With a turbulent regular season in the rearview mirror, prep football teams across Tennessee that qualified for the playoffs can focus squarely on the road ahead.
With COVID-19 issues still lurking, as well as the typical postseason drama that comes with each round's games, the 26 Chattanooga-area teams that qualified for the playoffs are hoping to avoid any bumps in the road that could bring their season to an abrupt end.
After one of the more bizarre regular seasons for any team in the state, including a wild two-day span in which it went from likely finishing third in its region and having to travel in the first round to winning the league and securing homefield advantage, Red Bank will open the postseason against Grundy County. That is the only first-round matchup between two area teams.
The Lions have not lost on the field this season but did have a region forfeit loss to Brainerd due to a coronavirus quarantine earlier this season. That frustrating situation had Red Bank in line to finish third in Region 3-3A behind Brainerd and third-ranked Loudon.
However their odd two-day journey to the region championship began on Thursday when Brainerd was upset by McMinn Central, which had not beaten a 3A opponent in four years. That set the stage for a winner-take-all meeting at Loudon. The Red Bank defense dominated in a 13-0 decision — which also snapped the Redskins nine-game region win streak — and now the Lions are set up to host at least the first two rounds of the playoffs.
"We have an incredibly resilient group of kids who value the chance to play football and went out and took care of business," Lions coach Chris Brown said. "There's something to be said for securing the one seed and proving we're the best team in the region.
"This (win) allows us to play in front of our community, which is a really big deal."
Friday’s playoffs first-round matchups for Chattanooga-area teams
* Division II-AAA has not yet set its bracket and does not begin until November 13.
Jo Byrns (4-6) at South Pittsburg (9-1)
Clay County (6-4) at Copper Basin (8-1)
Sale Creek (4-6) at Monterey (7-2)
Whitwell (1-7) at Gordonsville (7-2)
Cosby (2-8) at Meigs County (10-0)
Cascade (5-5) at Bledsoe County (10-0)
Westmoreland (5-5) at Marion County (6-2)
Tyner (4-4) at Trousdale County (8-2)
Grundy County (2-7) at Red Bank (6-1)
Brainerd (6-4) at Smith County (4-6)
Signal Mountain (4-4) at Upperman (7-3)
Sullivan South (8-2) at East Hamilton (7-3)
Howard (6-3) at Greeneville (7-3)
East Ridge (6-4) at Elizabethton (10-0)
Fulton (4-4) at Rhea County (9-1)
Powell (8-2) at Walker Valley (7-2)
Soddy-Daisy (3-7) at Oak Ridge (7-3)
Bearden (4-5) at McMinn County (9-1)
Bradley Central (7-3) at Farragut (7-3)
Cleveland (5-5) at Dobyns-Bennett (8-2)
Boyd Buchanan (3-4) at CAK (10-0)
Silverdale Baptist (5-5) at CPA (7-1)
Chattanooga Christian (4-3) at Knox Grace (8-2)
No Chattanooga-area public school has gotten past the semifinal round in any classification above 2A since Red Bank won the 5A title in 2000. Since then Red Bank (3A), Ooltewah (6A) and Rhea County (5A) have all reached the semifinals, with the Lions being the most recent to advance that far in 2017. Five area teams — Marion County (2014-16), Signal Mountain (2010), South Pittsburg (2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013), Tyner (2017) and Whitwell (2018) — have played for championships in 1A or 2A but none in the mid- or large-sized classifications.
Once again the area has a few favorites in the small school divisions with second-ranked Meigs County and fifth-ranked Bledsoe County in 2A as well as 1A's top-ranked South Pittsburg. Meigs County, which was runner-up last season, finished off its third unbeaten regular season in four years, while Bledsoe just completed the first undefeated regular season in program history. South Pittsburg, whose lone loss this season was at Meigs County, has reached at least the quarterfinals 10 of the last 11 years and the semifinals three of the past four seasons.
Ten of the Chattanooga area's playoff qualifiers will host first-round games, although only two of those (East Hamilton and Red Bank) are Hamilton County teams. Also, there is a familiar feel to this week's first-round games as 11 are rematches from last year's playoffs, including Sullivan South at East Hamilton.
"We're still learning how to compete and win big games so it's good to have a rematch and learn from what we did wrong last year," said East Hamilton coach Grant Reynolds, whose team fell by four last year. "Honestly, I never thought the season would get this far, so I feel very happy and blessed that our kids have gotten to play this many games and have the chance to continue playing."
Not all of the brackets have been completed as some teams in Division II-AAA still have a regular-season game to be played this week which means playoff matchups for that classification won't be released until next weekend. The D-II AAA playoffs, which have two fewer rounds than the public-school brackets, were not originally scheduled to begin until Nov. 13.
Of the brackets that have been set for the state's other eight classifications, a total of 28 teams qualified despite having losing records.
The state championship games for all nine classifications will be played December 3-5 at Tennessee Tech University.
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.