The key: In a rematch of a double-digit victory by the Cougars from two weeks ago, it will take a few defensive adjustments for the visiting Yellow Jackets to pull the upset. Both teams finished with more than 350 total yards the first time around, but Lookout Valley struggled to make third-down stops. The Cougars are diverse enough on offense to cause confusion and have an experienced backfield that can take advantage of defensive misalignments or mistakes.
The key players: Copper Basin quarterback Dylan Boggs is a dual threat, while speedy Denzel Brown can pop a big run at any time. The Yellow Jackets had 15 tackles for loss in the first meeting, but Copper Basin overcame those losses with big plays, typically on third down. Lookout Valley senior running back Jamal Jones has gained almost 1,400 yards, including more than 200 against the Cougars the first time this season. Classmate Toney Summerow also has game-breaking speed, and the Jackets' offfense likely will need to break several big plays to overcome their defensive shortcomings.
The next step: The winner travels to top-seeded Greenback (9-1).
The key: Which struggling defense can get even a couple of stops. South Pittsburg's offense is averaging more than 40 points per game, but its defense is giving up 23 and has been torched for five TDs or more three times for the first time in eight years. Columbia Academy averages 32 points per game but gives up more than 29. The offenses will be a contrast in styles, as the Pirates have three running backs who have combined for more than 3,000 yards, while Columbia Academy has thrown for nearly 3,000.
The key players: Columbia Academy quarterback Jackson Cary throws almost 30 passes per game, and has passed for 2,580 yards and 27 TDs. Three receivers -- Cole Chambley, Taylor Thompson and Thomas Garrison -- have more than 500 receiving yards each, while the Bulldogs have just one rusher, J.D. Davis, with more than 200 yards. The Pirates are led by senior running back Demetric Johnson's 1,551 rushing yards. He and junior Jajuan Lankford (901 yards) each averages more than 13 yards per carry, while Corbin Hale is a bruising runner and tackler. Pirates quarterback Jake Stone is the team's leading tackler from his free safety spot.
The next step: The winner will visit second-seeded Gordonsville (9-1).
The key: These teams have met twice in the last three postseasons, with the Buccaneeers winning both times, including last year's 17-13 thriller. Rockwood won't try anything fancy but will face one of the area's top defensive units when it comes to stopping the run. The Bucs are rarely out of position and are one of the surest-tackling defenses as well. How well Rockwood can defend Boyd-Buchanan's dual-threat quarterback Jim Cardwell, and whether it can contain Rance Harden, will decide whether this game is close like last season or the blowout of two years ago. Rockwood's average margin this year has been 23-16, so it is accustomed to close contests and has won five of its last six games. Two of Rockwood's losses were by less than a touchdown.
The key players: Kyron Inman has been the standout for Rockwood, leading the team with 839 rushing yards and 81 tackles. Three other runners have more than 360 yards, including Clay Cissom with 513, while quarterback Jared Breazeale has thrown for just 404. Hayden Freeles has 290 receiving yards and is Rockwood's second-leading tackler with 55 stops. He also has seven sacks. Cardwell makes the Bucs' offense go with 762 passing yards and 682 rushing. Harden went over then 1,000-yard mark for the season last week.
The next step: The winner will travel to top-seeded Oneida (9-1).
The key: Every current player for seventh-ranked Hampton has been to the state playoffs every season. Only the No. 8-ranked Seahawks' handful of seniors were part of a playoff team when they were freshmen. Being near the Kentucky line, the Bulldogs may be more acclimated to tonight's expected temperature, which will be the lowest of the season for a Seahawks game. Silverdale coach Al Rogers balks at all of that. "Neither of us have blinding speed," Rogers said. "This is going to be hard-nosed football. Whoever plays the closest to mistake-free ball is who's going to win."
The key players: SBA senior quarterback Spencer Mossburg is 50-of-99 for 708 yards and six touchdowns and he's rushed for another 11 TDs. His top receiver is junior Colton Rogers with 18 receptions for 322 yards. Junior Josh Rogers leads with 106 tackles, 86 solo, and his 835 rushing yards on 100 carries is second behind classmate Matt McCulley's 1,186 on 201 carries, with 13 TDs. The Bulldogs, whose statistics are through nine games because one of their victories was a forfeit from Hancock County, is sparked offensively by senior quarterback Lane Smith. He's completed 55 of 94 passes for 1,147 yards and 13 touchdowns. He's also rushed for 802 yards and 13 TDs on 116 carries. Hampton's leading rusher is senior B.J. Taylor with 118 carries for 841 yards. The top receiver is senior Mark Ailport with 12 receptions for 335 yards. Two juniors are the defensive leaders. Linebacker Tristan Robinson has been in on 92 tackles and end Boo Dugger has 65 tackles and is a key blocker at tight end.
The next step: The winner plays at Knoxville's Grace Christian.
The key: Craig Moser's debut as Sweetwater head coach became the Wildcats' first winning season in six years. Former East Ridge coach Mike Martin is Sweetwater's offensive coordinator and helped the team get off to a 4-0 start. The Wildcats have been tough defensively for the most part, and two of their losses were by less than a touchdown, to Polk County and Loudon. The Rams come into the game with a chip on their shoulder, as coaches and players felt they should not have to travel in the first round after an eight-win season against one of the toughest schedules in the area.
The key players: Part of the reason for Sweetwater's turnaround, aside from the new coaching staff, was the return of 14 starters. Sophomore quarterback Andrew Barr took over as the starter late last season and has solidified that position, while senior receiver/defensive back Nick Wicker is the top big-play threat. Senior linebackers Trevor Richeson and Eli Arwood are the leading tacklers, while defensive end Zack Neil (6-4, 240) is a load to deal with in the trenches. Tyner again has several running backs all capable of big plays, including senior Joseph Sturkey and Haasan Miller.
The next step: The winner will play top seed Alcoa (9-1) or McMinn Central (5-5). Alcoa would host, while McMinn Central would travel to either Tyner or Sweetwater.
The key: The visiting Chargers aren't the same as the 2010 and 2011 versions (1-19 combined). They believe they can win any game, including one over the state's No. 1-ranked team. McMinn Central coach Josh Goodin concedes that Alcoa has an edge in depth but believes his team is on par in starting skill-position players. Therefore, line play will be most important. Goodin's biggest concern is keeping his players from ending up in situations where they have to try to overcome mistakes. He thinks there's not much chance of that for the Tornadoes. "They don't make any mistakes," Goodin said. "They don't miss a block, or have a bad route run by a receiver, or have a bad cut by a running back. They just don't do that."
The key players: McMinn Central relies heavily on junior tailback Denzell Boyd, who's carried 186 times for 1,338 yards and scored 23 touchdowns. Senior Levi Holley is 73-for-128 passing for 1,010 yards and eight touchdowns. Junior Josh Scudder has caught 25 passes for 387 yards and has a 34.7-yard punting average. Junior middle linebacker Gage Johnson leads in tackles (87) and tackles for loss (13). Alcoa is so loaded with running backs that senior Ezekial Koko leads with 634 yards on 64 rushes. It drops from there to sophomore Jaquez Tyson and his 356 yards on 61 rushes. He's the short-yardage specialist and leads with 12 touchdowns. Junior quarterback Peyton Wall hasn't been called upon to throw much (84 attempts), but he's an 83-percent passer, good for 1,242 yards with 10 TDs and two interceptions. Senior linebacker Jarod Crenshaw spearheads a defense that has allowed 33 points with four shutouts in the Tornadoes' eight games not against Maryville (their loss) and Christian Academy of Knoxville.
The next step: The winner plays the winner between Tyner and Sweetwater. Alcoa would host. McMinn Central would travel.
The key: It could be injuries and size for both teams. Both teams have decent size up front, especially on offense, and both have skill players that are nicked up. Kingston is a wing-T offense, which Polk definitely knows how to defend. Of its six wins, only one of Kingston's victories has come against a team with a winning record. These teams have one common opponent in McMinn Central, which lost 34-13 to Kingston and 37-19 to Polk.
The key players: For Polk, which has endured injuries at both quarterback and wingback, the game likely boils down to its offensive line and running back Zach Miller, who is averaging 170 yards per game. It helps that wingback Justin Green is closer to recovering from an ankle injury. The Kingston offense rests with Brody Roberts, Malcolm Lane and Rhett Jones.
The next step: The winner between CAK (9-1) and Loudon (6-4).
The key: Grundy County has to find a way to slow the clock-eating option offense, which has averaged 50 points in the last five games. Easing the nerves of freshman quarterback Houston Mainord will be a must for Yellow Jackets coaches. He'll be making his first official start because Josh Rhea will be unavailable for offense after breaking his right hand last week against Notre Dame. Grundy has run the split-back veer in the recent past, so Jackets coach Nick Bryant and staff were able to give their defense good looks. Though he has split time with Rhea when he's been healthy, Mainord is much more of a passing quarterback, so the Yellow Jackets' offensive game plan is likely to center on the passing game.
The key players: Desmond Sweatt leads the fourth-ranked Cubs with 1,205 rushing yards and 18 TDs, but close behind is fellow running back Dakota White (1,080 yards, 12 TDs) and quarterback Mitchell Potts (985 yards, 13 TDs). Potts threw just 30 passes in 10 games but completed 19 for 359 yards and seven TDs. The Cubs also have a 6-foot-6, 280-pound tight end (Willie Pressley) that they love to run behind. While Michael Nolan may have to pick up Rhea's offensive load, Mainord will be looking for receivers Hayden Holland, Trevor Hampton, Austyn Cooper and Dylan Cleek. For the year he has completed 52 of 70 passes for 628 yards.
The next step: The winner between Smith County (8-2) and Fairview (7-3).
The key: There won't be a great deal of state-playoff experience in this one, unless you count the head coaches. None of Hixson's Wildcats have experienced a playoff game. The Irish advanced to the playoffs last year, but consider that 92 percent of their production this year has come from freshmen and sophomores. Notre Dame coach Charles Fant said his team needs to be able to run the ball in order to set up big-play possibilities. Hixson coach Jason Fitzgerald believes the team that controls the line of scrimmage will win.
The key players: Junior Gill Brown directs Hixson's offense and is 73-of-155 for 1,160 yards. He's thrown for 13 touchdowns and run for eight. His No. 1 receiver is senior Allante Novene, whose 39 catches have produced 755 yards and eight TDs. Kedric Bradley leads the rushing with 117 carries for 716 yards and is second in tackles to fellow junior K.C. Shelton, who has 62.
The next step: The winner plays the winner between Lipscomb Academy and Giles County. Giles would host. Lipscomb would travel.
The key: Who's healthy and who is not and who's streaking and who is not. There is some question about the health of Patriots quarterback Zak Mizell, who reportedly has been slowed by a high-ankle sprain, and Page has lost two straight after winning six in a row. A healthy Signal Mountain, meanwhile, is on a six-game win streak and has won seven of eight since opening the season with back-to-back losses to East Hamilton and Tyner. The Eagles will go up-tempo, but the question is whether they'll start and stay there or wait till the second quarter.
The key players: Page quarterback Mizell has thrown for more than 1,600 yards as compared to the 2,000 from Signal quarterback Reese Phillips. The best Page running back is Damian Lockridge. Signal is at its best defensively when turning up the pressure, most often led by tackle Elijah Turnage, but the secondary is susceptible. Phillips will have to keep an eye on Patriots linebacker Jake Laster and linebacker/end Joe Robertson, but it could be interesting to see how Page handles 265-pound Eagles fullback James McClellan.
The next step: The winner between East Hamilton (9-1) and Marshall County (5-5).
The key: It's maintaining composure and getting over the hump for the host Hurricanes, who won but didn't play so well the last two weeks with wins over Red Bank and Howard. Then there's the matter of a second playoff appearance at home and whether the 'Canes will waste another one. Last year they got upset by Brainerd. The Tigers are on a roll, having won three of their last four to secure a No. 7 playoff seed.
The key players: Is it all about Logan Jackson for the Hurricanes? He's a featured part of their offense, but Lamond Greer was their leading rusher a week ago and quarterback Hunter Moore has become an on-field extension of the coaching staff. Over their last six games the Tigers have averaged slightly more than 32 points behind quarterback Austin Stacey. Marshall County ran just 26 offensive plays last week in a win over East Hickman in which Kevin Peterson had an 85-yard touchdown run. While they gave up some big plays, the defense and special teams scored three of the Tigers' four TDs. Leading the way were Brandon Outzen (14 tackles, three sacks) and Jalen Jones (13 tackles, two sacks).
The next step: The winner between Signal Mountain (7-3) and Page (6-4).
The key: Unpredictability is theme for both teams' offenses, so defenders being in the right places at the right times -- luckily or otherwise -- will be pivotal. The visiting Mavericks like to spread wide offensively, but often it's so they can pound inside with a single back against a dispersed defense. Ooltewah has the capability of softening a defense with a power running game, too, but the Owls may have to try something else. Ooltewah coach Shannon Williams thinks his team is faster but Anderson County is stronger. Trying to figure out what works could be a test for both coaching staffs.
The key players: The Mavericks, who average 34.2 points per game, want the ball in the hands of physical running back Andy Long. He's a senior with 2,227 all-purpose yards and 24 touchdowns. If the Owls crowd the line of scrimmage, senior quarterback Micah Hodge will test their secondary. Hodge missed a little time late in the year with a knee injury but has thrown for 2,113 yards (138-for-225).
The next step: The winner plays the winner between Walker Valley and Lenoir City. Lenoir City would host. Walker Valley would travel.
The key: Which team is the best No. 4 from its district? The visiting Mustangs backed into the playoffs, while Lenoir City actually tied for third but lost a tiebreaker with Bearden. The Panthers' only losses were to Bearden (24-14) and Maryville (42-7) and they'd won five in a row before the regular-season finale against Maryville. Walker Valley lost to McMinn County, Bradley Central, Cleveland and Ooltewah but did something Cleveland could not -- beat Rhea County. How will the Mustangs react to their first playoff showing under coach Glen Ryan and the program's first postseason game since 2007?
The key players: Lenoir City quarterback Jordan Hall has passed for more than 1,500 yards with 18 TDs and just three interceptions but also is the Panthers' second-leading rusher behind Caleb Wilson. Top receivers are Lucas Hamilton and, out of the backfield, Jaylon Woods. Walker Valley is pretty much a wing-T offense but experimented with a spread look. Justin Ware has been the Mustangs' bell cow, going over 1,000 rushing yards. Reggie Mills is the team's No. 2 rusher with 418 yards. Quarterback Garrett Wallace has thrown for slightly more than 600 yards and six TDs but also has nine interceptions.
The next step: The winner between Anderson County (5-5) and Ooltewah (7-3).
The key: Having played just last week, there is plenty of familiarity between the two rivals. Bradley's Bears made plays early, but as the game went along they couldn't find a way to keep the McMinn defensive line -- primarily Aaron Kimpson -- out of the backfield. The Cherokees rushing attack needed a half before they started finding gaps for their backfield combination of Kelvin Wells and Dre Sanders. The Cherokees found themselves down early but remained close enough to where they didn't need their passing attack to rally. They don't want to get in the same position again tonight.
The key players: There are five key players for the Bears -- their offensive line. They were torched by Kimpson last week, as the athletic senior finished with five sacks. For McMinn, quarterback Corbin Powers remains the key. He will have to continue to make good reads with the rushing attack and good decisions when the Cherokees choose to pass.
The next step: McMinn County would host either Cane Ridge or Riverdale with a win, but the Bears would travel in either case.
The key: For both coaching staffs, it is which was more successful at getting their team ready to play the same opponent in back-to-back weeks. Baylor concentrated on consistency offensively and spent a lot of time on special teams after giving up two long kickoff returns and getting a field goal blocked. BGA has lost six in a row including last week's 27-12 setback at Baylor, but the 12 points the Wildcats scored were the most in any of the six losses.
The key players: Stopping the Wildcats' Keenan Bass is a must again this week for Baylor, which would like to force BGA into the passing game, where they have just three TDs and nine interceptions. Baylor will need to keep pressure on quarterback Tucker Beathard. Linebacker Hasty Moran is the Wildcats' leading tackler. While the Red Raiders got a 100-yard rushing game from George Porter, they probably need to get a little more from Houston Clements and definitely need to retune their passing game whether it is Michael O'Connor or Nick Tiano doing the throwing. The Baylor defense, anchored by Blake Layne and Colton Jumper, has allowed just 19 points the last three weeks.
The next step: At West Region champion Memphis University School (8-2), which has an opening-week bye.
The key: McCallie has lost back-to-back games and given up a total of 115 points, so defense was an obvious and repeated point of interest for Blue Tornado coach Ralph Potter this week. Meanwhile, the Eagles have lost two of their last three, both losses being region games, by a combined score of 84-7. St. Benedict's Jordan Wilkins has gotten his share of attention this week.
The key players: Despite missing a game, Wilkins is the Eagles' leading rusher, receiver, kick and punt returner and scorer. He has 935 yards and 14 TDs running the football and 14 catches for 230 yards and three scores, and he averages 22 yards on kickoff returns and 8.2 on punt returns. Quarterback Logan Schmitz has seven TD passes but also eight interceptions. McCallie junior Chad Toliver is 78 yards shy of a 1,000-yard season, but Samis Usman led last week with 133 yards and three TDs. Andrew Busby, Eric Wolf and Usman lead the Blue Tornado defense.
The next step: At East/Middle Region champion Ensworth (10-0), which has an opening-week bye.
Storyline: This Catoosa County rivalry is heated enough, but add the playoff implications into it and tonight's game is, according to Ringgold coach Robert Akins, the most important game in series history. Barring unforeseen results of other games, LFO can clinch a playoff spot with a win and Ringgold has to win to keep its hopes alive. The key will be which defense can make the other team get out of its run-first comfort zone. LFO's Warriors, stout defensively most of the season, gave up 35 points last week to North Murray, which has an offense nearly identical to Ringgold's, so expect a few LFO defensive tweaks.