Top stories to watch in the Class 6A first round

Gainesville and Langston Hughes met in the Class 6A championship game Friday at Center Parc Stadium. (Jamie Spaar/For the AJC)

Credit: Jamie Spaar/For the AJC

Credit: Jamie Spaar/For the AJC

Gainesville and Langston Hughes met in the Class 6A championship game Friday at Center Parc Stadium. (Jamie Spaar/For the AJC)

Hughes’ defense of its 2022 state championship begins in earnest when the Class 6A playoffs kick off Friday night.

The Panthers will host North Forsyth in one of 16 first-round games that will be played at the higher-seeded school. Fourth-ranked Hughes enters the playoffs as the No. 2 seed from Region 5 behind Douglas County, which beat the Panthers 30-27 on Sept. 22 in the game that ultimately decided the Region 5 championship. That was the first region loss for Hughes since 2020.

Here’s a look at some of the storylines of the first round:

*Favorites: The Class 6A field is particularly deep this season, but the favorites heading into the playoffs appear to be Thomas County Central and Gainesville. Both went 10-0 in the regular season, and both were listed at No. 1 on three of the six polls used in GHSF Daily’s Composite Rankings. Third-ranked Douglas County also went 10-0 in the regular season, and Hughes remains a major threat to reach its third consecutive championship game.

*Best first-round game: Houston County is a top-10 team and opening the playoffs on the road for the second consecutive season, this time against Region 4 runner-up North Atlanta (unranked but 9-1). Last year, Houston County was No. 10 and a No. 4 seed when it won at Region 2 champion and eighth-ranked Brunswick. North Atlanta beat Lovejoy in the first round last year for the first playoff victory in school history, then lost to Houston County 41-31 in Round 2. The computer Maxwell Ratings project Houston County as a one-point favorite, the closest of any Class 6A first-round game.

*Players to watch: Hughes quarterback Air Noland is the highest-rated player from Class 6A on the 247Sports Composite rankings of Georgia’s seniors. Noland, committed to Ohio State, has passed for 9,714 yards in his four-year career, during which the Panthers are 47-6. Lee County running back Ousmane Kromah is the state’s top 6A junior. He leads the class in rushing with 1,392 yards on 144 carries (9.7 yards per carry) with 14 touchdowns. The leading passers in the class are Alpharetta’s D.J. Bordeaux (2,622 yards), Douglas County’s Sire Hardaway (2,261) and Houston County’s Antwann Hill (2,223).

*Dominant: Six Class 6A teams are undefeated in region play over the past two seasons, but none has overwhelmed its region competition like Rome has. The Wolves outscored their six region opponents 352-29 (an average of 59-5) in going 6-0 for the second straight year. That’s up from last year, when they won their region games by a combined 312-29 (average of 52-5). Rome is the No. 2 scoring team (50.3 points per game) in 6A and has given up the fewest points (7.7 per game). Thomas County, Woodward Academy, Marist, Roswell and Gainesville also are undefeated in region play since the start of last season.

*New faces: Dunwoody is in the playoffs for the first time since 2009 after finishing in third place in Region 4. The Wildcats are 8-2, their most wins in a season since their 2008 team went 12-1 and reached the Class 3A quarterfinals. Dunwoody is one of five 6A teams in this year’s playoffs that did not reach the postseason in 2022. The others are East Paulding (last made it in 2018), Habersham Central (2020), Creekview (2021) and Jonesboro (2021).

*Season over: With five new teams in the playoffs this year, that means five teams from the 2022 field didn’t make it back. The most notable was Allatoona, which missed out on a spot when it lost to River Ridge last week in a game that decided fourth place in Region 6. Allatoona, which opened in 2008, had never missed the playoffs since it began playing a region schedule in 2010. Other 2022 playoff teams that failed to return are Riverwood (last missed in 2020), Shiloh (2020), Morrow (2021) and Paulding County (2021).

*Looking ahead: The Class 6A playoffs will continue next weekend with eight second-round games to be played at the higher-seeded school. The biggest potential matchup is likely to be Hughes at No. 6 Rome. Another top-10 matchup could put No. 9 Houston County on the road against No. 10 Woodward Academy. Expect to see more game between top-10 teams in the quarterfinals.

*The projections: The Maxwell Ratings are projecting that 13 of the 16 higher-seeded (home) teams will win their first-round games. The only road teams favored by the computer are Houston County (one-point favorite over North Atlanta), Brunswick (four-point favorite over Mundy’s Mill) and East Paulding (two-point favorite over Lanier). Here are the computer’s complete picks for Class 6A:

Blessed Trinity vs. Creekview -7

Brunswick at Mundy’s Mill -4

Douglas Co. vs. Habersham Central -43

East Paulding at Lanier -2

Effingham Co. vs. Lovejoy -9

Gainesville vs. South Paulding -35

Glynn Academy vs. Jonesboro -4

Houston Co. at North Atlanta -1

Hughes vs. North Forsyth -36

Lee Co. vs. Dunwoody -38

Marist vs. Northside, Warner Robins -31

Rome vs. Sprayberry -40

Roswell vs. River Ridge -25

Sequoyah vs. Alpharetta -10

Thomas Co. Central vs. St. Pius -41

Woodward Academy vs. Evans -35