Buford vs. Calhoun
When: 4:30 today
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta
TV, Radio: GPB, 550-AM, 1330-AM
Coaches: Buford, Jess Simpson; Calhoun, Hal Lamb
Records: Buford (14-0, No. 1 Region 6-AA); Calhoun (14-0, No. 1 Region 7-AA)
Key players: Buford, OL/DL Vadal Alexander (6-6, 315 Sr.), LB/TE Dillon Lee (6-5, 240 Sr.), RB/LB Andre Johnson (5-11, 220 Sr.). Calhoun, LB Alex Kirby (6-0, 210 Sr.), QB Taylor Lamb (6-1, 195 Jr.), LB Gabe Freeman (6-1, 220 Sr.).
Outlook: For the fourth consecutive year, it will be Buford and Calhoun squaring off in the Class AA state championship. Buford will be going after a state-record fifth consecutive championship.
If this game is anything like the previous two, it could go down to the wire.
Last year, the Wolves prevailed by a touchdown in overtime; two years ago, they outlasted Calhoun 13-10 in a low-scoring slugfest.
Buford also topped the Yellow Jackets 45-21 in 2008. The teams met one other time in 1996, which Buford won 41-14.
This year, a quick look at the numbers would indicate that the two teams are as close as ever.
Offensively, Buford has put up 623 points (44.5 per game). Calhoun is just a touch ahead with 630 (45 per game).
Defensively, the Wolves have the slight edge at six points per game to Calhoun’s 10.4.
Like Buford, Calhoun runs a number of backs out of the backfield. Its leading rusher, Darius Washington, has 991 yards and 14 touchdowns. Two other rushers have topped 400 yards, and three have amassed at least seven touchdowns.
The difference in the Yellow Jackets’ offense is in the passing game, where quarterback Lamb has completed 68 percent of his passes for 3,440 yards and 39 touchdowns. While Buford quarterback Sam Clay carries solid numbers into the game, especially a low interception total, the team doesn’t place that same level of emphasis on the passing game.
Calhoun also has a number of receivers it can target. Wide receiver Ben Lamb leads the team with 997 yards and 12 touchdowns, but is backed by two 700-yard receivers in Clay Johnson and Chase Rierson. Those two latter receivers have combined for 14 touchdowns on the season.
And despite the high volume of pass attempts for Lamb this season (371), he has tossed just nine interceptions.
In all, the team averages 417.4 yards per game.
The battle between Calhoun’s balanced offense and Buford’s loaded defense will be a compelling story line.
Factor in the teams’ histories with each other, and it makes for one of the best matchups of any classification.
Having won the past three meetings in consecutive championship games, Simpson said he was sure Calhoun would be out for blood.
“You think,” he said with a laugh. “Just a little bit.”
He noted that the familiarity between the two teams can be taken as both a positive and negative.
“The familiarity can be a blessing and a curse,” he said. “I could probably tell you how they’re going to line up, but they could probably tell you the same thing. Then it comes down to the little tweaks in the gameplan and players executing.”
Prediction: BUFORD. A loaded senior class won’t miss the opportunity to give Buford its state-record fifth consecutive championship.
All season, the Buford High football team has made a habit of running away to blow-out victories over clearly overmatched opponents.
In their first game this season, the Wolves shut out 49-0 a Gainesville High team that advanced to the Class AAA semifinals.
But in a physical semifinal against Carver High last Friday in Columbus, Buford’s streak of four consecutive state championships faced its mortality.
In a first half marred by three turnovers, Buford fell behind 13-7 at the break, the first time it had trailed an opponent in over a year.
That’s when the seniors stepped up.
“We know how to handle adversity,” said Nathan Staub, a senior fullback and linebacker on the team. “Especially our senior class. We haven’t had a ton of tough games this year, but we’ve been through battles together in the past. We have so many seniors and so many leaders. Panicking never crossed anybody’s mind.”
Two quarters later, the Wolves had put forth a dominant second-half effort, outscoring Carver 21-0 to win the game 28-13. With the win, it advanced to the Class AA state championship (which will be played at 4:30 p.m. on Friday at the Georgia Dome) and gave itself a chance at a state-record fifth consecutive title.
The seniors didn’t want to be the class that let that streak come to an end.
“When you’re a senior — whether you were last year’s senior or two years ago — you don’t want the season to end,” coach Jess Simpson said. “You don’t want to be that class that didn’t win a state championship. That’s the pressure and that’s the expectation that has been there for the last few years. It makes it pretty hard.
“Watching them play the third and fourth quarter last week, it was pretty loud and clear how important it was to them.”
The senior class is led by a number of players with stand-out careers at the school. Lineman Vadal Alexander will move on to LSU; linebacker Dillon Lee has committed to play at Alabama; he will be joined by tight end Kurt Freitag, who committed earlier this week.
Staub, who will play at North Carolina, said that this was the seniors’ season.
“It’s just a whole different feel when you’re a senior,” he said. “It becomes your team. You take a little more ownership, things become a little more important and you put a little more pressure on yourself.”
It’s an interesting dynamic for a team that has been so successful over the years. On the surface, it would appear easy to become complacent or satisfied with winning at the level and consistency Buford does.
But every year, a hungry senior class — one which would feel incomplete without that title in its final year — continues to drive the team forward.
“Any expression of words wouldn’t be hyperbole,” Staub said of his desire to win another championship. “It means the world to us. All those championships were nice at the time, but if I don’t win one my senior year, I’ll feel like I wasn’t as successful at Buford.
“Our success is not dictated by where we go to school. It’s dictated by our championship. That’s our only goal.”
Senior running back Andre Johnson said that, despite the efforts to take the season one game at a time, today’s game has been on their minds from Day 1.
“We’ve always been thinking about it,” he said. “Even though we may try to put it on the back burner. That was our goal from the beginning.”
Even Simpson, who has preached focusing on individual opponents all season long, noted the importance of the state championship from the very beginning.
“Honestly, these kids didn’t sit down in August and ignore this,” he said. “When we set goals, this was the goal. Period. This is their moment, and there’s a lot of finality in this.”
It’s that finality, Simpson said, that is such a big motivator for his team at the end of the season.
For everyone, it’s the end of a season full of hard work. For the seniors, it’s the end of a special career at Buford.
“In sports, there’s always finality,” he said. “When you get to a week like this, and you know this is it either way, I think the reality sets in. This is the last Monday; this is the last Thursday walkthrough; this is the last team dinner. For those seniors, it’s their last time together, and I think all those things go through your head in a championship game.”
And having the opportunity to set a state record with a fifth consecutive title?
“It would be amazing,” Staub said. “It’s like — how can you make it any sweeter?”
Then, he echoed the words Simpson has spoken all week.
“It’s an awesome opportunity we have,” he said. “We’re going to make history one way or another.”