Dalton at Gainesville
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: City Park Stadium, Gainesville
Coaches: Dalton, Matt Land; Gainesville, Bruce Miller
Records: Dalton (4-6, No. 4 Region 7-AAA), Gainesville (9-1, No. 1 Region 8-AAA).
Key players: Dalton, LB Zack Reed (5-11, 195 Sr.), DB Eder Mora (5-11, 175 Fr.), QB/RB Tre' Bonds (5-10, 165 Sr.). Gainesville, QB Deshaun Watson (6-2, 185 So.), WR Tray Harrison (5-8, 150 Jr.), DT Jeremiah Ledbetter (6-3, 240 Sr.).
Outlook: This marks Miller's 10th straight season sending Gainesville to the postseason. The Red Elephants last missed the playoffs in 1999.
Tonight's first-round opponent, Dalton, has been ousted in the first round of the playoffs three times since 2006, and last advanced in the playoffs in 2005 when it went to the state quarterfinals.
Still, the Catamounts are dangerous. They had four wins from earlier in the season stripped, but won four in a row to end the season and advance to the playoffs. The school had to vacate victories after playing an ineligible player, Corey Smith, who moved in from a neighboring Southeast Whitfield district.
Gainesville didn't have nearly the same adversity in the regular season. After a season-opening loss to Class AA's No. 1 Buford, the Red Elephants strung together nine consecutive wins and went undefeated in South subregion play.
Gainesville and Dalton run very different styles of offenses, but both have been very productive. Watson has passed for 2,236 and 30 touchdowns. He had one of his biggest nights all season with 340 yards and seven touchdowns (five passing, two rushing) in last Friday's 62-7 Region 8-AAA title victory against Stephens County. The Red Elephants have averaged 44 points and 422 yards of offense per game.
His leading targets on the outside are Stephen Mason (42 catches, 704 yards), Justin Cantrell (39 catches, 573 yards) and Lahius Leverette (24 catches, 352 yards).
On the ground, Watson is also the team's leading rusher with 537 yards (seven per carry).
Dalton's offense is much more ground-based. The Catamounts are led by Bonds, who has rushed by 1,444 yards and 16 touchdowns. Tre' Beck and Matt Cobb are each just shy of 400 rushing for the Catamounts. In its last four outings, Dalton averaged 29 points per game.
On defense, Dalton is led by Reed (129 tackles) and Mora (122 tackles).
Prediction: GAINESVILLE. The Red Elephants have too much offensive firepower and the defense looks pretty dominating as well.
Flowery Branch at Johns Creek
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: The Coliseum, Johns Creek
Radio: 550-AM, 1330-AM
Coaches: Flowery Branch, Lee Shaw; Johns Creek, Mike Cloy
Records: Flowery Branch (9-1, No. 3 Region 8-AAAA); Johns Creek (9-1, No. 2 Region 7-AAAA)
Key players: Flowery Branch, QB Kanler Coker (6-4, 210 Sr.), WR Casey Osborne (6-2, 180 Sr.), LB Jacob Allen (6-1, 220 Jr.). Johns Creek, QB Skye Overton (5-10, 165 Jr.), RB/DB Austin Pack (5-10, 175 So.), WR/DB Parker Asbell (5-11, 180 Sr.).
Outlook: Flowery Branch isn't your average No. 3 seed.
The Johns Creek football program isn't your average second-year varsity program.
The surprising Gladiators will celebrate their first home playoff game today with a visit from a Falcons team that was just a few plays away from being a No. 1 seed and first region title in school history.
It's safe to say that Johns Creek did not get the luck of the draw.
No. 7 Flowery Branch has scored an average of 47 points per game this season, far and away the top scoring offense from Region 8-AAAA.
Coker is second in the area with 2,115 passing yards, 25 touchdowns and five interceptions on 132 of 217 passing. The dual-threat quarterback has also run the ball for 591 yards and 12 scores.
His top receiving threat, senior C.J. Curry (724 yards receiving, 10 touchdowns), is questionable for the game due to a leg injury, but Osborne is a great option as well, with 646 yards receiving and seven touchdowns.
Senior running back Jeremy Haley has racked up 1,138 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns.
The Falcons don't, however, need to win in a shootout. The defense has allowed just 15 points scored per game, tied with Heritage for No. 1 in the region. The unit is led by Allen, who has recorded 116 tackles, 16 for loss.
The Gladiators can't come close to matching Flowery Branch's offensive stats, even though Johns Creek averages 32 points scored per game. Overton is a dual-threat under center, and had 89 yards rushing and 49 passing in last Friday's 44-14 win over Forsyth Central to culminate the school's first ever winning season. Pack (81 yards rushing last week) and running back Chase Solomon (21 carries for 124 yards and one touchdown in a win over Northwest Whitfield) are part of the depth in the Gladiators running game. On defense, however, the home team enters the game with the edge, allowing a region-best 11 points per game.
While missing out on a No. 1 seed and a home playoff game was a disappointment for Flowery Branch, historically it might actually be a good thing.
In 2009, when the Falcons reached the state championship game in Class AAA before falling to Cairo 28-14, Flowery Branch was a No. 3 seed.
Even though Flowery Branch is only in its 10th season as a program, it is veteran compared to Johns Creek, which started play in 2009.
This is the first winning season for Johns Creek after a 4-6 campaign last season, and the Gladiators proved just how quickly they had built up the program, losing only to defending state champs Chattahoochee, and that had to be decided in overtime, 19-16.
Prediction: FLOWERY BRANCH. Johns Creek is more than just a good story, but the Falcons know the playoff drill and know how to win on the road.
Temple at Buford
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: Tom Riden Stadium, Buford
Coaches: Temple, Seth Rogers; Buford, Jess Simpson
Records: Temple (6-4, No. 4 seed 5-AA); Buford (10-0, No. 1 seed Region 6-AA)
Key players: Temple, RB Jamaine Hutchinson (6-0, 220 Jr.), QB Myles Simmons (6-0, 165 Jr.), LB Theo Potts (5-8, 180 Jr.). Buford, OL/DL Vadal Alexander (6-5, 315 Sr.), TE/LB Dillon Lee (6-5, 240 Sr.), RB/LB Andre Johnson (5-11, 220 Sr.).
Outlook: Buford entered this season chasing its fifth consecutive state title. Through 10 games, no team has been able to stand in its way.
Its closest wins came against Carver and Lovett - both 35-7 wins. It has done its damage on the ground (281 yards per game and 8.1 yards per attempt) and on defense (4.4 points and 107 yards allowed per game).
It will be difficult for Temple to challenge those numbers. If they are to give Buford any trouble, however, it will have to start on the ground with Hutchinson, who has rushed for 1,382 yard and 15 touchdowns this season.
Rogers said that his team lacks size up front, which will make it even more difficult to contend with Buford's big defenders. But Hutchinson's size and ability could provide a needed boost for the team.
With the majority of Temple's yards coming on the ground, it will be very difficult to come out on top without production from Hutchinson.
But the Wolves' defensive numbers are hard to believe.
They allow, on average, just 1.7 yards per rushing attempt and opposing offenses have scored touchdowns on just five percent of their possessions. The same offenses have converted on third down 15 percent of the time and have scored just 14 points before the fourth quarter.
By comparison, the Buford offense has scored on 60 percent of its possessions, converts on third down 58 percent of the time and have scored the majority of its points, 411, before the fourth quarter.
"I've been coaching for about 15 years, and I've never seen anything like it," Rogers said.
Temple will certainly be fighting a difficult battle, but Rogers' players are just looking to build on the most successful season in the team's history.
"We're going to enjoy the moment, live in the moment, just enjoy what we've got coming up and go out there and play as hard as we can," Rogers said.
The winner will face the winner of Pepperell and Jefferson County in the second round.
Prediction: BUFORD. The Wolves' defense will take away the run and make it difficult for the Temple offense to succeed.
Habersham Central at Chattahoochee
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: The Arena, Alpharetta
Coaches: Habersham Central, Stuart Cunningham; Chattahoochee, Terry Crowder
Records: Habersham Central (6-4, No. 4 Region 8-AAAA); Chattahoochee (9-1, No. 1 7-AAAA)
Key players: Habersham Central, QB Kevin Ellison (6-1, 180 Sr.), FB/DE Patrick Burns (6-1, 190 Sr.), DB Coleman Cunningham (5-11, 170 Sr.). Chattahoochee, QB Travis Marshall (6-2, 185 Sr.), WR/DB Will Johnson (5-11, 175 Sr.), LB Jake Kingree (6-4, 225 Jr.).
Outlook: Habersham Central had to scrape through the entire regular season to earn the program's first playoff berth since 2007, seizing the No. 4 seed with wins in the final two weeks. Now the Raiders can only hope the 11-week fight has hardened them for the challenges that await.
Habersham Central opens the playoffs tonight at Chattahoochee, winners of nine straight games and the defending Class AAAA champions.
Though the Cougars lost some of the biggest pieces from the team that won the state title, including All-State quarterback Timmy Byerly and receiver Kane Whitehurst, the replacements have proven themselves capable after dropping the season opener, 24-7, to Lambert.
Marshall has assumed the signal-calling duties with aplomb, leading a multi-threat offense to 33 points per game. Numerous other players contribute, including Johnson, a two-way standout and Division-I prospect who drew attention when he was timed at 4.36 seconds in the 40-yard dash at a Vanderbilt camp in the summer.
Including last year's 15-0 campaign, Chattahoochee has won 25 of its last 26 games.
For the Raiders, it's already been a record-setting season, thanks primarily to the exploits of Ellison. The triggerman in Habersham Central's triple-option offense is closing in on 2,000 rushing yards this season and is already the school record holder in career and single-season rushing yards.
Behind Ellison, and with some help from Burns (606 rushing yards, eight touchdowns) and receiver Zac Franks (539 receiving yards, seven touchdowns), the Raiders have been held to less than 31 points only once this season.
The Cougar defense, meanwhile, yields only 12.6 points per game, and Lambert's 24 points in the season opener is the most the unit has surrendered.
This will be the first game against a non-conference opponent for either team this season after each played a 10-game league schedule.
Prediction: CHATTAHOOCHEE. The defending champs get the edge in defense and experience; that should be enough to emerge victorious against a dangerous Raiders squad.
Jefferson at Calhoun
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: Phil Reeve Stadium, Calhoun
Coaches: Jefferson, T. McFerrin; Calhoun, Hal Lamb
Records: Jefferson (8-2, No. 4 Region 8-AA); Calhoun (10-0, No. 1 Region 7-AA)
Key players: Jefferson, QB Bryant Shirreffs (6-3, 200 Jr.), DE Carson Newman (6-0, 200 Sr.), RB/DB Tristen Jackson (5-9, 190 So.). Calhoun, LB Alex Kirby (6-0, 210 Sr.), LB Gabe Freeman (6-0, 220 Sr.), K Adam Griffith (5-10, 175 Sr.).
Outlook: Jefferson will go into its opening-round playoff game with Calhoun tonight winners of eight games this season. The only two losses the team has had have been by a combined 24 points.
Unfortunately for the Dragons, they still managed just the fourth seed in the region and must take on the No. 2 team in the state.
But Calhoun coach Lamb thinks the same is true for his team, noting that Jefferson is "definitely" the best four-seed it has ever played.
Jefferson has been led by a remarkably efficient quarterback in Shirreffs, who has passed for more than 1,600 yards, and has thrown 18 touchdowns passes to just one interception on the season.
Jackson, meanwhile, has been effective as well, rushing for 929 yards and seven touchdowns this season, despite carrying the ball just 129 times. He runs for an efficient 7.2 yards per carry.
That efficiency will be even more important considering the dominant defense the Dragons are facing.
Calhoun gives up an average of just 8.9 points per game this season, allowing its most of the season last week in a 59-20 win over Pepperell to capture its 11th consecutive region title. Meanwhile, its offense has been equally impressive, scoring an average of 45.2 per game. The offense has found success both through the air and on the ground, scoring on four passes and four runs a week ago.
Calhoun has reached the Class AA state title game in three consecutive season, losing each time to Buford. Its last two losses in that game were by three points two years ago and by seven in overtime last year.
It is hoping to get over the hump this year.
This will be the first time in the history of the two schools that they have faced each other.
The winner of this game will take on the winner of Brooks County and Tattnall County next week.
Prediction: CALHOUN. Jefferson will play smart and efficient, but Calhoun's defense will be too much in the end.
Adairsville at Banks County
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: The Coliseum, Homer
Coaches: Adairsville, John Kremer; Banks County, Phillip Jones
Records: Adairsville (9-1, No. 3 Region 7-AA); Banks County (7-3, No. 2 Region 8-AA)
Key players: Adairsville, QB/RB Andrew Ward (5-9, 170 Jr.), TB Mike Upshaw (5-9, 190 Sr.), RB/FS Trey Gulledge (5-11, 175 Sr.). Banks County QB Tyler Hubbard (5-9, 150 Jr.), TB Dean Ewing (6-1, 200 Sr.), WR/DB Marquaze Maddox (6-0, 165 Sr.).
Outlook: After starting the season 7-1, the Leopards have lost two straight, including last Friday's loss to North Oconee in the Region 8-AA title game.
Both Adairsville and Banks County each played only one playoff qualifier this season, both losses. The Tigers did beat Class AAA playoff qualifier Ridgeland 17-14 in their first game of the season.
Banks County, which relies on a strong rushing attack with a combination of running backs, will need to get its ground game going early.
Last week the Tigers limited Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe's 1,000-yard rusher, Bubba Cruz, to only 62 yards on 21 carries.
The race to 14 points will be key in tonight's matchup. Adairsville, who last made the playoffs in 2003 and lost to state champion Buford, has not allowed more than 14 points in any of its wins, whereas the Banks County offense has only been held under the 14 point threshold three times, two of which were losses.
Prediction: ADAIRSVILLE. A homefield advantage will help the Leopards keep it close, but Phillip Jones debut season as Banks County coach comes to an end.
Commerce at Lincoln County
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: Buddy Bufford Field, Lincolnton
Coaches: Commerce, Marvin Justice; Lincoln County, Larry Campbell
Records: Commerce (4-6, No. 4 Region 8-A); Lincoln County (10-0, No. 1 Region 7-A)
Key players: Commerce, QB Cody Streetman (6-1, 200 Sr.), FB/LB Chance McClure (6-0, 215 So.), LB/K Josh Swistak (6-0, 200 Sr.). Lincoln County, RB/DB Craig Jones (Sr.), QB Denzel Gunby (Sr.), RB Mike McIntire (So.).
Outlook: After a two-year break, tonight's first-round playoff game between Commerce and Lincoln County will rekindle a rivalry forged by two of North Georgia's most successful Class A programs.
Since 2000, the Tigers and Red Devils have met 11 times with the Tigers taking the first four wins and Lincoln County winning the last seven. Tonight's game will be the first time the schools have met in the playoffs since Lincoln County won 21-3 in the 2006 semifinals. The Red Devils hold a 12-4 advantage in the overall series.
Both schools have experienced their share of success. Though the Tigers haven't advanced beyond the second round since 2006, they are back in the playoffs for the 15th consecutive season.
Lincoln County's streak is even more impressive, as the Red Devils haven't missed a postseason since 1972, Campbell's first year as head coach. They've won at least 10 games in four consecutive seasons, and haven't been eliminated in the first round since 1996. All of which only serves to make this season, the team's first 10-0 regular season since 2003, all the more impressive.
Gunby, a dual threat at quarterback, has passed for 928 yards and run for 525, while Jones leads the team with 983 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. The Red Devils strength, however, lies in its defense, which limits opponents to 136 rushing yards and just over 200 total yards per game. On the season, they are outscoring opponents by an average of 38.5-10.7.
Commerce relies heavily on its own talented quarterback; Streetman leads the team with 915 rushing yards and 14 scores while passing for 622 yards and three touchdowns. The Tigers average 18.9 points on offense, while giving up 21.5
Prediction: LINCOLN COUNTY. The Red Devils are primed for a deep playoff run.