The top three teams in the Class AAA rankings have not changed since Week 5, when Cedar Grove overtook then No. 1 Greater Atlanta Christian after the Spartans' loss to Valor Christian, Colorado on Sept. 5. Since then, the pecking order has been as follows: No. 1 Cedar Grove, No. 2 Peach County and No. 3 GAC, followed by the turbulence of the teams swapping rankings underneath.
From my perspective, these rankings are as accurate as they can get until the three teams get to the playoffs. And truth be told, it's a shame that we won’t be able to see each of these teams play each other in some form or fashion. The playoff brackets have flipped around a bit since last season, but how cool would it be to see each of the three play in a round-robin of sorts?
But in this year's playoffs, we'll have to be content to perhaps see two of the three.
Assuming the three end the regular-season in No. 1 spots and each team moves easily through the brackets like last season, GAC (top-left of bracket) and Peach County (bottom-left of bracket) will meet in the semifinals again this season. And Cedar Grove could meet No. 6 Crisp County in the quarterfinals and No. 4 Calhoun in the semis.
Last season, GAC edged Peach County in Fort Valley, and Cedar Grove, on its way to a state title, demolished Crisp County in Cordele before defeating GAC in the title game.
How dominant have the three teams been this season? In the last few games, Region 7's GAC has beaten Union County (47-7), Fannin County (55-7), East Hall (59-0) and Lumpkin County (61-14) ; Region 4's Peach has beaten Rutland (65-7), Central-Macon (44-0) and Westside-Macon (35-7), and Region 5's Cedar Grove has defeated No. 8 Lovett (41-14), No. 9 Westminster (41-10), Towers (34-0) and Pace Academy (28-7).
Peach County coach Chad Campbell is aware of what's ahead, but he said he spends his time keeping his players and his program focused more on a week-to-week basis.
“To be honest, I haven’t looked at it much,” Campbell said. “I know GAC is absolutely loaded and we played them in the semifinals last year. I know Cedar Grove because we would have faced them, but I’m not sure who up North is any good in Class AAA other than them. Down here, I know Crisp has a good team; Liberty has fallen off a bit. Jenkins hasn’t played too many top-notch teams in its region, so it’s hard to tell who could beat one of the top three.”
Peach has waltzed through region play and probably will clinch the No. 1 seed before the final regular-season game. So Campbell has tried to keep his starters focused while providing some playing time for the young backups.
“It’s not hard balancing the time at all,” Campbell said. “I’ll worry about the young guys getting playing time next year. I have to keep my starters focused and ready to go as we look toward the playoffs, because they're the ones who are going to get it done.”
Campbell said this year's team is better equipped offensively than the team that lost to GAC in last season's semifinals, but he is not sure how the two teams compare on defense.
“I think we have more tools on offense and haven’t turned the ball over since I don’t know when," he said. "Defensively, I am not sure we are better, the same or what.”
Cedar Grove has been dominant in Region 5 and faces similar challenges as Peach. The search for continued focus, discipline and drive through a relatively easy region schedule has been of utter importance. Cedar Grove coach Jimmy Smith’s solution? Goals.
“The big thing for me is that we have team goals and individual goals,” Smith said. “We have offensive goals, defensive goals and we have daily goals in practice. So they're continually trying to meet their goals and compete. And everything else works itself out. Because if you focus on the teams week-to-week that won’t prepare you for the end of the season. We kind of prepare for the ultimate goal of getting to the playoffs.
“We focus on the small things,” he said. “For example, yesterday in practice we went back to the basics. It goes back to tackling, running, catching and blocking. So we drilled on that really hard. We have a long week this week because we are playing on Saturday, so yesterday we just focused on the basics. Because you don’t want to lose that. Those are things that make you win games. All the other stuff, you can work on every other week or so, but the small things you have to do every week. You can always scheme and make adjustments in the game and find a win. But if you can’t tackle, it doesn’t matter what adjustments you make.”
Like Campbell, Smith was hesitant to look ahead. It's a new season. The state championship run was last season.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” he said, when asked to give his evaluation of AAA teams. “I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but I don’t keep up with teams like that. I just focus on week-by-week. I know Peach has a good team, and I know GAC has a good team. I remember watching Peach last year, because I thought we were going to face them.”
Smith then summed what all three coaches at the top are probably stressing to their players.
“That’s why you play the game on Friday nights," he said. "Anyone can lose at any time. Hopefully we can continue to get better, and everyone else will get beat.”
The Calhouns, Lovetts, Westminsters, Crisp Counties and Bremens are listening.