Georgia has reached the halfway point of its high school football season, and the postseason is starting to take shape in some regions.
As usual, there have been surprises and disappointments, breakthroughs and breakdowns. Here's a closer look at each of the northwest Georgia regions with just over a month left in the regular season:
The good: The subregion's top teams to this point clearly have been Ridgeland and Northwest Whitfield, each 4-1 and set to meet next week. Ridgeland's loss was to No. 1-ranked Class AA team Calhoun, and since then the Panthers' physical ground game has been nearly unstoppable, most recently in a resounding 48-21 win against Dalton.
"That was the most balanced game we've had, and it was a good time for it," Ridgeland coach Mark Mariakis said. "Our focus is to win our half of the region and then aim high from there. We've still got some work to do defensively, especially against spread offenses."
One of those spread teams is Northwest, which has had a great start from quarterback Silas Ledford. Only a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown against Cass has kept the Bruins from being undefeated.
The bad: Heritage and LaFayette had the most starters to replace from a year ago, but no one expected the two teams to meet tonight at 0-5 each.
The unknown: Dalton (2-3), a preseason region title contender, will learn its fate tonight when the Catamounts host Northwest. Will the team that beat Gilmer County and led Calhoun at halftime show up, or will it be the one that fell behind 41-0 against Ridgeland? If it loses, Dalton would have to win its final four games to get in the playoffs.
The good: Cartersville (6-0, 3-0) has been strong as expected, but few saw Gordon Central also reaching this point undefeated. The Warriors sport a dangerous offense, but the defense that has three shutouts and is allowing six points a game has been the real key.
"We're playing real well defensively, but we have to have more consistency on offense," Gordon Central coach Chad Fisher said. "We can't afford to let down in this region, which is, I would say, more competitive than most people believed it would be."
The two unbeatens meet next week in Cartersville.
The bad: Of the four 1-2 teams, Ringgold has been the biggest disappointment. The Tigers' losses have been painful, down-to-the wire defeats, but with games still to go against North Murray, Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe and Cartersville, they still control their own destiny.
The unknown: LFO has lost two straight games since a 4-0 start, but those were to Gordon Central and Cartersville. The Warriors do own a road win at Adairsville (4-2, 2-1), so the region's third seed in the playoffs could be theirs with wins against North Murray and Ringgold.
The good: Calhoun (5-0, 2-0) clearly stands above the rest. Model and Pepperell are also each 2-0 in league play, but neither has an impressive nonregion win. Even Calhoun, as coach Hal Lamb repeated recently, is not the complete team it was last year and still has much work to do defensively.
The bad: The bottom five teams have combined to win two games. The good news for those teams, which include Dade County and Chattooga, is that the region has to send four teams to the playoffs and nothing has been settled beyond the Yellow Jackets.
The unknown: Who will step up and claim those playoff spots? It may not be pretty, but it should make for some late-season drama. Dade, if it can defeat Chattooga and Model in its last two games, can be one of those playoff teams.
The good: Unless a team wins its region in Class A, it won't be guaranteed a playoff spot, thanks to the postseason split between public and private schools. In Region 6, a 12-team league that includes only three public schools, getting that automatic bid is crucial. So far, Gordon Lee (5-1, 2-0) is in position to do that, but back-to-back games with Darlington (3-2, 2-0) and Trion (4-1, 0-1) will determine the Trojans' fate.
The bad: The formula for getting into the playoffs is both confusing and frustrating. Trion, for example, could go 8-2 with losses to Darlington and Gordon Lee and not make the playoffs if its power rating isn't high enough.
"We're happy so far, but there's so much we don't know," Gordon Lee coach Charlie Wiggins said. "For example, if a team wins its region despite having a horrible power rating, it could put you out even if you have one of the top 15 ratings. It's tough that you can't just decide it on the field."
The unknown: As Wiggins pointed out, every week something has been wrong with the ratings. The GHSA can't afford the embarrassment of leaving a team out because of clerical error. "Nothing," Wiggins pointed out, "has been settled yet, and won't be until week 10."