Ridgeland vs. Calhoun
-Thursday, Aug. 16
-5:30 p.m. at Rome's Barron Stadium
Ridgeland produced its best record (11-1) in 2017 since reaching the team reached the state finals in 2012 (13-2) and is returns plenty of talent and leadership to its roster. Both the offense and defense dominated the competition a year ago, posting a 39.4 average margin of victory in the first-ever undefeated regular season in program history. But following an especially promising 63-7 victory to open last year's Class AAAA state playoffs, Ridgeland's 11-game winning streak and magical season slowed to a crawl in a 28-21 loss to Jefferson in the second round. Then, less than two months later, head coach Wesley Tankersley resigned after three years at the helm and accepted the head coaching job at Stephens County, leaving the Panthers hunting for a new head coach.
That coaching search ended on Feb. 21 as Rossville native Cortney Braswell returned to his hometown and was announced the program's eighth head coach. Two of Braswell's siblings and both parents went to Ridgeland High School (Rossville High School and Chattanooga Valley combined to form Ridgeland in 1989), but Braswell attended Baylor School in Tennessee.
Braswell's hands-on approach and "100 percent responsibility, 0 percent excuses" philosophy has quickly caught on with the Panthers. Braswell has instituted other changes as well. This season, Ridgeland will abandon the traditional Wing-T offense it has been using for years, and quarterback Tanner Hill will take on a much bigger offensive role for his senior season.
"We'll go where (Hill) goes this season," said Braswell, "and we've got a special one with No. 1."
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Hill is expected to become more of a game manager this season, and the skill positions will see an increased role in the new system. Fred Norman Jr., who averaged a double-double on the hardwood last season, stands 6-foot-6, 295 pounds and will anchor the offense line as it transitions out of the Wing-T into the modernized offense. Ridgeland is 0-4 all-time against Hal Lamb's Yellow Jackets and lost 37-0 the last time it opened the season against Calhoun (2013).
After collecting its third state title under head coach Hal Lamb (2011, 2014, 2017) last season, Calhoun's loaded roster will attempt to clinch back-to-back titles for the first time in school history this year.
"We feel like we've got a really good nucleus returning for us," said Lamb. "I'd say we probably have 90 percent of our skill guys back, which is always good. We've got to find a few linemen and some linemen need to step up, but we feel good about our kids coming back."
Starting quarterback Gavin Gray decided not to play baseball this year and was able to go through spring practice after missing it in 2017. Star linebacker Davis Allen committed to Clemson this summer to play tight end, but he is also the starting middle linebacker at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds.
"We are very honored to be in the Corky Kell Classic," said Lamb. "There is a lot of tradition with the Corky Kell games. We've tried to get in the last several years and finally the door opened for us this year. And it is the opportunity to play a very good Ridgeland team."
Lamb was an offensive coordinator for Upson-Lee when the Knights appeared in the 1995 (McEachern 9, Upson-Lee 7) and 1996 (Marietta 49, Upson-Lee 7) edition of the Corky Kell Classic. The last time Calhoun lost in a season opener was 2008, but still, Lamb is hoping to see his team start stronger than in years past.
"We've got to come out of the gate a little faster than we have in the past and that's something we're talking about," said Lamb. "Our whole goal here at Calhoun High School is to peak at playoff time, but that doesn't mean that we don't need to play well the first week or two of the season. We have to play better than we have in the past and hopefully we can do that on Aug. 16."
Rome vs. Marietta
-Thursday, Aug. 16
-8:30 p.m. at Rome's Barron Stadium
Last year's Rome team looked more like the product of a football dynasty than a team looking to defend the only state title in its program's history. But whatever the mission might have been, Rome was both successful and utterly unstoppable in achieving it. The Wolves' obliteration of the competition last season engraved an average margin of victory of 41.3 points into a flawless 15-0 record. Head coach John Reid's defense had a pass rush spearheaded by Georgia signee and Adam Anderson that made any passing play seem like a gamble; the group produced 114.5 tackles for loss on the year. Offensively, quarterback Knox Kadum already led the team to a state title as a sophomore and was back making even better decisions and plays as a junior. And fellow juniors Jamious Griffin (accounted for 28 of the team's 68 rushing touchdowns) and Xavier Roberts (caught 11 of the team's 22 touchdown receptions), provided an offensive balance that made Rome the highest scoring team in the entire state.
Winning back-to-back state titles has provided Reid with an abundance of championship experience and the focus this offseason has been on creating more depth around it. Anchoring the offensive line is Aiden Gaines, a rising junior who coach Reid calls the best center in the state. At right tackle is Quantavious "Tic" Leslie, a 6-foot-4, 285-pound rising junior, who, like Gaines, can get to the second level and turn quick screens into explosive track meets.
The Marietta Blue Devils advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time since 1994 last season, and with the majority of starters returning, they are equipped to make another run toward the Class 7A crown this year. Head coach Richard Morgan arrived at the school in 2016 and has seen a quick transformation. Quarterback Harrison Bailey stepped into the starting job as a freshman in Morgan's first year, and threw for 2,812 yards, 21 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Marietta's challenging region, however, left the Blue Devils out of the playoffs at 3-7. It wasn't until last season that all the right pieces began falling into place. Class of 2020 superstar athlete Arik Gilbert (The nation's No. 1 ranked athlete for his class) transferred over from Woodward Academy, where he had played sparingly as a freshman, and he contributed as a tight end and pass rusher to an already productive passing game and defensive line. UGA signee Azeez Ojulari (31 tackles for loss) and his younger brother B.J. Ojulari (19 tackles for loss) were forces up front, combining for 50 of the team's 87 tackles for loss. Receiver Ramel Keyton proved to be one of the state's most productive receivers with his 16 touchdown receptions and may be in store for an even bigger senior season.
Bailey started the first three games of Marietta's 2017 season but missed the next seven after suffering an injury in the fourth quarter of the team's 24-20 win over Pebblebrook (Bailey threw for a career-high 464 yards in the victory). Marietta went 3-4 in its next seven games and entered the postseason as the At Large team with a 6-4 record. Bailey returned in the playoffs, leading Marietta past Westlake 34-7 in the first round, Woodstock 38-28 in the second round, but they'd fell in a 51-41 shootout to eventual state champion North Gwinnett in the quarterfinals. In his six combined starts last season, Bailey finished 126-of-203 passing (62 percent) for 1,824 yards, 20 touchdowns and five interceptions. His five-touchdown performance against North Gwinnett was his only loss.
Morgan is not afraid to let his star quarterback take over games; Bailey attempted more than 40 passes in three of his six starts last season. There's no telling what type of numbers a healthy Bailey and Keyton could put up this season, but one thing is for sure: The Marietta offense wants to air it out and sent a message this June with an undefeated run to the Corky Kell 7-on-7 title. Focus on bulking up the offensive line to protect Bailey has also been a theme of the offseason; he was sacked eight times in the Pebblebrook game last season.