BUFORD — For nearly a decade the numbers on the backs of the Buford jerseys could have easily been mistaken for bullseyes.
With five state championships and two runner-up finishes since 2000, the Wolves (10-0) clearly established themselves as the elite program in Class AA, but this year things are a little different.
“Coming into the year everyone thought we’d have to rebuild,” senior A.J. Cunningham said. “After we lost to Lovett they thought we weren’t as strong as in previous years.”
So are they?
“I don’t think we’re under the radar,” Buford coach Jess Simpson said. “Other teams are always ready to play us.”
That’s especially the case this time of year, as the Wolves open the postseason against Pepperell (9-1) on Friday at Tom Riden Stadium.
“Come playoff time, Buford’s still Buford and everyone knows we’re coming to play,” Simpson said.
But unlike years past, this year’s team enters the playoffs with a loss on their record, and the normally top-ranked Wolves are ranked third in the state, two spots behind Calhoun and one behind Fitzgerald.
The rankings don’t matter to the Wolves, who have rebounded from the loss to Lovett by winning seven-straight games, outscoring their opponents 262-21 during that span.
“Our young and inexperienced lineup got exposed during the Lovett game,” said Simpson, who stated that this year’s team is the youngest of his tenure. “That loss also made our old guys realize that they needed to play great for us to play the brand of football we want.”
While most teams in Class AA might have thought that loss was a sign that Buford wasn’t as dominant, the Wolves used it as a wake-up call.
“It made us work harder,” Cunningham said. “We want to show everyone that we’re the same ole Buford.”
That means trouble for the rest of Class AA, as Buford has returned to form with a strong run game and a dominant defense that is allowing an almost unthinkable five points per game.
“We’re as good as any of the previous teams,” said Cunningham, who had six tackles, two sacks and interception in the season finale against Greater Atlanta Christian. “We have a lot of weapons.”
Especially on offense, as the Wolves have 23 players that have rushed the ball at least once, with senior Jessel Curry leading the way with 420 yards and eight touchdowns. But the surprise weapon has been quarterback Alex Ross, who in years past would have just been the guy handing the ball to a stable of running backs. This year, Ross has added a passing dimension to Buford’s offense, completing 54 percent of his passes for 1,212 yards and 13 touchdowns.
“We have a lot of explosive players this year,” Simpson said. “As a coach, you want to do what you do best, and we have a quarterback and several wide receivers that we feel can pitch and catch pretty well.”
All of those weapons will be needed Friday against Pepperell, a program that won a state title in 1990 and reached the third round of last year’s state playoffs.
“I know when I turn on the tape I see a great football team,” Simpson said.
The Dragons are the first of five hurdles in the way of a third-straight state championship for Buford. Two other hurdles will probably be both Fitzgerald and Calhoun, two teams that Buford defeated last year on the way to its second-straight state title.
But unlike years past, the Wolves will have to take on those top teams away from the friendly confines of Tom Riden Stadium.
“I realized with the bracket, if we’re lucky enough to win, we’re headed on the road,” Simpson said. “I don’t think it’ll matter, these guys will be just glad to play.”
In years past, just being glad to play would not be enough for Buford, and although Simpson said that will be the case, this year’s team motto says otherwise.
“New year, new team, same dream,” Cunningham recited.
The targets on their backs might not be as bright, but this year’s Wolves are ready to accomplish what has become the norm at Buford: winning a state championship.
“It’s my senior year,” Cunningham said. “I just want to do it one more time.”