By Craig Sager and Chris Schutter
*Rankings are based off the CSS High School Football Top 25 Poll
Playing out a regular season schedule in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina or Mississippi and earning a spot in the postseason is an accomplishment, but this year’s field of talented state title hopefuls knows it is only a turnpike for the more difficult road ahead.
Booker T. Washington (Fla.) took over the No. 1 spot in the Southeastern top 25 after a 55-0 win over Norcross (Ga.) in the season opener and the Tornadoes have successfully defended No. 1 each of the 12 weeks since. The Tornadoes’ journey to a consecutive state title includes a Class 4A playoff field that consists of defending 3A state-champion University-Ft. Lauderdale. If Booker T. Washington can complete the perfect season, the Tornadoes will more than likely finish the season as the No. 1 team in the southeast.
No Georgia team was able to defend its 2011 state title last season and this time around we could once again see a new lineup taking the podium. Defending Class 6A state champion Norcross found itself in a three-way tie for the region championship of arguably Georgia’s most talented region in 2013 with North Gwinnett and Collins Hill. A coin flip resulted in a No. 1 seed for the Blue Devils and a No. 3 seed for North Gwinnett. The No. 3 Bulldogs were the only team in Georgia to beat the Blue Devils this year and could be the most talented team in the state. Despite just one loss, North Gwinnett will likely be forced to spend the entire postseason on the road if the Bulldogs are going to make it to the Georgia Dome.
Class 4A Sandy Creek is the No. 12 team in the southeast entering the playoffs and will look for its fourth state title in five years and will likely face an undefeated Griffin team in the quarterfinals if it can top Georgia-commit Nick Chubb and Cedartown the first round and the winner of Grady and Chestatee in the second round.
Class 5A Tucker finished its season 10-0, but will likely play the winner of Ware County and Northside-Warner Robins in the quarterfinals and possibly last year’s state champion Gainesville in the semifinals. The Tigers’ road to the state championship is looking incredibly challenging for the No. 15 team in the southeast.
Undefeated Buford’s top competition in Class 3A looks to be Cartersville. In 2012, Buford topped the Hurricanes 21-10 in the quarterfinals, but this year’s Cartersville team has been absolutely dominant with 2012 Class 3A Player of the Year Brooks Barden back under center. Barden has thrown 40 touchdowns this season and only three interceptions and a state title run would wrap up one of the most impressive seasons that the Peach State has seen in recent memory.
The playoff picture in Alabama is a familiar one with teams like No. 5 Hoover and Daphne battling for 6A dominance while No. 22 Spanish Fort tries to establish itself as a legitimate yearly contender for the 5A title. In the past 12 years Hoover, Prattville and Daphne are the only schools to take home Alabama’s 6A football title. Prattville suffered a surprising 30-15 loss to Foley in the first round, which has left Daphne and Hoover as clear favorites. The way the bracket is set up, the only way Hoover and Daphne will play each other is if it is for the state title.
The 5A scene is a little less established, but Spanish Fort is trying to continue its impressive season by running straight through the playoffs to the title. 5A is considerably more open than 6A, as it has not seen a repeat winner since Homewood won back-to-back titles in 2004 and 2005. Since 2003, 5A has seen eight different champions, with Spanish Fort and Homewood being the only two with multiple titles. Spanish Fort’s biggest threat against repeating is Class 5A No. 2 Jackson, which it will have to face in the quarterfinals. Jackson and Spanish Fort have both outscored their opponents this year by more than 350 points.
Out of last season’s eight defending state champions: No. 11 Apopka, St. Thomas Aquinas, No. 2 Miami Central, No. 7 Godby, No. 1 Booker T. Washington, University-Fort Lauderdale, University Christian and Northview, Booker T. Washington is the only unbeaten team entering the playoffs.
Class 8A Apopka opens its postseason with University-Orlando and would get the winner of West Orange-Winter Park. The top contenders standing in the Blue Darters’ path for the 8A title appear to be Plant, No. 23 Deerfield Beach and No. 4 Miramar.
In Class 7A, more than likely St. Thomas Aquinas will meet with Dwyer in the regional finals, which would set up an incredible matchup. Undefeated and No. 13 East Lake (10-0) and Niceville (9-1) add to a deep Class 7A field and have the offense capable of matching any possible opponent.
Miami Central opens with Boynton Beach and the Rockets’ state title defense could come down to a meeting with Naples in the regional finals. (9-1) Columbia-Lake City at St. Augustine (8-2) sets up one of the more intriguing first-round matchups in Class 6A.
Defending Class 5A champion Godby finds itself a safe distance from a bottom heavy bracket. Immokalee hosts Cardinal Gibbons in the first round and Lely visits (9-1) American Heritage-Plantation. Immokalee or American Heritage-Plantation would not face Godby until the state championship game if they can survive the first four rounds.
The big change in Class 4A is the arrival of University School-Ft. Lauderdale. The Suns have been paced by Auburn-commit and quarterback Sean White and could challenge Florida State-commit and quarterback Treon Harris and the Tornadoes. This potential showdown would come in the second round if the teams can get past Glades Central and Gulliver Prep. The rest of the field has to be happy that only one of these teams will survive the second round.
The playoffs are finally here and South Carolina could have a four team battle for the Class 4A titles. At the top of 4A are No. 3 Northwestern, No. 10 Byrnes, Goose Creek and Hillcrest. Unfortunately, with Northwestern and Byrnes in different brackets we won’t see another classic match-up between these two schools. There are some interesting story lines though, as Northwestern and Goose Creek are still unbeaten and the two top seeds in the 4AII bracket.
Byrnes has been dominant over the past decade winning nine of the past 11 state titles. Byrnes’ biggest threat to winning the title again this year is Hillcrest. Both teams only suffered one loss this year, but Hillcrest’s experience in the playoffs could hurt them. Hillcrest has only made the playoffs three times in the past 10 years, and has come away with zero playoff wins.
Goose Creek is coming into its own though, winning the Class 4AII title alongside Byrnes Class 4AI title last year. Goose Creek has made the semifinals for the past four years in a row and it will more than likely face Northwestern for the title, which beat Byrnes earlier this season in a 42-35 overtime thriller.
This weekend will host the second round of the playoffs and Class 6A appears to be one of the most appealing slates of games in the entire southeast. No. 14 Maryville will host Morristown East and the winner will await Science Hill or Sevier County.
Unbeaten No. 20 Oakland hosts Siegel and the winner will face either Blackman or Ravenwood. The quarterfinals matchup between the winners of Oakland-Siegel and Blackman-Ravenwood could send the favorite in Class 6A to the semifinals.
White Station at Whitehaven will be a rematch of a Sept. 9 matchup in which the Tigers topped White Station 27-19. The winner will face either Southwind or Memphis Central. Unbeaten North Overton will be tested by Independence on Friday and Hendersonville’s offensive firepower could challenge the defense of Station Camp in its first-round clash.
In Class 5A, Henry County is the only undefeated team in the field and comes off a 52-8 rout over Kenwood in the opening round. (9-2) Memphis East will visit Henry County for the second round and the winner will meet with either Melrose or Ridgeway in the quarterfinals. No. 6 Hillsboro knocked off No. 3 Beech in the first round and No. 7 Northeast topped No. 2 Lincoln County to open the playoffs. As a result, the No. 6-ranked Burros will get to host the second-round matchup. The winner of Hillsboro-Northeast will travel to either Shelbyville or Gallatin next week.
No. 25 Fulton topped Unicoi County 74-0 last Friday in the first round of the Class 4A state playoffs and have racked up an average 61.0 point margin of victory per game during its dominating 11-0 season. Undefeated Greeneville, however, hosts Elizabethton this week and could earn a trip to Knoxville to take on the Falcons with a win.
In Mississippi, eyes will be on Northwest Rankin at South Panola and Grenada at Starkville in the first round. South Panola claimed the Class 6A state title last season and Starkville took home the Class 5A hardware. If the two teams can avoid slipping up on Friday, a defending champion showdown awaits in the second round.
The Class 6A matchups are huge across the board and the winner of Madison Central-DeSoto Central awaits the victor of Tupelo-Warren Central. Brandon is the No. 21 team in the southeast and the 10-1 Bulldogs will get the winner of Gulfport-Meridian if they can top Harrison Central. D’Iberville at Petal and Hattiesburg at Oak Grove are interesting first-round matchups that will create a huge second-round matchup when the two winners square off next week. Brandon is the only team to top Oak Grove this season and the two teams could get a rematch in the state semifinals.
No. 19 Oxford is 11-0 entering the Class 5A state playoffs and will start its journey to a state championship with Vicksburg. The winner of Pearl-West Point would face the Chargers if they get past Vicksburg, and a quarterfinals matchup with 12-0 Callaway could be Oxford’s biggest obstacle. Wayne County and Picayune could square off in the second round if the War Eagles can top Gautier and Picayune can outlast West Jones.