The key: Grace Christian was kept out of the 2011 playoffs by TSSAA decree and enters tonight's game with a 20-1 record the past two seasons. Conversely, a narrow loss to Class 4A Maplewood likely cost the Buccaneers a top seed and actually relegated them to a No. 3 seed, thus their back-to-back road trips. While Boyd-Buchanan was beating Rockwood 27-19 in its first playoff game, the Rams were enjoying a bye as Quadrant 1's top-seeded team. In Week 2 when Boyd-Buchanan went on the road to knock off second-seeded Oneida 21-6, Grace was at home pulling out a 28-20 win over Silverdale Baptist. Bucs coach Grant Reynolds didn't want to compare scores -- his team beating Silverdale 32-7 early in the year and the Rams topping the Seahawks by eight. "Silverdale improved a whole lot from our game with them, which was pretty early in the season, and Grace was without one of their top players," he said. That top player was running back Will McKamey, a Naval Academy commitment and son of Rams coach Randy McKamey. He suffered a severe concussion against South Pittsburg in Week 10 and spent several days at Erlanger Hospital before being released. His parents have said he will not play anymore this year. Other common opponents are Rockwood, which Grace defeated 12-7, and South Pittsburg, which the Rams beat 47-27 and which Boyd-Buchanan downed 35-21. Boyd-Buchanan has three shutout wins but none since it beat Unaka 53-0 in Week 7, the same week Grace got its only shutout (35-0 over Tellico Plains). The teams are comparable in size, although the Bucs might have better overall team speed. Road games don't bother Reynolds, who likes getting his players for close to six hours before kickoff and getting them away from parents, girlfriends and other distractions so "they can hone in on what they have to do."
The key players: The Rams, a pure wing-T team with athletic running backs, will miss McKamey, but quarterback Devin Smith (6-4, 180) has hurt opponents throwing and running. For Boyd-Buchanan, it's quarterback Jim Cardwell and primary running back Rance Harden with Cameron Pope emerging as a running and receiving threat. The Bucs offense will be determined by the defense without too much of a hassle. If Grace, which employs a 50-look with a big noseguard, stacks the box, they easily shelve their running game and throw. They did that last week after throwing just two passes the week before. A big key for the Bucs is the play of two-way senior tackle Malik Brewer (6-4, 320).
The next step: A semifinal against the winner between Friendship Christian and Marion County. The Bucs would travel to the Friendship-Marion winner; Grace would visit Friendship but host Marion.
The key: Marion's Warriors have found ways to win all season long yet will face their steepest challenge yet tonight at Lebanon. The Commanders have had an extremely balanced offense all season and are riding an eight-game winning streak featuring their shotgun spread attack. Marion will have to rely on its ability to not get behind the chains, using its power rushing attack to keep the ball away from the Commanders offense.
The key players: There hasn't been a lot of style yet plenty of substance to the Warriors offense, led by running back Blake Zeman and his brother, quarterback Matt. FCS has been led by quarterback A.J. Long, who was all-state in Pennsylvania before moving to Lebanon before the end of last school year. He spearheads the Commanders, averaging 23.6 yards per completion, and has thrown 28 touchdowns to only one interception. Steven Hollis is the team's leading rusher with 776 yards and 12 scores as FCS has averaged 190 yards passing and 188 rushing. Linebacker Tanner Martin is a Mr. Football finalist.
The next step: The winner faces the winner of the Knoxville Grace/Boyd-Buchanan matchup. Frienship would host regardless, while Marion would host Boyd-Buchanan or travel to Grace.
The key: Coach Ted Gatewood has maintained East Hamilton's offensive philosophy since pre-jamboree: "We do what we do and that's not going to change." What the Hurricanes do is run the football behind a big, athletic and fairly quick offensive line. What has changed, though, is that they're not doing it with senior Logan Jackson. He's done for the season with a torn ACL. Both East Hamilton and the host Bobcats have solid defenses, and it was defense that ignited Giles' victory last week over Notre Dame. They intercepted and returned a first-play-from-scrimmage Notre Dame pass, and then on the Irish's third offensive play forced and recovered a fumble inside the Irish 40. The first of two punt blocks led to a 33-7 halftime advantage. The Bobcats have had three shutouts and the closest they came to defeat was a 24-14 win over Fairview. That was the only time the Bobcats scored fewer than 35 points; they are averaging right at 44 per game. The 14 points they gave up to Fairview is a season high, and only three of their opponents have managed 10 or more points. East Hamilton allowed 14 points last week in its 21-point win over Page, and that was six more than its season average. Since a 31-28 second-week loss to neighborhood 5A rival Ooltewah, the Hurricanes have allowed an average of 5.6 points per game with three shutouts.
The key players: Giles quarterback Al Cobb (6-foot-3, 185) improved on very impressive senior-season numbers with a 16-of-20, four-TD night against Notre Dame last week. His primary targets are Kenton Baker, a 5-8, 160-pound wideout who tends to lose himself when the Bobcats flood a zone; Lucas Harrison; Tyrell Reed; and running back Nieco Walker. Baker has 70 catches, Harrison 29, Walker 24 and Reed 16. Walker made a pest of himself against Notre Dame, scoring three times with two on runs. With Jackson out of the picture, East Hamilton turned to Lamond Greer and Matt Milita and they rushed for a combined 294 yards. While Greer, a senior, is more of a balance between hammer and speed, Milita normally reaches top speed before he gets to the line of scrimmage and often flies through an intersection before the defense can converge.
The next step: A semifinal appearance vs. the winner of the Knoxville Fulton-Livingston Academy game. Livingston would host; Fulton would travel.
The key: Whether it's been the forcing of more turnovers, tackling better or being in better positions, the players on Ooltewah's defense have had a better second half of the season, and the result is a seven-game winning streak. The Owls will be tested by a balanced offense. Columbia has scored at least 25 points in each of its wins except for a 19-17 victory over Tullahoma. The Lions played the Wildcats again last week and beat them 47-24. The Owls' power-running game also has emerged since midseason to complement the defense. Ooltewah coach Shannon Williams said picking up first downs and controlling the clock are essential, but scoring touchdowns in the red zone is a must this week.
The key players: Ooltewah's Desmond Pittman has come on strong in the second half of the season and has 1,374 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns on 221 carries. Brody Binder has thrown for 1,265 yards and 14 TDs. Mike Williams leads in catches with 34 for 648 yards and nine touchdowns. Twins Alex and Stuart Doss and Michael Ruebusch each has more than 60 tackles. Injured freshman and leading tackler Jeremiah Jackson (90.5) practiced Thursday and is probable. Columbia relies heavily on the play of quarterback Matt Markham. Through 11 games he had thrown 136 times, completing 82 for 1,333 yards and 12 touchdowns. He's also one of three Lions with more than 270 yards rushing. Chris Martin led that category through 11 games with 91 carries for 502 yards and six TDs. Markham's top receiver is Dre Hall with 39 catches for 684 yards.
The next step: The winner will play the winner between Tennessee High and Powell.
The key: Both teams rely on strong ground games and regularly eat up the clock, so, according to Ridgeland coach Mark Mariakis, making the most of each possession is crucial since they likely will be limited. The other key for his Panthers is to not get lulled to sleep defensively, because the Bulldogs will take their shots deep. In fact, five of their last 10 passes have resulted in touchdowns.
The key players: Washington quarterback Javonte Martin, who is 6-3, 215 pounds and runs a 4.5 40-yard dash, is the team's main threat and often gets the snap from shotgun and takes off. Slotback Tavaris Kinsey is one of several speedy playmakers. Ridgeland's powerful run game begins with senior running back Darrell Bridges, who is approaching 1,500 yards, but when the Panthers need a big play, they get the ball in slotback Vonn Bell's hands, either by quick pass or quick handoff. Gannon Hampton, Grady Matthews and Dustin Davis are the core of a strong, physical line.
The next step: The winner will face the winner of the Chestatee/LaGrange game. Ridgeland, as the Region 7-AAAA champion, would host, while BTW would travel.
The key: While the obvious key for a Dalton win is to limit big plays from the athletic Panthers, the Catamounts' real key is to, as they did a week ago, put together four consistent quarters of football. Can Dalton, inconsistent for much of the season, build off last week's strong performance in a 42-0 win over Pickens County?
The key players: The Dalton ground game has found its legs in recent games behind the blocking of bruising linemen B.J. Rowland and Jake Roberts, who have opened huge holes for explosive tailback Kelvis Rhodes and the fullback tandem of Robert Hardaway and Eder Mora. Those two also are the Catamounts' leading tacklers and will be in charge of making sure the defense doesn't break against the powerful running of one of the state's best backs, Montavious Taylor. The strength of the Panthers lies up front defensively with speed rusher Roc-M Nesbitt and powerful tackles Xavier Davis (6-3, 270) and Delando Crooks (6-5, 270).
The next step: The winner will play the winner of the Sandy Creek/Eastside game. Top-ranked Sandy Creek would host, but Eastside would travel if it pulls off the upset.
The key: Gordon Central coach Chad Fisher believes his Warriors match up well with the Bulldogs, but he's concerned about how his team will handle the moment. The Bulldogs are a veteran playoff team with plenty of tradition, while this is just Gordon Central's second playoff appearance in seven years. The Warriors were blitzed 63-6 on the road in last year's first round, so Fisher's concern is understandable.
The key players: Gordon Central averaged nearly 40 points per game this year behind the stellar play of senior quarterback M.J. Reynolds, who has accounted for 41 touchdowns and nearly 3,000 total yards of offense. The Warriors are most dangerous with the quick passing game and receivers Tyshaun Clemmons, Chandler Curtis and Bryan Brookshire. Linemen Larons Winston and D.J. Prather give the team a physical presence on defense, something the Warriors will need against the Bulldogs' wing-T offense. Marquis Benton, whom Fisher called the best linebacker he's seen this year, also is Morgan County's top running back, while defensive backs Michael Gray and Melvin Davis will be tested by Reynolds and company.
The next step: The winner will play the winner of the North Hall/Cedar Grove game. Region 7-AAA winner North Hall would host, while Cedar Grove would travel.
The key: The visiting Tigers, according to coach Robert Akins, have to match the Titans' physical play early. The teams are very similar in their makeup, each relying on a playmaking quarterback and each preferring to run the ball. Akins believes his team has a good chance of pulling off the upset of the top-10 Titans if the Tigers show they can be physical and make North Oconee go away from the run.
The key players: Quarterback Slade Dale makes Ringgold go and has nearly 3,000 yards of total offense. Sophomore running back Kile Sholl is dangerous running or receiving, while receiver Christian Plott is adept at getting behind defenses for big plays. Linebacker Dakota Baer is the leading tackler. The North Oconee multiple-set offense is led by quarterback Nick Colvin, a 6-2, 190-pounder who is a very physical runner. Running back Kawon Bryant is the Titans' big-play threat, while offensive tackle William Carter (6-2, 280) is usually the pile mover up front.
The next step: The winner plays the winner of the Buford/Woodward Academy game next week. Ringgold would travel, while North Oconee, as a region champion, would host.
The key: Calhoun coach Hal Lamb's biggest goal this week, he admits, is to keep his team from reading too much into the Wolves' record. The 2008 Class A champions and 2010 semifinalists play in a region with just five teams and had to play several games against larger schools. The teams have very similar styles of the spread offense, so the defenses will be used to seeing it.
The key players: Wesleyan's attack is led by quarterback Will Anderson, whose favorite target is receiver Jahmai Jones. Jaye Rochelle is another dangerous wideout, while running back Mike Smith is a between-the-tackles runner who also is a threat in the passing game. Kicker/linebacker Rhett Delk may be Wesleyan's top overall player. The Calhoun offense is averaging better than 30 points in the first halves of games. Senior quarterback Taylor Lamb is nearing 3,000 yards and is comfortable with a receiving corps that includes Josh Barnes and Tydus Curtis. Running back Alex Urbano has had his best games late in the season.
The next step: The winner plays the winner of the Washington-Wilkes/Bowdon game. Region 7-AA champion Calhoun would host; Wesleyan would travel if it wins.
The key: How long North Jackson can play keep-away. Oneonta is averaging a 54-9 margin in its last nine games and has considerable big-play potential, averaging well over 200 rushing and 200 passing yards per game. Oneonta has the upper hand in athletic ability and experience, so the Chiefs need to maintain possession and maybe even create a few turnovers.
The key players: Oneonta has no shortage of playmakers, beginning with lanky, speedy receivers/defensive backs Jalen Johnson (6-3, 195) and Alvin Scott (6-1, 180), tight end Garrison Latta, junior running back Keaton Jones and quarterback Cody O'Toole, a senior first-year starter who is rewriting school passing records. Casey Hunt (6-3, 266) is another of the 18 starters back from last year's state runners-up for the Redskins, who have scored fewer than 42 points only twice this season. North Jackson has been plagued by injuries and suspensions late in the season but is as close to 100 percent healthy as it has been in the last two weeks. Quarterback Kitt Grider, a 2,000-yard passer, was injured two weeks ago but will try to return to action tonight and has a bona fide flyer to throw to in Daqwan Lowrance. Devonta Hutchins, who had been a backup most of the season, has become a weapon at running back, rushing for four TDs last week, while Austin Blevins, the best overall athlete on both sides of the ball, will try to play through an injury. Chiefs kicker Cesar Diaz continues to be a weapon with kickoffs that go into the end zone, forcing opponents to start from their own 20, as well as the ability to kick field goals from 50 yards and in.
The next step: The winner will play the winner of St. Clair County vs. J.O. Johnson.