One year later, the lock screen on Jake Simpson’s cell phone still hasn’t changed.
The screen shows a tweet linking a recap of Buford’s 10-0 loss to Cartersville in last season’s Class AAAA football state championship game. It’s a frequent reminder of how close the senior tight end/linebacker and his teammates came to clinching the school’s 12th state title, a prize that will once again be up for grabs today.
No. 2 Buford and fifth-ranked Rome will clash for the Class AAAAA state championship at 4:30 p.m. in the Georgia Dome, the first ever meeting between the schools.
The memory of last year’s loss, which was the first time since 2011 that Buford left Atlanta without a state title, still lingers in the back of players’ minds.
“We’re hungry because last year we took a tough loss,” senior linebacker/fullback TD Roof said. “A bunch of (current) kids were on that team, and a bunch of kids felt that. We don’t want to feel that again. We’re just a bunch of hungry kids willing to do what it takes to get it done.”
Buford coach Jess Simpson acknowledged that while he’s overseeing a new team in a new season, his players can draw motivation from last year’s title-game defeat.
“Every team, every year is different,” he said. “But I also think there’s no doubt for our seniors that there’s a bad taste in their mouth.”
That became apparent after Buford’s season-opening loss at Roswell, a participant in Saturday’s Class AAAAAAA state championship game.
Buford has reeled off 13 straight wins since then, defeating three out-of-state foes and outscoring region opponents by an average of more than 35 points per game. Carrollton and Kell took Buford to the wire in the last two rounds of the playoffs, but Jake Simpson suggested that was to be expected in the team’s first season in Class AAAAA.
Those victories earned Buford the right to face Rome (12-2), a team its coach considers a mirror image of his own.
“Their style of play is very similar to ours,” the coach said. “They’re very physical and have got a great defense. People have a hard time running the ball against them. Offensively, they’re very physical up front. They run the ball on everybody.”
Rome has rushed for 294 yards per game, while Buford has averaged 286 yards on the ground.
Both teams have a stable of rushers highlighted by two feature backs — junior 1,000-yard rushers Anthony Grant and Christian Turner lead the way for Buford, while Rome relies on junior Jalynn Sykes and sophomore Jamious Griffin. Sykes is a Tennessee commit, and Griffin already holds the school rushing touchdown record with 41.
Rome will also trot out sophomore quarterback Knox Kadum, a dual-threat player Jess said “looks like a senior.” Kadum, who is already Rome’s all-time passing leader, accounted for more than 2,100 total yards and 20 total touchdowns this season.
Another similarity between Buford and Rome is their strong defensive fronts that deny the run and have given up 14.3 and 11.4 points per game, respectively. Coach Simpson said he expects those strength-on-strength matchups to define the game.
“Coach Simpson put a lot of emphasis on the line of scrimmage this week,” Roof said. “If you win that, you’ve got a chance of winning the ball game.”
That physical style of play is where the similarities end.
Rome has never been to a state championship game since East and West Rome merged in 1992. Buford, meanwhile, is gearing up for its 10th straight title game appearance.
“Around here, there’s just less jitters than most places,” Jake said.
Seven of Buford’s 11 state championships have come under coach Simpson, while Rome coach John Reid has had to rebuild a program that went 3-6 the year before he took over in 2015. Rome went 8-4 and reached the second round of the playoffs in his first season before emerging as a title contender in 2016.
But Jess Simpson said his players and staff still have a sense of urgency as they head into today’s game. He isn’t worried about his team being ready when it steps into the Georgia Dome.
Especially not after what happened there last season.
“That’s been our whole motivation this offseason, to not feel like we did last year,” Roof said. “Everybody has been kind of driven by the way that we felt, and no one wants to feel that way again.”