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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.
During election season, Georgia is referred to as a “red” state in reference to its reliable Republican loyalties.
But this football season has painted our state a deeper shade of scarlet than we’ve ever seen. And nobody around here — not even Democrats — are complaining.
Northeast Georgia always has been a hotbed for rabid football fans, our fall culture built around weekends tailgating and cheering on our favorite teams. And this may have been the best year ever for teams at every level, bringing communities together in a season full of thrilling moments.
Hall County high school teams savored their finest all-around season in recent memory, capped by Gainesville’s first-ever state championship earned Friday night at the Georgia Dome.
The Red Elephants’ 49-13 win over Ware County in the Class AAAAA final erased the sour taste of the heartbreaking one-point loss to Peach County in the 2009 final, one of six previous trips to the championship game that ended in disappointment for the school.
The season began inauspiciously for the Big Red in a 32-30 loss to West Forsyth back in the heat of late August, and two straight losses in early November made a trip to the Dome seem unlikely.
But the team hit its stride at the right time, blowing through the first three state playoff games by a combined score of 166-69, led by record-breaking junior quarterback Deshaun Watson and a slew of offensive and defensive weapons. The win over Whitewater in the semifinals was Gainesville’s third straight playoff road victory, and the Dome victory capped a 12-3 season.
Coach Bruce Miller’s 11 seasons leading the Red Elephants put him in select company with the school’s legendary coaches such as Drane Watson, Graham Hixon and Bobby Gruhn. Only he accomplished what none of them could: Bring a state trophy to the Poultry Capital.
Other local teams also had banner seasons. Buford returned to the finals for the sixth straight year and won its ninth title and eighth in the last 12 seasons. It doesn’t seem to matter at what level the Wolves play; the school has won championships in classes A, AA and now AAA.
Jefferson was a foundering program with little success until the arrival of legendary coach T. McFerrin four years ago. The man who built winning programs at Peachtree, Elbert County and South Gwinnett turned the Dragons into a consistent winner, leading them to their first state title in Class AA.
North Hall won 11 games, a region title and came up one round short of the finals. Chestatee and Flowery Branch each won eight games and made the playoffs, the Falcons winning their region. And Johnson and Lakeview Academy posted winning seasons.
And Gainesville isn’t the only town proudly decked in red this fall. Bulldog Nation is still barking with pride about a season that brought a second straight Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title, including wins over rivals Florida, Auburn, Georgia Tech and Tennessee. Everyone is still buzzing about the thrilling SEC title game in Atlanta that left Georgia 4 yards short of a shot at the national championship.
Coach Mark Richt overcame criticism of his program in recent years to build a consistent winner, putting Georgia in position for conference titles and high national rankings on an annual basis. That’s quite an accomplishment in an era when winning regularly in a college game splintered by parity, changing league structures and a shifting playoff system is harder than in generations past.
The Bulldogs will finish the year in the Capital One Bowl against Nebraska, a consolation prize less than what they deserve after nearly knocking off defending champ Alabama in the Dome. But fans can savor a season to remember and cherish those satisfying wins, knowing a few breaks here and there might have led to a national title.
Georgia Tech’s season was disappointing at 6-7, but the Yellow Jackets managed to reach the Atlantic Coast Conference title game, where they played Florida State close before coming up short. And Georgia Southern followers accustomed to success were rewarded yet again when the Eagles reached the national semifinals.
Let’s also note the efforts of another red-clad local team that plays on Sundays. The Atlanta Falcons, who call Flowery Branch home, opened by winning their first eight games and rolled to the NFC South title. They have posted five straight winning seasons and four playoff berths under coach Mike Smith. And though they have yet to win a playoff game in that stretch, many feel this year’s team has the potential to reach the franchise’s second Super Bowl.
The timing for the Falcons’ strong season also may have helped push through a deal last week that will provide a new $1 billion retractable-roof palace when the team’s lease with the Georgia Dome expires later this decade.
The high school season is done, but the holiday bowl season is ahead of us and the NFL playoffs await in January, so there’s still plenty of football yet to be enjoyed. We join with all area fans — whether clad in bright red, green, black, blue or gold — in thanking all of the coaches and players who have made this season special.