GHSA state championships
Class A, Prince Avenue Christian vs. Eagle’s Landing Christian, 2:30 p.m.
Class AAA, Buford vs. St. Pius, 5:30 p.m.
Class AAAAA, Gainesville vs. Ware County, 8:30 p.m.
Class A Public, Dooly County vs. Emanuel County Institute, 11:30 a.m.
Class AA, Calhoun vs. Jefferson, 2:30 p.m.
Class AAAA, Ridgeland vs. Sandy Creek, 5:30 p.m.
Class AAAAAA, Lovejoy vs. Norcross, 8:30 p.m.
Tickets: $18 presale at schools, $20 from Ticketmaster and at gate
One team is back in the state championship game for the first time in 35 years. One team frequently plays deep into the playoffs but has yet to bring home the elusive title. And one team is in the Georgia Dome so often it has the feel of a second home.
Whatever their differences, the one thing that Jefferson, Gainesville and Buford share in common is that the season’s ultimate goal is just four quarters away. The same, of course, could be said for their opponents.
Here’s a look at the teams that stand in the way of the Dragons, Red Elephants and Wolves in this weekend’s state championships in the Georgia Dome.
Ware County Gators vs. Gainesville
When: 8:30 p.m. Friday
Record: 13-1, Region 3-AAAAA champion
Against 2012 playoff teams: 8-0 (27.4 ppg, 8.9 papg)
Coach: Ed Dudley, fourth year at school (39-13)
History: Like Gainesville, Ware County is still seeking its first GHSA state championship but is no stranger to success. The Gators won 10 games and reached the quarterfinals each of the previous two seasons and played for the Class AAAA state title in 2007.
Watch out for: RB/LB Xavier Tobler (5-10, 197 Sr.); TE/DL Jimal McBride (6-3, 281 Sr.); QB Jamar Johnson (6-0, 160 Jr.); RB/DB Tremon Porter (6-0, 160 Jr.); WR/DB Carlton Jenkins (6-2, 180 Jr.)
How they got here: Defeated Lakeside-Evans 27-7; Union Grove 20-13; Stephenson 14-0; Northside-Warner Robins 24-17 OT.
Offense: Since a loss in its season opener to Coffee, Ware County has won 13 straight. The Gators’ defense has been the headliner, but led by Tobler, the offense has been consistent throughout the season. Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said Ware County will operate out of the I-formation, the shotgun and just about everything in between.
Tobler, who has run for more than 1,500 yards, has been the focal point regardless of formation. Miller also singled out Johnson as a threat to run or pass, and said the Gators’ big receivers could cause problems. The Gators average a shade over 30 points per game on the season.
Defense: The Gators are among the state’s best on defense, posting five shutouts on the season and continuing to dominate in the playoffs. They held Stephenson to 63 yards of total offense and held top-ranked Northside-Warner Robins to just seven points until a rally in the waning minutes sent the game into overtime.
McBride leads the team with more than 125 tackles and is a Division-I college prospect, while Tobler has over 100 stops. Miller said the unit is solid at every level and will be one of the quickest, most aggressive teams the Red Elephants have seen.
The Gators line up in a 4-2-5 and rely primarily on their front four to rush the passer, Miller said.
Bottom line: Can anybody stop Gainesville? We should get the answer Friday, as fittingly, the Red Elephants’ explosive offense should face its toughest challenge in the state finals. The game could be decided, however, by the unsung hero of Gainesville’s playoff run — the Red Elephant defense.
Since the second half of the Kell game in the second round, Gainesville has played lights out defensively, bottling up a pair of 2,000-yard rushers in the last two weeks.
St. Pius X Golden Lions vs. Buford
When: 5:30 p.m. Friday
Record: 12-2, Region 6-AAA champion
Against 2012 playoff teams: 9-2 (32.6 ppg, 17.1 papg)
Coach: Paul Standard, 12th year at school (108-36)
Watch out for: QB Jack Spear (6-3, 198 Sr.); RB/DB Nicholas Ruffin (6-1, 185 Jr.); LB Daniel Crochet (6-3, 208 Jr.); RB Ryan Braswell (5-11, 205 Sr.); RB/DB Branden Mitchell (5-10, 170 Jr.)
How they got here: Defeated Dawson County 72-28; Hart County 31-15; Washington County 40-35; North Hall 31-6.
Need to know: The Golden Lions played a challenging regular season schedule that has prepped them for the playoffs and has them peaking at the right time. Their triple-option running game features multiple threats and tallied 210 rushing yards in last week’s win over North Hall.
They’ll face a stiff challenge against a Buford defense that ranks among the state’s best and has only given up double digits in points five times through 14 games. Defensively, St. Pius has bent at times, giving up at least 28 points on four occasions, but proved last week it could stand up to the challenge presented by a physical running attack.
They’ll have to prove it again this week if the Golden Lions hope to knock off Buford.
Calhoun Yellow Jackets vs. Jefferson
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Record: 14-0, Region 7-AA champion
Against 2012 playoff teams: 10-0 (40.4 ppg, 16.9 papg)
Coach: Hal Lamb, 14th year at school (157-28)
Watch out for: QB Taylor Lamb (6-2, 190 Sr.); WR Josh Barnes (6-3, 195 Sr.); WR Tydus Curtis (5-8, 170 Jr.); DB Donnell Anthony (5-8, 175 Sr.); DE Sebastian Willer (6-6, 260 Sr.)
How they got here: Defeated Wesleyan 42-10; Washington-Wilkes 34-7; Brooks County 49-14; Lamar County 21-14.
Need to know: The Yellow Jackets enter the game as the defending Class AA state champion and winners of 29 straight games. Lamb is one of the state’s most prolific passers with 3,228 yards and 34 touchdowns and is committed to South Alabama. Barnes (1,009 yards) and Curtis (897 yards, 11 TDs) are his favorite targets, and running back Alex Urbano provides balance with 1,279 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns.
Lamb has also added 405 rushing yards and 12 scores on the ground. For the season, Calhoun is averaging 44.6 points per game; last week’s squeaker over Lamar County was the first time this year the Yellow Jackets have been held to fewer than 34 points. Defensively, a unit that replaced 10 starters from last season has been stingy of late.
After a season-opening slate that included three playoff teams from higher classifications, no Yellow Jackets foe has scored more than 14 points.
Anthony, the only returning starter from last year’s defense, leads the group with 95 tackles and eight interceptions.