For three of the area’s teams, Friday night not only marks the end of the regular season, but the chance to become region champions.
For Class AA's No. 4-ranked Jefferson and Class AAA's No. 1-ranked Gainesville, a win means the titles are solely theirs for the second straight year. A Buford win against Greater Atlanta Christian means the third-ranked Wolves get at least a share of the program’s ninth-straight region championship.
Should the Dragons (9-0, 8-0 Region 8-AA) lose to East Jackson, they will lose the region title but retain homefield for the first round of the playoffs — the same can be said for Buford.
Should Gainesville (9-0, 5-0 Region 7B-AAA) lose to Flowery Branch, however, it will not only lose the region title to North Hall but also be forced to go on the road as the No. 3 seed out of Region 7-AAA in the first round of the playoffs.
MANO Y MANO: For the Gainesville and Flowery Branch faithful, Nov. 6 has been circled on their calendars since the season began, if not before.
This year is a bit different than last in that a region title is only on the line for one team. And unlike preseason predictions, both teams aren’t undefeated coming in.
What the game does have, however, is copious amounts of offensive talent and two teams with a knack for scoring. Both teams average 47 points per game, and both feature dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks.
Flowery Branch’s Connor Shaw has passed for 2,016 yards and 24 touchdowns and rushed for 584 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Blake Sims, his counterpart at Gainesville, has passed for 1,402 yards and 20 touchdowns and run for 438 yards and 9 touchdowns.
A good running game is essential for success and both teams have it in Flowery Branch’s Imani Cross (966 yards, 14 touchdowns) and Gainesville’s Teryan Rucker (842 yards, 10 touchdowns).
For every prolific passer, there’s a favorite target and the Falcons and Red Elephants are no different as they have Shaw’s favorite in Rodney Young (558 yards and 9 touchdowns) and Sims’ go-to guy in Tai-ler Jones (801 yards and 11 touchdowns).
THE SHOWDOWN: For the first eight weeks of the season, Jefferson, North Oconee and East Jackson — all undefeated at that time — were the front runners for the Region 8-AA title.
In Week 9, East Jackson beat North Oconee, and this past Friday night Jefferson did the same making the road to the Region 8-AA title two-way.
Friday night, the road ends in Jefferson where the Dragons and the Eagles (9-0, 8-0) will meet in a region-title deciding showdown.
The two teams come in, at least on paper, as near carbon copies of each other.
In their last four region games, the Dragons have averaged 29.5 points while giving up 4.5. Meanwhile, East Jackson has given up 5.5 while maintaining the exact same scoring average as Jefferson.
And for each, the hardest competition has been North Oconee. Jefferson and East Jackson both had their smallest margins of victory against the Titans with the Dragons winning by 14 and the Eagles by eight.
THE WHAT-IFS: Region 8-AA’s Riverside Military Academy and Region 7A-AAA’s Chestatee have a chance of making the state playoffs and Friday night’s games will be the determining factors.
The Eagles (4-5, 4-4 Region 8-AA) are in a three-way tie for the fourth playoff spot with Fannin County and Union County, and can clinch the playoff berth with win against Dawson County (1-8, 1-7). Riverside beat Fannin County on Oct. 16 and Union County last Friday night to gain the inside track for the postseason.
Where Chestatee (4-5, 3-2 Region 7A-AAA) is concerned, a couple of things need to happen. First and foremost, the War Eagles need to beat Creekview (8-1, 4-1), and then White County needs to lose to Gilmer.
Should both those things occur, Chestatee will make its program’s third state playoff appearance.
THE CONSUMMATE SENIOR LEADER: For two years, and a good portion of this year, East Hall senior Desmon Gardner was the Vikings’ starting quarterback.
He’s been through one-win seasons and an offensive overhaul when the Vikings moved to the Wing-T prior to this season beginning. Through it all, he has stuck with his team, and in Friday night’s win against West Hall — the Vikings’ first in 14 games — Gardner shined, but not as quarterback.
The senior made the move to wide receiver — opening up the starting quarterback position for freshman Zach Groover — and led the team in receiving with 43 yards and a touchdown and was third on the team in rushing with 40 yards on seven carries.
The numbers of sophomores Jamond Witt (73 yards rushing and two touchdowns) and Carlos Negron (82 yards rushing and 1 touchdown) might have stood out, and freshman Austin Mahaffey might have scored the winning touchdown. But it’s hard to argue against Gardner’s versatility and unselfishness as a key to the win.