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What to watch: opening round

Friday marks the beginning of the Class AA playoffs. If you haven't yet seen them, my predictions for how the tournament will unfold can be read here. Below is a handful of what are supposed to be AA's closest opening round games according to Maxwell's projections.

We'll start with the Fitzgerald Purple Hurricane (4-6) at the Toombs County Bulldogs (9-1). For me, this is the best game of the opening round. Maxwell projects the Bulldogs to win by 8 and I have them advancing as well. And while I also pegged them as a darkhorse on Tuesday, I'd like to also give the Purple Hurricane that distinction. As the Bulldogs seek their first postseason win since 2008 and try to advance past the first round for just the second time since 2000, the Purple Hurricane have relevant holdovers from last year's state runner-up squad, including quarterback James Graham, a Virginia Tech commitment.

Graham is one of the better athletes in AA and he missed a month of the season due to injury, with the Purple Hurricane's record a direct reflection of that — they went 1-3 without him. With Graham, they're 3-3, but the three losses are to No. 2 Hapeville Charter, No. 4 Thomasville and No. 6 Brooks County. They were competitive against Hapeville Charter (25-22) and Thomasville (38-28) so, despite their ugly record, it wouldn't be a shock to see Fitzgerald pull out the win.

However, the Bulldogs are having their best season in almost a decade and have played consistently all year. Their only loss was to top-ranked Benedictine and it was by a respectable margin — the Cadets won 28-14, which was their closest game all season. Even with Graham healthy, the Bulldogs have the depth and are playing at a high enough level to win and possibly make some noise in the next round.

Though irrelevant to Friday's matchup, the Bulldogs own the all-time series against Fitzgerald at 2-0, winning in 1998 and 1999 when both were in Region 2-AA.

(For more on this matchup, see ToombsNow's preview.)

In Louisville, the Southwest-Macon Patriots (5-4) play at the No. 10 Jefferson County Warriors (9-1). I expect the Warriors to win easily, but Maxwell's projections have them winning by less than two touchdowns — they're a 12-point favorite — which is the closest projected margin of any ranked team for the opening round. Given the projection, it's at least worth briefly exploring why the game is projected to be that close.

We'll start with the Patriots. They needed a mini-playoff game between Washington County and Bleckley County to even qualify for the playoffs, earning the No. 3 seed while Bleckley County was sent packing. On the season, they have a quality 26-12 win over a Westside-Macon team that finished 7-3 in AAA and a quality 26-20 loss to Manchester, which is 10-0 and ranked No. 1 in A-public. They also have a 40-0 shutout over AAA's Central-Macon. In Region 3 play, they lost to No. 7 Dodge County 38-14, Dublin 22-14 and Washington County 34-14. More than likely, it's how the Patriots played Westside and Manchester that made the biggest impact on their opening round game's projections.

The Warriors opened on a nine-game win streak, averaging more than 50 points a game before No. 3 Screven County put up a wall in the regular season finale, holding them to a season-low points total in a 44-20 loss. I don't see the Patriots giving the Warriors' offense the same type of problems Screven County did. I think the Warriors win by more than the projection.

If the Patriots pull off the upset, however, it would be their first playoff win in program history, which dates back to 1970. The Patriots and Warriors have never played.

No AA opening round matchup is projected to be closer than the Coosa Eagles (7-3) at Elbert County Blue Devils (8-2). The Blue Devils are only a four-point favorite. I have Blue Devils winning, mainly because their only two losses were to ranked opponents — No. 5 Rabun County and A-public's No. 10 Washington-Wilkes. Their wins were mostly blowouts, with just one coming by single digits: AAA's Hart County, 37-29. Granted, the Blue Devils played in a Region 8 that was weak outside of Rabun County, but Coosa's Region 7 wasn't much better.

The Eagles finished behind Rockmart and Pepperell in 7-AA and lost to both. Non-region wins include Coahulla Creek, which finished 0-10, and a North Murray team that finished 7-3 in AAA. While the Eagles have been trending upward since finishing 1-9 in 2015, there's not enough on their resume this season to conclude they'll beat Elbert County on the road.

The Blue Devils are just two seasons removed from a trip to the quarterfinals. This season, they're one of my dark horses to make noise in Round 2. The Eagles and Blue Devils have never played.

(For more on this game, see Tommy Romanach's preview for the Rome News-Tribune.

There's one other AA game projected to be decided by less than a touchdown, and that's the B.E.S.T. Academy Eagles (5-5) as a 5-point favorite at home against the Temple Tigers (6-4). I have the Eagles winning, mainly because they're at home and it would be nice to see them notch their first-ever playoff victory. But they come from a region that, outside of the No. 2 Hapeville Charter Hornets, was dreadful. The Eagles lost to the Hornets 49-0 but still finished second in 6-AA because they beat third-place Douglass 22-19 and fourth-place Therrell 34-14, which gives you a sense for the region's drop-off after Hapeville Charter.

The Tigers finished third in 5-AA behind No. 9 Callaway, which beat them 48-21, and No. 8 Heard County, which beat them 35-14. While it's technically a toss-up between the Tigers and Eagles, to me this is just a game to decide who gets blown out in the second round by Rabun County. However, for the Tigers, it would be their first playoff win since 2005 and just the second in the program's 28-year history.

Temple and B.E.S.T. have never played each other.

(For more on this game, see Nick Simon's preview for the Times-Georgian.)

More AA playoff game previews:

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