South Pittsburg (8-3) at Gordonsville (9-1)
The key: There isn't a playoff matchup in the state in which the teams are more familiar. This will be their 13th postseason meeting, including 10 in the last 12 years. The visiting Pirates have won the last four. Although both teams use offenses that want to keep the ball on the ground -- Gordonsville averages 317 rushing yards, South Pittsburg 414 -- it will be a battle of wills on that side of the ball. The Tigers' strength is 10 senior starters on each side of the ball, led by a massive offensive line. They will try to control the game with time-consuming drives, while the Pirates are a quick-strike offense with two backs who average more than 13 yards per carry. "The key is slowing them down and making them work for yards," Gordonsville coach Ron Marshall said. "Our offense needs to help the defense by controlling the ball and the clock. I believe the Class 1A state championship game is [tonight]. I think we're the two best teams, and because of the way the bracket shakes out this year, we're playing each other too early."
The key players: Gordonsville starters have had to play all four quarters just twice this season, and the Tigers have outscored their last eight opponents by a 47-8 average. Senior Tyler Coen, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound two-time Mr. Football finalist, has 60 pancake blocks, 47 tackles (15 for loss) and three sacks while fellow two-way tackle Cody Payne (6-5, 245) has 54 pancake blocks, 41 tackles (18 for loss) and six sacks. The backfield is led by senior quarterback Payton Watson, who has rushed for 899 yards and thrown for 704 and has 16 total TDs, and junior running back Kaelin Cason, who has rushed for 1,478 yards (11 ypc) and 23 TDs. Senior linebacker Brandon McCoy (6-2, 205) leads with 62 tackles in nine games. South Pittsburg's offense is led by the running back tandem of senior Demetric Johnson (1,687 yards, 30 TDs) and junior Jajuan Lankford (1,070 yards, 12 TDs). Each averages more than 13.5 yards per carry, while senior fullback Corbin Hale adds 680 yards and is the team's second-leading tackler behind free safety Jake Stone, who leads the area with 115 tackles. Sophomore Corbin Fitzgerald set a school record last week with four interceptions.
The next step: The winner will play the winner of Moore County vs. Eagleville. Moore County would host either, while Eagleville would travel.
Copper Basin (8-3) at Greenback (9-1)
The key: The visiting Cougars have been solid with their pass protection this season. Greenback should put them to the test this week. One of Copper Basin coach Patrick Daley's biggest concerns is getting the Cherokees' defensive ends blocked. On the other side, the Cougars' secondary is going to be challenged by Greenback's passing game.
The key players: Copper Basin's catalyst is senior Dylan Boggs. He's thrown for more than 1,500 yards and rushed for more than 900 and is one of the team's top hitters from linebacker. Junior running back Denzel Brown blossomed in the latter half of the season and is closing in on 1,000 rushing yards. The Cougars will need stout efforts from senior defensive tackles Chris Thelan and Levi Franklin. Thelan was in on nearly 20 tackles last week against Lookout Valley. Greenback senior Eric Anderson put time in over the summer making the transition from wide receiver to quarterback, and the work has paid off. Senior Richard Seymour is a versatile back who not only piles up rushing yards with more than 5,200 in his career but also catches passes and returns kicks. Senior Justin Kuhn plays slot receiver and tight end but is perhaps most valuable for the Cherokees at linebacker.
The next step: The winner plays the winner between Cloudland and Coalfield. Greenback would host. Copper Basin would travel.
Trousdale County (8-3) at Marion County (8-2)
The key: Both teams have young skill position players in their first playoff seasons, so who adjusts to the nerve-racking tension and atmosphere of the "win or go home" setting stands the best chance of advancing. Both coaching staffs feel the teams are evenly matched, which magnifies turnovers, penalties and mental mistakes. Marion's Warriors have more experience in close games, having won four contests decided by a touchdown or less this season. They also should be well rested after having a first-round bye, while Trousdale had to hold off Jackson County 20-19. Aside from the youthful rosters and the fact both teams run the wing-T, another common theme is injuries. Marion had a rash of starters hurt early, and Trousdale has lost five starters -- four of them two-way starters -- to knee injuries or broken bones. Four were seniors, causing the Yellow Jackets to play numerous sophomores.
Key players: Marion's offense revolves around sophomore running back Blake Zeman (5-9, 205), who has gained 1,635 yards (9.2 ypc) with 20 TDs. His work is made easier by a trio of senior linemen -- Jake Murphy, Daylon Brown and Jeb McCullough -- as well as brother Matt, a dual-threat quarterback. The Warriors also are getting healthy at the right time and will have several players back who missed time this season, including starters Chandler Willis, Deon Riley, Jamey Ford, Eric Qualls and Hayden Tudors. Trousdale uses at least eight ball carriers, led by senior Victor Hardwick. Sophomore defensive backs Josh Jackson and Zack Blackwell are the team's leading tacklers.
The next step: The winner will play Friendship Christian or Cascade. Friendship Christian would host either, while Cascade would travel to either.
Boyd-Buchanan (10-1) at Oneida (9-1)
The key: The Buccaneers are heading to a hostile territory they haven't been to since 1999. Coach Grant Reynolds said because his team had eight home games this year, he thinks a road trip could help the players focus. Reynolds anticipates the Indians being tough to run on and expects the Bucs to have to go to the air more than a little bit. They must also match, or find ways to counter, Oneida's physical play.
The key players: Bucs junior quarterback Jim Cardwell is 70-for-117 passing for 881 yards and has rushed 125 times for 905 yards. With six rushing touchdowns in the Bucs' two state-playoff games, senior Rance Harden has taken the team lead from Cardwell with 19. Conversely, Harden, who has carried 205 times for 1,351 yards, recently lost the tackles lead. Classmate Stephen Ingram is up to 67 tackles and Harden has been in on 65.5. Junior Cole West directs Oneida's attack, senior Brandon Smith spearheads the running game, and both are key members of the stop unit -- West from safety and Smith from linebacker. Trevor Allen, another of the team's 16 seniors, was an all-state defensive lineman a year ago. His other role is creating holes from fullback.
The next step: The winner would play the winner between Silverdale Baptist Academy and Knoxville's Grace Christian. Boyd-Buchanan or Oneida would host if Silverdale wins and travel if Grace Christian wins.
Silverdale Baptist Academy (10-1) at Grace Christian (9-1)
The key: Silverdale's starting linemen average about 240 pounds per player. That's lighter than the Knoxville team's average, but Seahawks coach Al Rogers believes his guys in the trenches have an agility edge they'll need to exhibit. Grace runs a traditional wing-T offense and the Seahawks operate a version of it. Each will test the other's discipline on defense.
The key players: Senior quarterback Spencer Mossburg's worth to the Seahawks goes beyond his 55-for-108 passing for 830 yards. He's provided the team leadership along with accounting for 19 touchdowns. The junior rushing tandem of Matt McCulley and Josh Rogers has combined for 321 carries, 2,258 yards and 22 TDs. Rogers is the unquestioned defensive leader, topping the team in tackles (119), tackles for loss (9), and interceptions (6). Junior tight end Colton Rogers is Silverdale's leading receiver with 20 catches for 377 yards and three touchdowns. The Rams have a 6-foot-4 quarterback in junior Devin Smith. Andy Eddins also is 6-4 and fellow receiver Bill Dixon is 6-2. They could play pivotal roles this week. Senior Will McKamey and son of head coach Randy McKamey remains out with a head injury he suffered at South Pittsburg two weeks ago. He's the team's leading rusher and has committed to play for the Naval Academy.
The next step: The winner plays the winner between Boyd-Buchanan and Oneida. Grace Christian would host. Silverdale would travel.
Notre Dame (9-2) at Giles County (11-0)
The key: Giles County has a stingy defense, but offense behind senior quarterback Al Cobb has been its trademark. While only four of the Bobcats' opponents had winning records, six of those made the 2012 playoff field. The Bobcats had three shutouts, and the closest they came to getting beat was a 24-14 win over Fairview in Week 7. That was the only game in which Giles County scored fewer than 35 points; it averaged 44.4. No team scored more than 14 points on the Bobcats, and only three reached double digits. Notre Dame is going to have to be patient offensively and finish scoring drives. The Irish can ill afford to get in a swap-out shootout, and the emphasis is likely to be ball control. This is just the fourth Notre Dame team to secure a nine-win season.
The key players: The 6-foot-3, 185-pound Cobb has thrown for 2,303 yards and 27 TDs with just one interception while rushing for 768 yards. His favorite targets, and both are speedy, are Kenton Baker and Lucas Harrison. Chris Few (94 tackles) and Brandon Houston (87 tackles) lead the defense, which has 15 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries. With Ricky Ballard again questionable, this time with an ankle sprain, Notre Dame's offensive load again shifts to speedy Auston Banks and Kareem Orr, who'll line up in the backfield and on the flank, and quarterback Alex Darras. Defensively, one of the unsung leaders has been sub Tyler Enos.
The next step: The winner will play the East Hamilton-Page winner. Giles County will host while Notre Dame would travel to East Hamilton or host Page.
Page (7-4) at East Hamilton (10-1)
The key: East Hamilton must do what Signal Mountain did not a week ago. The Eagles had three first-quarter red-zone opportunities and failed to capitalize. Page wound up winning 42-41. The key for Page is dealing with a fast and physical defense and an offense that prefers physical to finesse. The Patriots' scouting report probably had holes because much was probably dedicated to Hurricanes senior running back Logan Jackson, who is likely done for the season after sustaining a knee injury last week. Page has to be totally committed to run defense yet mindful that East Hamilton will throw at most any moment. Will this be a shootout? Page lost 48-0 in its regular-season finale to unbeaten Giles County, reportedly with a handful of starters injured and held out in preparation for the playoffs. East Hamilton scored 48 or more points in seven of 11 games.
The key players: Patriots quarterback Zak Mizell (5-10, 160) has thrown for 1,633 yards and 10 TDs but also has seven interceptions. In a throw-first offense, Damian Lockridge (404 yards) has been Page's leading rusher. There are five receivers with at least 13 catches, led by Booker Leach (6-0, 150) and Lockridge (5-9, 150). Linebacker Jake Laster leads the defense with 103 stops, but lineman Joe Robertson isn't far behind with 91. Neither Lamond Greer and Matt Milita has the bulk of the 6-1, 195-pound Jackson, but Greer is a step faster and Milita probably two steps faster. If there is a shift in the offensive burden, it likely will fall to quarterback Hunter Moore, who has completed passes at a 63-percent clip with 1,135 yards and 14 TDs and just two interceptions. Outside linebackers Austin Gatewood and Dallas Hammond lead the Hurricanes in tackles, but 13 have lost-yardage hits, led by Francisco Rodriguez with 16.5.
The next step: The winner will play the Giles County-Notre Dame winner. Giles would host while East Hamilton would host Notre Dame. Page would travel regardless.
Ooltewah (8-3) at Lenoir City (8-3)
The key: The Owls will have to have a much faster start tonight as the Panthers host a second-round game for the first time in recent memory. Ooltewah coach Shannon Williams expects a pumped-up crowd to fuel a fast start for the home team, one that the Owls will have to manage to stay in the contest. The Panthers also boast a solid red-zone defense, so Ooltewah will have to get the big play when the opportunity arises but not miss out on chances to put points on the board when it gets close.
The key players: The spotlight will be on the Ooltewah defensive backs, as they are faced with the task of stopping 6-5 tight end Lucas Hamilton, who has committed to Middle Tennessee State. The Panthers find different ways to use Hamilton, lining him up out wide as well as in tight, so identifying where he is will be important.
The next step: The winner will either travel to Columbia Central or host Tullahoma.
Riverdale (8-3) at McMinn County (10-1)
The key: Victory likely will depend on which quarterback makes more plays. The host Cherokees will have to continue to do what they've done most of the season -- dominate the line of scrimmage. The Warriors present a challenge because of their illustrious history, but this year's version will come to Athens battered and bruised, having to become creative in their rotations over the course of the season. They have three backs who averaged over 10 yards per carry in their wing-T attack, but one, Mariko Odom, has been out injured since Week 5.
The key players: McMinn tailbacks Kelvin Wells and Dre Sanders get most of the headlines, but the key has been sophomore quarterback Corbin Powers' growth in both his option reads and passing. Aaron Kimpson leads the Cherokees' stout defensive line. Riverdale's Dillon Woodruff has survived the injury bug to combine for 1,500 total yards this year, while Peyton Phillips and Dreco Little each averages over 10 yards per attempt.
The next step: The winner will travel to Siegel or host Blackman.
Baylor (8-3) at Memphis University School (8-2)
The key: The road trip is always a bear when going to West Tennessee. Baylor will leave at 8:45 this morning, have a walk-through and lunch at Vanderbilt and take another break in Jackson. Coach Phil Massey doesn't want anybody sitting more than two hours on the bus. His Red Raiders have been pleased with their running game of late but have not thrown the ball nearly as much the last month or so despite the presence of potent passers Michael O'Connor and Nick Tiano. Part of that may be season-ending injuries to key receivers. MUS, which is riding a five-game win streak, has twice as many passing yards (2,164) as rushing (1,052). Too, the Owls defense has helped establish a 20-point scoring differential (38.8-18.8). While MUS enjoyed a bye last week, Baylor played, surviving 49-25 against BGA after forging a huge lead. MUS's only in-state loss was to unbeaten Ensworth, 35-28 in the first week of the season. The Owls also lost to talent-laden Olive Branch, Miss., which annually sends players to college.
The key players: MUS quarterback Jordan Rogers is a Mr. Football finalist, primarily because of his 29-4 touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio and .632 completion percentage. Rushing leader Shane Tucker (558 yards) is third among the Owls' receiving leaders with 29 catches. Rogers alternates his throws primarily among Witt Hawkins, Devin Perry and Tucker. The defensive leader is linebacker Peyton Klawinsk (88 solos). Baylor has relied heavily on running back George Porter, who's averaging 100 yards per game. While they've combined for more than 1,000 passing yards, O'Connor and Tiano have just four TD passes between them. Linebackers Blake Layne and Colton Jumper lead the Baylor defense.
The next step: MUS would host the Briarcrest-Brentwood Academy winner; Baylor would travel.
McCallie (5-5) at Ensworth (10-0)
The key: McCallie played last week, routing St. Benedict 62-20, while Ensworth, the top-seeded team from the East/Middle Region, sat with a week off. Corn Elder is the key. The repeat Mr. Football Finalist torched McCallie for four TDs on Aug. 31 in a 47-10 Tigers victory. How much, if any, can McCallie trim from that margin? Is there some magic formula against the two-time defending state champions other than a keep-away ball-control offense?
The key players: Elder has rushed for 1,952 yards in limited playing time, averaging 9.7 yards per carry while scoring 29 touchdowns. Quarterback Andrew Bowers, the coach's son, has benefited from Elder's reputation and ability. Although he completes just 48.9 percent of his passes, he's thrown for 1,253 yards and 14 TDs with just two interceptions. McCallie will have to rely heavily on running backs Chad Toliver and Samir Usman and could use another quality passing outing from quarterback Nelson Johnston, who last week threw just five passes but completed four for 160 yards and three TDs.
The next step: Ensworth would host the Montgomery Bell-Christian Brothers winner; McCallie would travel.
North Jackson (6-4) at Florence Central (7-3)
The key: North Jackson has to get stops early. Last week the Chiefs' defense allowed Deshler to score at will, including 35 first-quarter points. Central runs a traditional-style wing-T with lots of misdirection plays and sweeps and wants to grind it out and control the clock. For North Jackson to be in the game late and have a chance at an upset, it must not fall into an early deficit.
The key players: North Jackson has been plagued by injuries and suspensions lately, so how many of the original starters are back tonight will go a long way in determining the Chiefs' fate. Quarterback Kitt Grider was injured early last week and is questionable. If he can't go, the Chiefs will have to turn to freshman Matt Johnson, whose only game experience came last week. Their best all-around athlete, Austin Blevins, could return from suspension tonight. and running back Tate Hutchins has established himself as a go-to player. Anthony Morris and A.J. Hutchins have been solid on the line, but perhaps the biggest weapon for the Chiefs is kicker Cesar Diaz, who routinely puts kickoffs out of the end zone, forcing opponents to start from their 20, and last week added a 47-yard field goal with room to spare.
The next step: The winner plays the winner of Anniston vs. Oneonta.
Gilmer County (7-2) at Northwest Whitfield (6-3)
Storyline: Gilmer's Bobcats enter the Region 7-AAAA play-in game coming off a dominating defensive effort against Cedartown, holding the state's leading rusher, Nick Chubb, to 150 yards below his season average. They'll have a different challenge tonight against a Bruins spread offense that can get points in bunches behind quarterback Silas Ledford, who has passed for right at 2,000 yards. How well the Northwest offensive line keeps Ledford protected against an aggressive Gilmer front will tell the tale in this one.
Storyline: This Region 7-AAAA play-in game matches a Pickens team with very little recent success against a Catamounts team hungry to get back in the playoffs and make some noise. Dalton has not won a playoff game since 2007 and has missed the postseason twice since then, including two years ago when Gilmer County shocked the folks at Harmon Field in a play-in game. The key for the Catamounts is to find a way to limit quarterback Tanner Brumby's big plays. Brumby owns several school records and is a two-way threat, while Shannon Brooks is the top playmaker. Dalton has stumbled offensively the past two weeks, and the health of star running back Kelvis Rhodes (ankle) is a key.