Incrementally, as a team advances, the prep football playoffs should get tougher with each round. But maybe not this much tougher after just one week.
Typically, the Chattanooga-area football teams that have advanced to the TSSAA quarterfinals have done so with relative ease. Over the past five seasons, area teams that win their first two playoff games have done so by an average of 33 points.
However, this year the second-round matchups for area teams are shaping up to be the toughest in recent memory. Ten of the 26 area teams that qualified for the playoffs are still around, but now each faces an uncommonly stout opponent, including five state-ranked foes.
An area team has played for a Tennessee state championship in eight straight seasons and 11 of the past 12, but with the BlueCross Bowl now in our backyard at Finley Stadium, there is no guarantee that streak will continue.
Consider the matchups (all will kick off at 7 p.m. local time Friday) below.
Class 1A — Clay County (10-1) at South Pittsburg (7-2): This season has been a struggle on and off the field for South Pittsburg, beginning with the sudden resignation of first-year head coach Chris Jones just one game into the schedule. The Pirates have spent the rest of the season searching for an identity. They've brought back elements of what had been successful in years past but kept some of the offensive and defensive philosophies Jones implemented. This is no time for an identity crisis against an opponent that has allowed just 9.5 points per game and has scored 30-plus seven times. One of the Bulldogs' biggest strengths is up front, which is also where the Pirates have struggled most.
Class 2A — Trousdale County (9-1) at Meigs County (10-0): This marks the fourth straight year these teams have met in the playoffs, with the previous three meeting decided by a total of eight points. All three of those games were semifinals, with the Tigers winning the past two on their way to state runner-up finishes. Trousdale, a nine-time state champion, has rushed 148 times and passed just nine over its past three games.
Class 2A — Marion County (9-1) at Watertown (8-3): After losing their first two games of the season — to 2020 Class 1A champion Fayetteville and to Upperman, which is ranked in 4A and still alive in that bracket — Watertown's Purple Tigers have won five straight games by an average of 41-7. That includes a 10-point victory at Trousdale in the final week of the regular season to win the region title. Now they face Marion in the second round for a second straight year, having won last year's meeting by 23 points.
Class 4A — Macon County (8-3) at Red Bank (8-3): Macon County's losses were to Trousdale and Upperman, which have a combined record of 19-2, and by six points to Smith County, which is still alive in the 3A bracket. The program has not advanced past the second round since 2003, when it reached the semifinals, but the Tigers rallied from down 20-7 in last week's first round to knock off Central, which beat Red Bank earlier this season. The Lions reached at least the quarterfinals the past four seasons.
Class 5A — Karns (7-4) at Rhea County (9-2): Karn's Beavers, who posted the first playoff win in program history last week, are led by Tennessee Titans Mr. Football semifinalist De'Sean Bishop, who has rushed for 2,708 yards and 27 touchdowns and has scholarship offers from Tennessee, Michigan State and Virginia Tech. Limiting the damage by the junior running back, who has averaged 33 carries per game this season and has more than 5,400 career yards, will be key for Rhea County to advance past the second round for the first time since 2016.
Class 5A — McMinn County (8-3) at Powell (9-2): Powell's Panthers feature defensive lineman Walter Nolan — the nation's top overall prospect per ESPN — who has also played in the offensive backfield as a blocker and ball carrier. The 6-foot-4, 325-pound Nolan, who has narrowed his college choices to Southeastern Conference programs Tennessee, Texas A&M and Florida, has 17 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and 27 quarterback pressures this season. (He's also playing for his fourth prep team in as many seasons.) Powell also has a bona fide star in quarterback Jordyn Potts, a 2020 Mr. Football semifinalist who has thrown for a school-record 2,681 yards and 24 touchdowns this season and also has 400 yards and nine scores on the ground. McMinn County is trying to move past the second round for the first time since 2001.
Class 6A — Farragut (5-6) at Bradley Central (9-2): Four of Farragut's losses were by four or fewer points, and four of the Admirals' wins were by seven or fewer, so they are a battle-tested group. This is also a rematch of a regular-season meeting in which visiting Bradley Central booted a 41-yard field goal as time expired for a three-point region victory in mid-October. The Bears also beat Farragut by three in last year's opening round. Farragut rallied from being down by 21 at halftime last week to win 57-56 in double overtime at Science Hill.
Division II-AA — Silverdale Baptist Academy (9-2) at Lipscomb Academy (9-1): Lipscomb's top-ranked Mustangs, who have outscored opponents by an average of 56-10 this season, are led by a pair of Mr. Football semifinalists: running back Alexander Broome has committed to Boston College, and Luther Richesson is a three-year starter at quarterback. Those two have combined for more than 4,100 total yards and 67 touchdowns, and Richesson had 207 passes this season before throwing his first, and only, interception. Former Super Bowl-winning quarterback Trent Dilfer is Lipscomb's head coach, and he has a staff of 27 — yes, that's not a typo — assistants. The Mustangs' loss was by eight points to nationally-ranked Murfreesboro Oakland, a Class 6A program.
DII-AAA — Father Ryan (7-4) at McCallie (10-0): This is a rematch of a mid-October meeting McCallie won 38-21. But just before halftime of that game, Father Ryan's Fighting Irish were within seven points before the Blue Tornado pulled away. McCallie is the two-time reigning state champion and is coming off a bye, but Father Ryan's losses this season have been by a combined 12 points, and the Irish impressed in the first round last week with a shutout of Memphis University School.
DII-AAA — Baylor (7-4) at Montgomery Bell Academy (7-3): The Big Red have been Baylor's playoff kryptonite for a decade, ending the Red Raiders' season four times in the past nine years. MBA, which is led by Mr. Football semifinalist quarterback Marcel Reed, holds a 12-2 series advantage over the past 10 years and capitalized on three turnovers for a 10-point win earlier this season.