Due to reclassification, the 2016 Georgia high school football season will feature both old region rivalries and new opponents that are sure to grab the attention of football fans across the Peach State. There are now seven classifications in the GHSA, each with eight regions, increasing the number of regions to 56 regions, as opposed to last season’s 48. Below are site contributor Markus Golden’s picks for the top 50 region games to watch in Georgia this fall. (This is Part 5, Nos. 10-1) – Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 & Part 4
10. Northside-Warner Robins @ Valdosta 10/07
– Valdosta leads series 7-2
– NS-WR won the last meeting in 2009 16-13
Northside-WR vs. Valdosta is a showcase for two of Georgia’s most historic programs—“War-town” vs “Winnersville.” Valdosta is the nation’s most victorious program with 900 wins and 24 state titles. Valdosta has not been able to live up to the high standards of its predecessors as of late. Former defensive coordinator Alan Rodemaker has stepped in as head coach this season after former head coach Rance Gillespie moved on to Georgia Southern. This will be the first time since the 1950s that Valdosta will play in the second-highest classification. Playing down a class should help players like S Antwon Kincade, TE/WR Jontae Baker, OG Jared Allen, CB Jayce Rodgers and OLB Zakoby McClain lead Valdosta back to its standard of glory. Standing in Valdosta’s way will be Northside-Warner Robins and head coach Kevin Kinsler, who won the state title back in 2014 when current senior QB Tobias Oliver stole the show as a sophomore. OG Caleb Kelly will look to open up holes for Oliver and RB Desean Dinkins to make a few key plays. This will probably be a game for the ages, and special teams and field position may decide this one.
9. Cedar Grove @ Westminster 9/23
– Westminster leads the series 1-0
– Westminster won last year’s meeting 24-8
Cedar Grove and Westminster met in the AAA semifinals last season. The Saints are a hungry bunch after losing to their region foe in the semis. That loss was tough, and as they believe, they played their worst game of their season against Westminster. They are coming in with a chip on their shoulder, a team full of blue chip prospects including OG Netori Johnson, CB/RB Tre Shaw, OT Justin Shaffer and QB Jelani Woods. Grant Walker is another player to watch for; he is a bruising back who transferred in for his senior season. Talent alone won’t beat Westminster, as Cedar Grove must cut back on mental errors and play smart, disciplined and penalty-free ball in order to win this matchup. Rest assures that Gerry Romberg, who has been the head coach at Westminster since 1992 and has compiled 180 wins, will have his team disciplined and ready despite having less speed and skill than Cedar Grove. Cortez Alston looks to add pressure from outside.
8. Irwin County @ Clinch County 9/16
– Irwin County leads the series 20-19-1
– Clinch County won last year’s matchup 24-7
This is an underrated South Georgia rivalry that will feature some home-grown Peach State talent. This game represents the simple times of “Friday Night Lights” in Georgia. These schools met twice last season, each winning a game and splitting the series. Irwin County won the final regular-season match up 28-12, but Clinch County rebounded and got revenge in the state championship game, winning 24-7. Some of the hometown heroes for Irwin County will feature RB Ziaire Andrews, CB Cartavion Benyard and standout Class of 2020 linebacker DJ Lundy (6′, 215). Irwin’s offense is a well-oiled engine and can churn out offense despite not having the same talent as Clinch. Clinch features a four-headed monster backfield in its single wing with Zebulon Johnson, Charles McClelland, Shannon Young and 2019 star Trezman Marshall. On defense, Clinch sports an awesome cornerback duo nicknamed the “JJ Boyz,” Jervonta Johnson and Jerrod Jones, and they are “Dyn-o-mite” (had to sneak in the Good Times reference). This will be a disciplined, hard-hitting matchup with each team running an option variation. Minimizing mistakes and hitting a few big plays should decide this close matchup.
7. Tucker @ Stephenson 11/04
– Series tied 1-1
– Tucker won the last meeting in 2013 31-28
Tucker and Stephenson are out to prove that not only can they load up on college offers, but they can also load up on state titles. Tucker is loaded again with Division I talent, especially now that the Tigers have received transfers from Stephenson’s talented players QB Xavier Shephard, OT Dylan Wonnum, FS Eugene Brown and DE Aaron Sterling. Tucker should improve on last season’s 8-4 record, that is for sure. Head coach Bryan Lamar has aspirations of winning the Region 4-AAAAAA crown and winning the program’s third state title in the last nine years. Also in DeKalb are the Stephenson Jaguars, who are back and loaded once again, but what’s new? The Jaguars are known for losing close games in the state playoffs—for one reason or another. Stephenson is always loaded with hard-hitting Division I talent on defense (CB Shaun Jolly, FS Carlito Gonzalez, CB Myles Hannah) and a stout running game of Jaylin Marson-Knight and Jayvon Hilton on offense. Stephenson picked up a transfer from Stone Mountain in quarterback D’vonne Gibbons, who passed for 2,000 yards last year, and he should help improve the passing attack along with playmaking receivers Khalil Newton and Hassan Littles. This game will come down to who makes the fewest mental errors, as these DeKalb squads are evenly matched. Each team will want to establish the run to set up the big pass plays. Controlling the lines of scrimmage will be key and a deciding factor.
6. Cartersville @ Sandy Creek 10/14
– Cartersville leads the series 3-0
– Cartersville won the last meeting in 2014 35-31
The last time these two powerhouses met on the field was during the 2014 quarterfinals, when Cartersville scored the winning touchdown with 30 seconds left in the game to prevail 35-31. Cartersville has had a great run as of late, losing only four games since its 2011 season when the Purple Hurricanes finished 5-5. Last year, Cartersville finished 15-0 and won the AAAA state title after finally beating Buford. Cartersville will defend its title with returning players QB Trevor Lawrence, new transfer WR Avery Showell, CB Trase Fezzia, RB Trey Creamer, DT Brandon Wade, OLB Sean Holton, OLB Trevor Lowe and DE Torrian Scrutchins. Sandy Creek is no slouch either, having won three state titles in the last seven years. Last year, the Patriots finished 9-3, and they will count on a loaded roster to lead them to another region and state title this season. Sandy Creek’s offense will have a true running-back-by-committee model—they will need two balls to feed these running backs. Marvin Hubbard, Jaelen Greene, Drezyn Parson, Jordan Clark, Cameron Cruver and FB Eric Woods III will be a tough backfield to stop. Their offensive line will be built around guard Savion Simmons and tackle Cole Neely. The Patriots’ passing game will feature (well, assuming head coach Chip Walker can find a third ball to pass around) QB Bryant Walker, WR Javan Hawes, WR Kyle Lindsay, WR Kaleb Slaughter and TE Parker Mallett. Sandy Creek’s defense will showcase the talents of DE Colby Warrior (he gets the award for best name by a defensive player), OLB Herbert Washington Jr., DT Jay Johnson, SS Mychael Jenkins and CB Isaiah Appling. The talent level on both sides is equal, and the winner of this game will probably have the ball last. Both Lawrence and Walker are juniors and have lost some skills players to throw to. How they develop new chemistry with their WRs will be pivotal in the game’s results.
5. Pace Academy @ Cedar Grove 10/14
– 1st meeting between the two schools
This is a battle between a private school from Buckhead and an inner-city school from South DeKalb. What is so great about high school football in Georgia is the fact that this sport brings all of these different demographics together. Cedar Grove finished 11-2-1 last year and made the AAA semifinals. Meanwhile, Pace Academy won the AA title, finishing 13-2. This is a must-see matchup for recruiting gurus and nerds. Pace Academy is loaded with WR Trey Blount (UGA), OT Andrew Thomas (UGA), RB Deon Jackson (Duke), G Jamaree Salyer, QB Gunnor Faulk, RB Realus George, RB Jordan Payne, WR Tony Addison and CB Mark Summerville. Cedar Grove will feature G Netori Johnson (UGA), G Justin Shaffer (UGA), CB Tre Shaw (UNC), QB Jelani Woods (Oklahoma State), CB Korey Hernandez (Arkansas), RB Grant Walker, WR Jaydon Haselwood, T Maurice Campbell, ATH Israel Spivey, G Michael Brooks, CB Jenard Morris, MLB Marvin Spencer and OLB DeAngelo Malone. Cedar Grove’s offensive line is the biggest in the state of Georgia, and they will test Pace’s defensive line. Shaw and Walker are tough backs with good vision to run behind as well. Ultimately, this game will come down to which quarterback, Woods or Faulk, can make plays at critical points of the game.
4. Northside-Warner Robins @ Houston County 10/28
– NS-WR leads series 17-1
– Houston County won last year’s meeting 34-13
This Region 1-AAAAAA battle will showcase what big-time football in Central Georgia is all about. The Northside and Houston County programs possess some of the state’s best coaches and elite college prospects all in one. Houston finished 11-2 last year and could be even more improved this year. Houston should be a favorite to win state. Road games in this isolated region should be tough, but this will be a short trip across town for Houston County, and it won’t be any easier than any other road region game. Northside fans will fill “The Mac” (McConnell-Talbert Stadium) with a very hostile group of fanatics cheering on their War Eagles. Houston County will depend on a passing game led by UGA commit QB Jake Fromm to quiet the crowd. Fromm will toss the ball to preseason All-State WR Amari Colbert and WR Eli Watson. The Houston County defensive linemen are very inexperienced, but come 10/28, they will have played in some big games—look for DE Trey Jones to make an impact. Northside is two years removed from winning it all and is loaded again this season with studs like FS Tae Daley, QB Tobias Oliver, OG Caleb Kelly, SB Trayvon Willis, LB Kam Burnett and Marquaevious Williams. Stopping the Jake Fromm-to-Amari Colbert connection will be a focal point for Northside, and a timely turnover could lead to a momentum swing that is insurmountable.
3. Newton @ Grayson 10/21
– Region 8-AAAAAAA
– 1st meeting between these teams.
Region 8 is located in the sprawling “Crown Jewel” of Gwinnett County, a suburb just northeast of Atlanta. If you follow high school football in Georgia, then you know that the state championship in Class AAAAAAA is going through either of two places: South Georgia or Gwinnett County. Gwinnett and nearby DeKalb feature an abundance of talent and parity. Both counties’ populations are so big that their talent is starting to spill over to nearby counties like Hall, Henry, Rockdale and Newton. Grayson has been the eye of the transfer hurricane that took place this offseason, receiving big transfers in Kurt Taylor, DeAngelo Gibbs, Breon Dixon, Jamyest Williams Tru Thompson and Tony Gray. To add more drama into the game, Taylor was the leading rusher for Newton the last two years. The Rams were already loaded with high-level blue chip prospects like Chase Brice, Will Taylor and Owen Pappoe. Also, Grayson hired Jeff Herron to replace Mickey Conn, who led the Rams to a 13-1 semifinals appearance last year. Newton has garnered some respect under head coach Terrance Banks’ leadership and exciting spread offensive attack. Newton, like Grayson, is loaded with Division I talents, especially at wide receiver with seniors Jeremiah Holloman, Dante Johnson and Justin Marshall. On defense, LB Jaquan Henderson, SS Robert Black, DT Deion Watson, CB Elija Goodwin and LB Deonta Clark Jr will hold things down and try to stop Grayson’s prolific offense. This game will showcase speed and talent all over the field and will probably come down to the last play. A sleeper player to watch is new QB transfer Blake Brock from Social Circle. He didn’t have a ton of talent around last season, but that is a completely different story now at Newton.
2. Lowndes @ Colquitt County 10/28
– Lowndes leads the series 24-16
– Colquitt won last year’s meeting 42-20
Region 1-AAAAAA is a nationally respected region that features four legitimate powers from South Georgia. Each of these schools possesses tremendous tradition and fan support. The players on these teams are playing for the pride of their towns and South Georgia supremacy. Football is religion down in South Georgia. Many wars are fought because of religion, and down in South Georgia, the passion for football can turn the gridiron into a battlefield. Some rivalries are crosstown border wars between neighbors, but this game is neither. Traditionally, both of these schools have been in Valdosta’s shadow and have always been jockeying for position behind those hated ‘Cats. For the last 15 years, that has not been the case, and now that Valdosta has gone down to AAAAAA and is no longer a region foe, the hate between these two fanbases can now take center stage as South Georgia’s premier region rivalry. Lowndes will feature new starting QB Mike Barrett, RB Tyson Harris, RB Jeff Davis, WR Xavier Jenkins Jr., WR Tayvonn Kyle, C Tucker Barnes and OT Danny Colbert on offense. On defense, MLB Tommy Owens and DE Devin Holmes will try to stop Colquitt’s high-powered offense. The question is who will be starting at quarterback for Colquitt County come 10/28. Senior Jay Saunders has been in the system for a while but looked shaky in the season opener against Mill Creek, despite putting up great numbers. Their rushing attack has also taken a hit with the losses of RB Ty Lee, WR Kiel Pollard (who went into the Wildcat late in games) and QB Chase Parrish. Saunders will not be confused with Parrish, who had very respectable wheels, but his ability to be more consistent with his receivers is pivotal for the success of their program. By the time these two meet, Colquitt head coach Rush Propst will have the offense humming, and both QBs will have experience, so this should be a good ole South Georgia slugfest.
1. Pace Academy @ Westminster 10/07
– 1st meeting between the schools
Region 5-AAA consists of the “Buckhead Three” private schools of Lovett, Westminster and Pace Academy, who are all located within three miles of one another. One may ask: How can a region that consists of small schools be this high on the list? The stats never lie, and each team has the resume to back up its status in the state and may even make a case to be in a higher classification after this year. Pace Academy and Westminster both won state titles last year, with Westminster winning the Class AAA final and Pace Academy winning the AA final. This will only be the 23rd time in GHSA history that two reigning state champs have met, and it should be a doozy. Pace Academy has seemingly come out of nowhere the last few years and looks destined to become a powerhouse in Georgia. The Knights plan to contend for the 5-AAA title with a roster that features five blue chip prospects. Experienced signal-caller Gunnor Faulk, OT Andrew Thomas, WR Trey Blount, RB Deon Jackson, OG Jamaree Salyer and RB Realus George are all playmakers capable of swinging the game in Pace’s favor. Westminster is poised to defend its AAA state title with electrifying RB Zay Malcome and WR Nance Hill. On defense, CB Joe Egan, FS Ian Ude and DE Cortez Alston will be returning with a lot of experience and will be relied on to stop Pace’s bevy of FBS talent on offense. Westminster will look to minimize mistakes and stay consistent with its game plan like it did during last year’s amazing playoff run. There will be a lot of pride on the line in this matchup of champions, and it will grab that Atlanta community’s attention for the night. Whichever team can stay focused and control its emotions will come out on top.
Preseason All State Teams