Semifinals: Win tonight and play for a state title

Marietta beats Mill Creek, advances to semifinals

Sixty-four Georgia high school football teams are still playing in December, but they're not celebrating yet — they have to win two more games to reach the finish line.

"At this point, we do not look at the semifinals as an accomplishment,'' said Thomasville coach Zach Grage, whose Class AA team is having its best playoff run since 1993. "We are just trying to focus on the next challenge of the next game, which is going to be a very difficult one.''

Thomasville is at home Friday against Dublin, the team that eliminated the Bulldogs last season.

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Oconee County coach Travis Noland has a similar outlook. His Warriors are playing a home semifinal for the first time in school history against Sandy Creek in AAAA.

"Reaching the semifinals is awesome for our kids to see the fruits of their labor,'' Noland said, "but it is not the ultimate goal.''

With that caution, here's a primer on the top games, teams and players as the Georgia high school football playoffs enter the semifinals.

Teams to beat: Only three of eight No. 1-ranked teams remain — Lowndes (AAAAAAA), Dacula (AAAAAA) and Irwin County (A Public). They are among seven undefeated teams. The others are Harrison (AAAAAAA), Woodward Academy (AAAA), Fellowship Christian (A private) and Holy Innocents' (A Private). Defending champions Blessed Trinity (AAAA), Cedar Grove (AAA), Eagle's Landing Christian (A Private) and Clinch County (A Public) are trending after early season setbacks.

Newcomers: Richmond Hill opened in the 1930s but didn't field a football team until 1986. The Wildcats are in the semifinals for the first time in their history after beating storied Valdosta 16-14 last week. Holy Innocents', which started varsity football in 2006, also is appearing in its first state semifinal.

Droughts broken: Jones County is in the semifinals for the first time since 1961, when it was a Class C school. Jenkins is the first Savannah public school to reach the semifinals since Savannah High 50 years ago. No Savannah public school has made the finals since integration. "We reached the quarterfinals the previous two seasons, and now being in the semifinals really puts Savannah football on the map,'' Jenkins coach Jason Cameron said. Others in the semis for the first time in more than 10 seasons are Thomasville (last appearance 1993), Marietta (1994), Oconee County (1999), Harrison (2000), Parkview (2004) and Dublin (2007)

Regulars: Eagle's Landing Christian (2011-19), Cedar Grove (2015-19) and Clinch County (2015-19) are among 15 schools in GHSA history to reach five consecutive semifinals. Buford has been there 12 of the past 13 seasons. Ten of the 32 semifinal teams are back from last year.

Best matchup: No. 2 Harrison plays at No. 1 Dacula in AAAAAA. Both are undefeated. Both set school records with their 13th victories last week. Neither has won a state title, nor played for one since Harrison was a runner-up in 2000. They are the highest-scoring teams in their classification. Dacula has scored 532 points (40.92 per game), one more than the Hoyas (531, 40.85). Dacula compiled 725 yards of offense (522 rushing, 203 passing) in a 56-21 victory against two-time defending state champion Lee County last week.

Others to watch: Irwin County and Clinch County play a rematch of three recent Class A Public finals, each won by Clinch. Irwin, seeking its first state title since 1975, is favored this time. ... Holy Innocents' beat ELCA 42-41 on Sept. 20. ELCA is 49-0 otherwise against Class A opponents since 2016. They meet again. ... Blessed Trinity, the two-time defending AAAA champion, plays at Woodward Academy, which beat Blessed Trinity 13-10 on Sept. 6. ... Only two Georgia teams are ranked in the MaxPreps' Excellent 25. No. 18 North Gwinnett is at No. 9 Lowndes in a AAAAAAA game.

Notable players: Each of the consensus top-40 senior prospects in the state made the playoffs. Only 10 remain, and four play for Marietta — No. 2 Arik Gilbert, No. 15 B.J. Ojulari, No. 17 Harrison Bailey and No. 35 Rashad Torrence. The others are No. 4 Tank Bigsby of Callaway, No. 7 Myles Hinton of Greater Atlanta Christian, No. 8 Brian Branch of Sandy Creek, No. 22 Josh Downs of North Gwinnett, No. 27 Max Johnson of Oconee County and No. 31 Justin Robinson of ELCA. Gilbert, Bailey, Bigsby and Allen were preseason AJC Super 11 picks.

Next: The 16 winners will advance to the finals Dec. 13-14 at Georgia State.

GHSA Semifinals Schedule

Class AAAAAAA

Marietta at Parkview

North Gwinnett at Lowndes

Class AAAAAA

Allatoona at Richmond Hill

Harrison at Dacula

Class AAAAA

Buford at Jones County

Starr's Mill at Warner Robins (MT)

Class AAAA

Blessed Trinity at Woodward Academy

Sandy Creek at Oconee County

Class AAA

GAC at Cedar Grove (GO)

Jenkins at Crisp County

Class AA

Brooks County at Callaway (C)

Dublin at Thomasville

Class A Private

Wesleyan at Fellowship Christian

ELCA at Holy Innocents' (RW)

Class A Public

Clinch County at Irwin County

Pelham at Marion County

Stadium abbreviations: C - Callaway; GO - Godfrey; MT - McConnell-Talbert; RW - Riverwood High School