By Ryan Rohde
Florida -- First Round
Miami Northwestern Bulls (10-2, No. 2 - District 13) vs. Columbus Explorers (9-0, No. 1 - District 14): This is the most intriguing matchup of the first round. Due to district standings and locality, two of Florida’s best meet in the first round. Northwestern’s quest for three straight championships begins with a giant hurdle against No. 1 Columbus. The Bulls offense has big-play ability and a steady ground game. Running backs Daquan Hargrett and Tyresse Jones have combined for over 1,000 yards and 24 touchdowns. Columbus swept through the regular season in dominant fashion. The defense allows only seven points per game on average, including three shutouts. The Columbus offense is just as formidable. RB Jakhari Gore averages eight yards per carry and QB Garrett Colao has thrown for 1,455 yards and 18 touchdowns. The winner of this game has a good shot at making it to the title game.
Apopka Blue Darters (8-2, No. 2 - District 4) vs. Timber Creek Wolves (8-2, No. 1 - District 3): Despite not winning District 4, Apopka is one of the most talented teams in 6A. Star QB Jeremy Gallon has been plagued by injuries this year, but backup Caleb Nelson has filled in nicely. Timber Creek, meanwhile, heads into the playoffs on a seven game winning streak and is playing its best football of the season. RB Rahfee Maclee has been carrying the offensive load this season with 1,500 yards and 16 touchdowns. Timber Creek can prove to 6A that they are a dangerous squad with a win on Friday.
Lake Brantley Patriots (7-3, No. 2 - District 2) vs. Spruce Creek Hawks (8-3, No. 1 - District 1): Just two seasons ago, Lake Brantley was playing in the 6A title game and making history by becoming the first Seminole County team to accomplish that feat. The Patriots now can make history by being the first to win a title, and the journey starts Friday night. RB Antonio Miles is one of the most underrated backs in the state. He has 1,500 yards on the ground to go with 15 touchdowns. Miles has rushed for over 4,500 yards in his outstanding career. Spruce Creek has posted some big wins throughout the year, including a 21-point victory over Seminole. Look for the Hawks' strong defense to focus in on Miles and take Lake Brantley out of their comfort zone.
Niceville Eagles (8-1, No. 2 - District 1) vs. Fletcher Senators (10-0, No. 1 - District 2): Two of class 5A’s best meet in the first round. Fletcher is one of six undefeated teams in 5A thanks to an offense that is one of the most potent in the state. WR Lamar Scruggs and RB’s Deschion Baskerville and Parris Lee -- all Div. I recruits -- lead an offense that averages 37 points per game. Niceville's only loss came to No. 1 Pine Forest by three points and has since posted a nice win over Dr. Phillips. QB Rick Whitten is a dual threat and RB Roy Finch has given the eagles a steady ground game. WR Kody Williams also enables Niceville to stretch the field. Look for this one to be a high scoring affair.
Largo Packers (9-1, No. 1 - District 10) vs. Countryside Cougars (7-3, No. 2 - District 9): Largo looks to take one more step in the playoffs after reaching the semifinals and eventually bowing out to state champion St. Thomas Aquinas last year. Ryan Eppes has played well at QB and Marcel Durham has been strong on the ground. Countryside failed to make the playoffs last year and look to make some noise. QB Jimbo Chmelik has 1,400 yards through the air and 16 touchdowns and RB Dawrence Roberts has amassed over 1,000 on the ground. Country looks to make a statement to the rest of 5A.
Wharton Wildcats (8-2, No. 1 - District 5) vs. Alonso Ravens (7-3, No. 2 - District 6): Wharton will play on Friday with heavy hearts. Defensive coordinator Earl Goodman passed away on Nov. 8 of an apparent heart attack. "Basically, we're just trying not to think about it, because the more we think about it, the sadder we will get. We try to move on with our play, try to carry his legacy on throughout the game," said senior safety Jairus Jones, a four-year starter under Goodman in a recent TampaBay.com article. This extra motivation could springboard Wharton to a nice playoff run.
Lincoln Trojans (7-3, No. 1 - District 3) vs. Lee Generals (7-3, No. 2 - District 4): Lincoln is never short on talent and this year is no different. They have a very fast defense led by DB’s DeAndre Byrd and Jawanza Starling, two Div. I recruits. Lee also features a very stout defense. The unit is anchored by its linebacking core. Tavarius Stringfield, Troy Bacon and Will Holloman head a group that has held seven opponents to 13 points or less. Both of these defenses will step up on Friday night in what shouuld be a low-scoring battle.
Eastside Rams (9-1, No. 1 - District 6) vs. Nease Panthers (6-3, No. 2 - District 5): Nease fell in last season's state title game to powerhouse Armwood. The Panthers' strong defense has held six opponents to 14 points or less with defensive linemen John Gallagher and Frank Souza anchoring the group. Nease has been streaky this season, opening with three straight wins and then suffering three straight midseason losses before finishing on a three-game winning streak. Eastside has been impressive all season with its only loss coming to Godby in week 2. The offense has been very potent and averages 35 points per game. Eastside can make a strong run in these playoffs and it starts Friday against a traditional Florida power.
Plant Panthers (9-1, No. 1 - District 10) vs. Lakewood Spartans (7-3, No. 2 - District 9): Plant’s star QB Aaron Murray has been out with a broken leg since mid-October, but that hasn't stopped the Panthers from racking up wins. Backup quarterback Phillip Ely has been outstanding since the loss of Murray, throwing for 1,181 yards and 13 touchdowns. The Panthers defense is second to none, holding opponents to fewer than 10 points per game, including shutdown performances against the likes of Armwood and Chamberlain. Lakewood needs to bring their “A” game and rely on QB Jacquez Jenkins. Jenkins is a talented QB who can beat you with his arm or his legs. Plant looks to continue its success and prove that they are not just a one-man team.
Dwyer Panthers (9-1, No. 1 - District 14) vs. Okeechobee Brahmans (8-2, No. 2 - District 13): Dwyer fell just short of upsetting champion Booker T. Washington in last season’s playoffs, losing by one. The Panthers have been strong all year and have only lost to powerhouse Glades Central on Oct. 4. RB Donald Russell has been the catalyst of the Panthers offense while Bradley Wallace has been steady at QB. Okeechobee lost to Dwyer in first round last season and looks to exact revenge. RB Lonnie Pryor has been one of the best backs in South Florida this season. Revenge factor might be what the Brahmans need to topple Dwyer on Friday night.
Lake Wales Highlanders (10-1, No. 2 - District 10) vs. Cocoa Tigers (9-1, No. 1 - District 9): Two of Class 3A's most talented teams square off in the first round. Lake Wales came four points shy of a perfect regular season after losing to Ridge on Oct. 24, 35-31. RB James Norwood has been strong all season while his team's stingy defense is allowing just 14 points per game. Cocoa looks to make another step in the playoffs after losing in the semifinals. The squad's offense is explosive and has posted 49 points or more four times this season. The eyes of class 3A will be on this game because it could go down to the wire.
Godby Cougars (8-2, No. 1 - District 2) vs. Pensacola Tigers (8-2, No. 2 - District 1): This is a rematch of last season's first round game where Godby won 28-21. The Cougars have a potent passing game with QB A.J. Graham at the helm. Graham has put up 2,500 yards in the air with Willie Downs and Kessey Graham providing the big play threat on the outside. Pensacola has revenge on its mind. The Tigers are on a roll and have won five straight to close out the season. Both sides have plenty of talent; this is going to be another tight one.
Jackson Tigers (10-0, No. 1 - District 3) vs. Menendez Falcons (8-2, No. 2 - District 4): Defense will be the storyline in this game. Jackson swept through the regular season after failing to make the playoffs last year. The defense has been second to none. Led by DB Derrick Owens, this unit has not allowed more than eight points in any game while posting two shutouts. Menendez is making its first postseason appearance in school history. RB Dustin Bryant has been a workhorse and the Falcons hope to make a statement in their first playoff game.
Camden County Wildcats (11-0, No. 1 - Region 3) vs. Northside-Warner Robins Eagles (10-1, No. 2 - Region 1): You can’t ask for a better second round game than this one. This will be the first time since '90 that two top five teams will meet in the second round of the AAAAA playoffs. Camden County was a semifinalist one year ago and has proved they are ready for the next step. The Wildcats have won their games by an average score of 49-7, including 60-plus point performances in four games along with four shutouts. Northside has dominated AAAA for the past few seasons and this is their crack at a AAAAA title. LB Eric Fields is one of the state's best and Abry Jones anchors a defensive line that has allowed only 20 points once this season, and that was to top-ranked Lowndes. Spectators in attendance will be in for a real treat because this one has the appearance of a college game more than high school.
Grayson Rams (11-0, No. 1 - Region 8) vs. East Paulding Raiders (9-2, No. 3 - Region 5): East Paulding comes in after an emotional triple overtime win over Milton, 43-41. East Paulding was a AAAA squad last season and have already made a big splash in AAAAA with last week's win. Jahron Brown has been a staple in the backfield while his team's defense has been solid. Grayson has been very impressive all season as well. The defense has allowed double digits points against just three opponents, including last week's 31-7 win against Collins Hill. The offense has been equally strong with Tyler Horne and Ean Pemberton providing an elite QB-RB tandem.
Peachtree Ridge Lions (9-2, No. 1 - Region 7) vs. Harrison Hoyas (9-2, No. 2 - Region 5): Both teams come in off of impressive playoff wins last weekend. Peachtree Ridge has won nine straight since opening the season with back-to-back losses, including a 13-3 defeat against Harrison in week one. The defense has been a mainstay this season providing three shutouts. Harrison looks to take the next step after getting bounced out in this round last year. RB Robbie Godhigh has given the Hoyas a consistent running game and the defense stepped up huge last week. This game has the makings of a hard fought battle to the end.
North Gwinnet Bulldogs (9-2, No. 2 - Region 7) vs. Lassiter Trojans (9-2, No. 4 - Region 6): Lassiter upset region 5 champ Etowah in round one and will look for another one this week. The Trojans were 3-7 last season and have made the first step to building a powerful program with the win last week. North Gwinnett lost in the state championship last season and is back for more. The Bulldogs' only losses came to Byrnes (SC) and Peachtree Ridge. The defense has been a force and has held opponents under double digits in all but five games. This game has some nice underlying stories with the new playoff team trying to take down the mainstay that's hungry for the title.
Mountain Brook Spartans (11-1) vs. Hoover Bucs (11-1): A rematch of one of the best games of the regular season. Hoover won the first battle 28-21, on Oct. 10th. Hoover beat an upstart Minor squad last week to reach the quarterfinals. The defense imposed its force on Minor, holding star RB Desmond Ivory to just 69 yards on 20 carries. Also backup QB Dylan Breeding stepped in nicely for starter Simon Probst after he suffered a big hit and was sidelined during the third quarter. For the second year in a row, Mountain Brook ended Tuscaloosa County’s bid at a perfect season. QB Judd Golsan and WR J.D. Marsh returned last week and inspired the entire Spartan team. They expect more of the same as the Spartans try to avenge their only loss of the season.
Auburn Tigers (11-0) vs. Prattville Lions (10-1): Prattville seeks its second straight 6A title and has been in championship form all season. The Lions defense might be the best in the state and have six shutouts to their credit. La’angelo Albright and Alex Page lead the great linebacking core and safety Zach Brownell heads a very fast secondary. Although they haven't been as dominant as Prattville, Auburn has won all its games nonetheless. This Tiger team is an explosive group and has a big opportunity to take down the state's No. 1 squad.
South Panola Tigers (12-0, No. 1 - Region 1) vs. Northwest Rankin Cougars (10-2, No. 2 - Region 2): Northwest Rankin has been underestimated all season. The squad opened some eyes last week by defeating a highly talented Tupelo team. The Cougars won a thrilling 19-16 overtime game in the mud and now face the Tigers and their infamous streak. South Panola has been smashing teams all year, including a 20-8 win last weekend. Tigers RB Nicholas Parker has emerged as the top runner in the state while the defense has shut down opposing offenses. NW Rankin is going to need a little more of last week's magic to upset South Panola.
Madison Central Jaguars (11-1, No. 1 - Region 2) vs. Olive Branch Conquistadors (9-2, No. 2 - Region 1): Both teams are considered as two of the most talented in the state. Olive Branch beat a solid Clinton team last weak. QB Clint Wilson has been steady at QB and his team's defense is playing well at the right time. Madison Central features an explosive offense and can score at a moments notice. All the while, the team;s defense has been sturdy when needed. The winner of this game gets a possible matchup against South Panola in the semifinals.
Catch Ryan's regional breakdowns every Thursday right here at FootballPower. You can reach him at email@example.com.