist sideline celebrates after Friday's 28-13 victory over Blessed Trinity.
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Time to celebrate: The Marist sideline celebrates after Friday's 28-13 victory over Blessed Trinity.

Credit: Hyosub Shin/hshin@ajc.com

For the first time in 50 years Friday, three quarterfinals football games between No. 1- and No. 2-ranked teams will be played on the same night.

Those three – the best of 32 playoff games statewide this weekend - are Buford at Lee County in Class 6A, Marist at Benedictine in 4A and Rabun County at Thomasville in 2A.

It has happened two other times since 1971 that as many as three No. 1-vs.-No. 2 games took place in the same week, but those were state finals in 2016 and 2018. The Georgia High School Association doesn’t seed playoff teams statewide, only within regions, meaning the two best region champions can meet as early as the third round.

This week’s No. 1-ranked teams are doubly unlucky in that each must play on the road. GHSA rules call for a coin toss to determine home-field advantage when two region champions meet.

Rabun County High, which is 12 miles south of the North Carolina border, is traveling 325 miles to Thomasville High, which is 12 miles north of the Florida border. Marist must go 285 miles to Benedictine, and Buford will travel 200 miles to Lee County.

Here are more good games, teams and storylines from the third rounds in the football playoffs.

New here: Johns Creek, South Atlanta and Northeast of Macon are in the quarterfinals for the first time. Johns Creek opened in 2009; South Atlanta in 1994; and Northeast-Macon in 1970. Putnam County is making its first appearance since 1996. Villa Rica last made it in 1998.

Regulars: Buford has made the quarterfinals for 22 consecutive seasons, a state record. Others with long streaks are Eagle’s Landing Christian (12 seasons), Blessed Trinity and Irwin County (9) and Cedar Grove and Rabun County (seven). Of the 64 quarterfinals teams, 38 are back from 2020.

Underdogs: Fifteen of the 64 quarterfinal teams are unranked. Of those, Clarke Central, Villa Rica, South Atlanta and Warren County haven’t been ranked all season.

Favorites: Six No. 1-ranked teams remain. In addition to Lee County, Marist and Rabun County, they are Collins Hill in 7A, Trinity Christian in A Private and Irwin County in A Public. No. 1 ranked teams in 5A (Cartersville) and 3A (Monroe Area) lost last week. Defending champions Warner Robins (5A) and Pierce (3A) have taken their places as teams to beat. Rabun County, Collins Hill and Trinity Christian have never won state titles.

Best players: Only four of the AJC’s Super 11 are still playing. They are Sam Horn and Travis Hunter of Collins Hill, Elijah Pritchett of Carver-Columbus and Gunner Stockton of Rabun County. None has won a state title.

Record chasing: Stockton, the Rabun County quarterback, needs 411 yards to break Trevor Lawrence’s state record for passing yards in a career. Stockton sits at 13,492. Lawrence had 13,902. Rabun receiver Jaden Gibson is 240 receiving yards short of the single-season mark of 2,046 held by Warner Robins’ Marcayll Jones. Stockton had 444 passing yards, and Gibson 240 yards receiving, in last week’s game.

Good story lines: Lakewood Stadium will be staging a doubleheader with South Atlanta against Callaway at 5:30 p.m. and Carver against Burke County at 8 p.m. It’s the first time that Atlanta Public Schools has been the host for two quarterfinals in the same season since 1985. ... Cedar Grove’s visit to Crisp County will be a reunion. Crisp County beat Cedar Grove 16-13 in the 2020 quarterfinals. Crisp County coach Miguel Patrick was Cedar Grove’s coach then. The computer Maxwell Ratings place Crisp County as a one-point favorite. ... Perry, a one-point favorite, can reach the semifinals for the first time since 1959 with a victory over Cedartown. ... Two-time defending Class A Public champion Irwin County is playing undefeated Macon County in a game Maxwell rates a tossup.

What’s next: As a result of the GHSA’s universal coin toss Tuesday, the team placed higher on the bracket will be the home team for next week’s semifinals if both teams are equal seeds. Otherwise, the higher seed plays at home. The finals are Dec. 9-11 at Center Parc Stadium.

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