Flowery Branch and Gainesville are in polar opposite positions ahead of tonight’s game at City Park Stadium.
The fifth-ranked Falcons (3-0) are trying to make the leap into region play still unbeaten, while the Red Elephants (0-4) are looking for their first win after a pair of narrow losses last month.
But according to players and coaches for both teams, you can throw out the records coming into this one.
“You can call it a rivalry if you want,” Flowery Branch quarterback Elijah Gainey said. “But it’s really more just how big the game can get, the type of teams that we are and how we play against each other. The level is just raised.”
The two programs certainly have a recent history of playing entertaining and high-stakes contests.
In 2009, Gainesville took down Flowery Branch 29-21 in the Class 3A state semifinals. Three years later, the Falcons got the better of the Red Elephants in a 35-34 region championship game against Gainesville’s eventual state championship team led by Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Gainesville junior offensive tackle Jordan Williams said the rivalry between the schools and the fact that the two rosters are so familiar with each other both on and off the field gives the game more meaning than a typical non-region contest.
“When it’s more personal, I feel like the game is more fun,” he said. “It’s more fun to play. It’s more fun to beat your friends.”
Williams and the rest of the Red Elephant offense will have their work cut out for them as they attempt to score on a Falcon defense which has yet to allow more than 14 points in any of its first three games of the season.
Gainesville coach Heath Webb said consistently playing mistake-free football has been the biggest factor in Flowery Branch’s nearly unblemished start to the year.
“They play clean football,” Webb said. “They don’t turn it over. They do a good job taking it away. They play solid special teams. Essentially, they don’t beat themselves.”
Webb added that because the Falcons like to dominate the time of possession, going for long, deflating offensive drives rather than quick, explosive plays, the Red Elephants will have to take advantage of every possession they get.
With opportunities likely to be at a premium, Webb and Williams were unified in the fact that the team is going to have to capitalize on all offensive chances Flowery Branch gives them.
“Every time we get the ball on offense, if we’re making a good push we need to score on that,” Williams said.
Webb also said opposing coach Ben Hall was likely to try to win the game by dominating in the trenches, a strategy that Hall did not back down from.
Despite the team’s 3-0 start to the year, Hall said the way his offensive line has played in the first three contests of the year has yet to meet his lofty standards.
Hall is hoping the unit brings everything together against Gainesville.
“It starts on the line of scrimmage,” Hall said. “I think our offensive line matched up with their defensive line is a key matchup for the game.”
Hall added that although there is a disparity in the amount of wins the teams have, Gainesville is not a game he plans on taking lightly, referring to the Red Elephants as “probably the best winless team in the state.” Outside of acknowledging the Red Elephants’ athleticism on both sides of the line of scrimmage, Hall commended Gainesville’s quick wide receivers, emphasizing that his defensive backs need to keep the wideouts in front of them at all times.
Considering the recent history of dramatic finishes in matchups against Gainesville, Flowery Branch center Tucker Rothschild said the Falcons are going to have to keep effort high throughout the game if they want to keep their undefeated streak going.
And with all the supporters both teams are likely to draw for the first matchup between the former region rivals since 2015, Rothschild said finding motivation to win won’t be hard to do.
“You used to go to all the Flowery Branch vs. Gainesville games when you were a kid,” he said. “Just so many of them were great games, and you just want to win.”