By Gabriel Stovall
We’re getting out the grade book and evaluating what we consider the top five most championship ready teams in the four-county area.
This list takes into account several factors, including the team’s talent, the strength of its schedule, its region and the rigor of potential opponents the team will face in the playoffs throughout the rest of their respective class.
This list is NOT — we repeat — NOT an attempt to rank teams against each other. So, for instance, the No. 1 team on this list is not our way of saying that team is better than the No. 2 team. It’s simply stating that, all things considered, this team has the best chance of getting to and winning a state championship in their respective class.
That said, here goes our list…
1. ELCA CHARGERS
Overall Record: 3-3
Region Record: 0-0
GSWA Ranking: Class A No. 7
Remaining Key Games: Landmark Christian
Outlook: Here’s one thing we’ve learned about watching for high school football championship contenders in Georgia. Don’t look too closely at records — at least not until you get to region play. In fact, ELCA’s 2014 squad is the best case study in that. An 0-6 start yielded to a 7-0 finish before meeting the Mount Paran buzz saw. Those seven wins included a perfect 4-0 mark in Region 5-A and a region crown. How does that happen? Well, it happens when four of your first six opponents are some of the top teams in much bigger classifications. This year, ELCA is much more experienced and much improved with a 3-3 mark against a similar meat grinding schedule.
No offense to the likes of Prince Avenue (whom ELCA looked good against in a scrimmage), Aquinas, Lincoln County and Calvary Day, other than perhaps Mount Paran, but we think the Chargers have the best cache of talent in Private School Class A. Coach Jonathan Gess and his seasoned staff knows how to navigate a team through the playoffs once in. Just don’t get bamboozled by the .500 record. ELCA is better than that in a Class A context.
The region race will likely come down to the October 23 ELCA-Landmark matchup.
Midseason Grade: B+
2. STOCKBRIDGE TIGERS
Overall Record: 5-0
Region 4-AAAAA Record: 1-0
GSWA Class AAAAA Ranking: No. 4
Remaining Key Games: At Woodland (October 23)
Outlook: Stockbridge is Stockbridge again. Solid running game with Jalen Houston. Stingy, fast defense. More than serviceable quarterback play. But there’s a different element involved that could make the Tigers an even more dangerous team than the back-to-back 11-3 squads that have inched closer and closer to the Dome. It’s two big receivers in 6-foot-3 Marquez Ezzard and 6-foot-1 Demetrius Sullivan.
They’re big play wideouts, to be sure. Ezzard’s got nine grabs for 188 yards and two touchdowns. Sullivan has eight catches for 124 yards and a score. The entire Stockbridge passing game averages a whopping 19 yards per catch, which means in the rare moments quarterback Malachi Brown puts it in the air, it’s likely to be a big play. That added dimension is probably why MaxPreps has Stockbridge ranked as the No. 7 team, regardless of classification in the state, and the top-ranked Class AAAAA team. We’ve consistently ranked Stockbridge No. 3 this season. The biggest thing that gives us pause for the Tigers’ title contention is the thought that their offense is probably the easiest to stymie if you can succeed to make it one dimensional. Granted, not many teams have been able to do that with great regularity lately.
Midseason Grade: A
3. SANDY CREEK PATRIOTS
Overall Record: 4-1
Region 5-AAAA Record: 0-0
GSWA Class AAAA Ranking: No. 4
Remaining Key Games: At No. 1 Woodward Academy (Oct. 23), vs. Carrollton (Oct. 30)
Outlook: We’ll be more than glad to boost the Creek to that top spot with a win against top-ranked Woodward Academy. Meanwhile, the Patriots have looked impressive since its week two loss to No. 9 Jonesboro. And with each passing week and each passing Jonesboro win, Sandy Creek’s 17-15 loss to the Cardinals looks better and better.
Safety Javon Jackson — who recently committed to Duke — is the leader of a fast and talented defense that has given up only 13 points all year, other than the Jonesboro loss. Korey Banks is helping sophomore quarterback Bryant Walker settle in nicely. And the three-headed tailback monster of Jaelen Green, Drezyn Parson and Marvin Hubbard has proven super effective. The three teams ranked ahead of Sandy Creek — Buford, Cartersville and Woodward Academy are bonafide powerhouses. Class AAAA is loaded with potentially dangerous playoff teams, in and out of the top 10 rankings. Schools like Mary Persons and Marist have the talent to make a run with the right draw. Speaking of draw, it’s possible we could see a Jonesboro-Sandy Creek rematch in the postseason. And schools like Locust Grove or Eagle’s Landing could prove challenging.
All we’re trying to say is, Class AAAA football is stacked. But if Sandy Creek notches the upset at Woodward, the Patriots will prove on the field it is capable of beating anybody.
Midseason Grade: A-
4. JONESBORO CARDINALS:
Overall Record: 5-1
Region 4-AAAA Record: 2-0
GSWA Class AAAA Ranking: No. 9
Remaining Key Games: At Spalding (October 9); vs. Riverdale (October 16)
Outlook: Coming into the season, everybody knew Jonesboro had top shelf talent. Four-star quarterback Zerrick Cooper is a Clemson commit. Four-star DB/WR Jordan Griffin is pledged to Kentucky, and still probably gets overtures from other SEC schools. Offensive lineman Jeff Taylor is on his way to Colorado State and former Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. The Cardinals burst on the contender scene with a shocker at Sandy Creek. But as the season has progressed, coach Tim Floyd’s bunch has done well at proving that game in Tyrone was not an aberration.
There was that one hiccup, though, against an Eagle’s Landing team that has arguably one of the most electrifying talents in Georgia in Antonio Gibson. But Jonesboro has shown it can hang with the best of the best in Class AAAA.
Midseason Grade: B+
5. STARR’S MILL PANTHERS
Overall Record: 5-0
Region 4-AAAAA Record: 2-0
GSWA Class AAAAA Ranking: NONE
Remaining Key Games: Vs. McIntosh (October 9); vs. Mundy’s Mill (October 23); at Northgate (October 30).
Outlook: There were questions about this team despite the 4-0 start, simply because the Panthers hadn’t really been aptly challenged — save for another nail biter win against Dutchtown. So the Drew game, against one of the state’s most high powered offenses, showed us a lot. Starr’s Mill amassed over 500 yards of total offense, including 467 on the ground. And despite Drew’s Quarderman Sloan going off for 221 rushing yards, the Panthers showed some bend-but-don’t-break defensive ability to go along with its offensive prowess. When you talk to longtime Starr’s Mill fans and followers, they’ll tell you this team is eerily similar to the 2010 team that almost won a Class AAA championship.
Starr’s Mill is about a half step away from being a sleeper in this one, just because there is a bit of a lack of team speed. But a solid running game and a good defense is what often wins games in November. If the Panthers can run the table on the rest of the season, including that regular season finale at undefeated Northgate, they could see themselves solidifying their stance as a legitimate championship contender.
Midseason Grade: A+
LOCUST GROVE WILDCATS: The Wildcats could really be seen as a 5a-5b split with Starr’s Mill. They’re almost the same kind of team in many respects. Power running game and a solid defense — the Wildcats have pitched two shutouts this season. Two of the next three games against Eastside, Eagle’s Landing and Henry County are home games (they get the Warhawks on the road). If they get past those three, the Cats will probably end the season a perfect 10-0. With that kind of momentum pushing them into the playoffs, who knows? GRADE: A
SPALDING JAGUARS: Narricus Dryver and Askia Moses — both juniors — are driving this Jaguar machine. Dryver, the quarterback, has 906 total yards of offense. Moses is averaging seven yards a pop with eight rushing touchdowns. More important than the stats, Coach Nick Davis as the Jags believing. Games against Jonesboro and Riverdale over the next three weeks will likely determine Spalding’s region title hopes and a potential undefeated season. GRADE A+
DREW TITANS: Any time you have an offense that’s putting up 50 points per game, you can never count them out. The Titans’ issues are on the defensive side of the ball. At 3-2 with Mundy’s Mill, Northgate and McIntosh left on the schedule, the Titans can still get to the top of the region by season’s end, and unless there’s an implosion, a postseason berth should be imminent. GRADE: B-
EAGLE’S LANDING GOLDEN EAGLES: Football is a team game, but when you have a player like Eagle’s Landing’s Antonio Gibson, anything can happen. Three of the Eagles’ last four games should be very winnable. Locust Grove on October 16 will be a very stiff challenge, and Henry County on October 30 won’t lie down. If Eagle’s Landing can stay healthy, and Gibson continues to find ways to make plays, this Southern Crescent team could make noise come November. GRADE: B