It’s no secret that Buford and North Hall are the teams to beat in Region 7-AAA this season.
They might even be the teams to beat in all of Class AAA.
The Wolves claimed their eighth state championship in the past 12 years last season, while the Trojans won the Region 7-AAA title and advanced to the state semifinals for the second time in program history.
Both appear ready to make another deep postseason run, stealing a chunk of suspense from the playoff race, but Region 7-AAA is not without intrigue.
The logjam of contenders behind the two front-runners is where things get interesting.
Looming not too far back from the Wolves and Trojans rests the potential for an intense race between at least four teams for what will likely be the final two playoff spots out of the region. It is a race that will likely come down to the final week of the regular season.
“It is ridiculous. It is unfair, honestly,” East Hall coach Bryan Gray said, laughing, when discussing the strength of the region.
“You have what I would say are the top two teams (Buford and North Hall) in AAA, they’re in our region, and then I think you’re looking at three or four teams that have the ability to go to at least the second round of the playoffs.
“I don’t think any region can hold its nose above 7-AAA this year, that is for sure.”
White County, the No. 3 seed a year ago, and Dawson County, the fourth seed, are both expected to have postseason-caliber squads again this season, while East Hall and West Hall both showed a great deal of improvement from last year during their respective season opening games on Friday night.
“I thought it was a real tough region last year,” West Hall coach Tony Lotti said.
“Now it seems like it is going to be even a tougher region for us. I feel like we’ve improved, but I also feel like everybody else has, too.”
“When you have Buford in there, I think everybody is playing for second until somebody beats them,” Dawson County coach Jeff Lee said. “Then you have North Hall over there with Coach (Bob) Christmas. I think he is probably going to have one of the best teams he has ever had.”
What might make the ultimate difference in deciding which teams get into the playoffs and which teams are watching come November will be the games against the two bottom-tier teams, Banks County (3-7 last season) and Fannin County (1-9).
Neither Banks County nor Fannin County are expected to make a run at the playoffs this year, but both teams could play spoiler to another squad.
“I’m hoping we learned our lesson last season about how important it is to play every single week,” said Lotti, whose team lost to Fannin County 31-8 last year.
“Fannin came out there last year, and my hat goes off to them, they stuck it to us.”
The majority of the matchups that will decide the final two region spots, though, will be the games that pit the four teams – White County, Dawson County, East Hall and West Hall – against one another.
Another factor that could decide playoff spots is the unforeseen upsets that could be waiting powers Buford and North Hall.
“I have a feeling that some things are going to happen in the region that people aren’t quite expecting,” Gray said. “I just think somebody is going to beat somebody who doesn’t expect to be beat. There are enough talented teams and there are so many physical teams in this region that you are going to have to stay healthy, even the best of the best, and you are going to have to have some luck.”
The first of the head-to-head matchups featuring the playoff contending teams took place Friday night, when Dawson County edged out East Hall 29-27 in a rare season-opening region contest.
“We knew between East Hall and us, Bryan (Gray) and I talked about this, the winner of that one (game) is a leg up,” Lee said. “The loser is either playing for the fourth seed or is going to get fifth. You hate putting that pressure on there in the first game.”
Despite the loss, the Vikings (0-1) showed they’ve taken a rather large step forward this season from the 42-0 rout they were handed last season by the Tigers.
Led by junior quarterback Devin Watson, the Vikings were able to get a plethora of players into the action against Dawson County; 11 players caught a pass in the loss to the Tigers, a sign there are a lot of playmakers on this year’s East Hall team.
“Coach Gray has done a terrific job at East Hall,” Lee said. “They didn’t surprise us Friday night, but they are so much better than they have been.”
Dawson County, which finished with a 6-5 record last season, returns 15 starters this season and got a boost at the quarterback position on Friday night with the play of junior Zach Buchan, who coach Jeff Lee said had the dedication to succeed at the position.
White County returns 13 starters from last year’s playoff team, which finished with a 7-4 overall record. The Warriors will be relying on a bevy of experienced juniors who will play a key role.
West Hall (1-0) blew out rival Johnson 35-0 in the Battle of Oakwood Friday night, avenging a six-point loss to the Knights from last season.
The improvement for the Spartans seems to validate what some coaches in the region were already thinking during the preseason: West Hall is a legitimate playoff contender this year, led by a senior class that includes running back Antonio Pittman and quarterback Zach English.
The Spartans, who finished with a 3-7 record last season, were able to control the line of scrimmage against the Knights, while playing a tough brand of defense that set up their offense inside Johnson territory five times.
Tenacious defensive play mixed with the ability to control the line of scrimmage and reduce mistakes is a formula the Spartans and the rest of the region’s contenders will need to rely on moving forward in the season.
“What is going to be extremely important, in the region games especially, is we can’t do things to help out our opponents,” Lotti said. “We can’t turn the ball over and give them a short field.
“We really have to make sure we don’t have the stupid penalty that sets them up or puts us in a hole. That is going to be the focus.”