Playoff predictions: Round 1

Published 6:44 am Monday, November 1, 2021

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By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor

Week 11 record: 9-3

Overall record: 102-20

A historic week is upon us. For the first time in Shelby County’s history, nine local football teams have made it to the playoffs.

That’s a new record high in the first round after seven made the playoffs last year.

With that comes no shortage of exciting first-round games to kick off the playoffs, which will make it tough to match last year’s five teams in the second round, which was the most since 1997.

But after a grueling regular season, it is now time for a new season, and none of these teams will go down without a fight.

Pelham vs. McGill-Toolen (Game of the Week)

On paper, you have two similar teams in this matchup going into the playoffs, but McGill-Toolen plays in one of the most difficult 6A regions in the state. The Yellow Jackets’ two region losses came to No. 5 Spanish Fort by 21 and No. 7 Saraland by seven. The other loss for the Toros? A 76-51 loss to Class 5A No. 1 Pike Road. One thing going for the Panthers, however, is their defensive play this season. It’s a team that has been playing some of its best football on that side of the ball late in the season, which is a benefit going up against an offense that has scored 14 or less in back-to-back losses to end the regular season.

For Pelham to win, however, the offense will have to play its best game of the season against a defense that has posted three shutouts, but is also susceptible to giving up points with the right game plan. For Will Lankford, Gabe Gamble, Darius Copeland, Jake Fox and others, including a solid offensive line, it all comes down to this. They have to leave it all on the field and not leave any page unturned. Despite the Panthers being the two seed and having home-field advantage, this group will have to prove they can be the one to send Pelham to the second round for the first time since 2006. Pelham 24, McGill-Toolen 31

Thompson vs. Florence

Assuming Conner Harrell is back and healthy for the postseason, the Thompson Warriors will be a two seed playing basically as a second one seed. That is a big if though. Even if the senior quarterback returns this week, the Warriors may be more methodical with how they draw up a game plan to take some pressure off Harrell having to throw the football. Whether that is running more, using the wildcat more or quick screens, expect the offense to draw up new schemes to keep Florence off balance. And, even if it is Zach Sims at quarterback, this team is plenty talented enough. When he entered against Hoover, the Warriors had their chances on some beautiful balls down field, but drops were costly, which seemed to impact the confidence of everyone on the offensive side the rest of the way, aside from the run game. With a bye week to get ready, the key for the Warriors during this time is to make sure the team is confident and comfortable with whoever is at quarterback and not go away from trying to make big plays with some of the speediest athletes in the state.

The Falcons closed out region play by scoring 42 or more in their last four games and giving up 14 or less in three of the final four. They also came within three points of No. 5 James Clemens in a 45-42 loss. It’s a team scoring 39.9 points per game and giving up 22.7 points per game. That said, against 6A Gardendale in the regular-season finale, Florence put up just 14 points. Thompson’s offense is still scoring 46.6 points per game, and even if they aren’t 100 percent, the defense is only giving up five points per game and is as hungry as ever after the 24 points given up to Hoover. With a bye week going into this game, that defense should be nasty again. And even if the offense isn’t 100 percent, there aren’t many coaches better than Mark Freeman to draw up a successful game plan regardless. Thompson 35, Florence 10

Oak Mountain at James Clemens (Thursday) 

For the second year in a row, the Oak Mountain Eagles will hope to pull off a huge upset in the opening round of the playoffs. Last year, it was a 41-28 win against No. 9 Austin. This year, it will be slightly more difficult against unbeaten No. 5 James Clemens. The Jets finished the regular season 10-0 scoring 40.2 points per game and giving up 19.3. That said, they won four games by seven points or less this season and narrowly escaped a two-win Huntsville team that Spain Park handled with ease earlier this season—a team Oak Mountain beat handily.

Not only are the Eagles playing their best football defensively in years, giving up just 20.2 points per game, but the Eagles will hope to have quarterback Evan Smith back for the matchup, which is a huge boost most weeks, but even more so with him hungry after almost losing his season. Oak Mountain has lost some confidence late in the season with three losses in a row, but the Eagles can flip a switch just like that with it now being a new season. It’s tough to pick the unbeaten team to lose, but this game could go either way. Oak Mountain 21, James Clemens 28

Calera at Spanish Fort

What’s the reward for Calera’s best season since joining the 6A classification in 2018? A matchup with No. 5 Spanish Fort for the Eagles’ first-ever Class 6A playoff game. The Toros enter the postseason 9-1 with that lone loss coming 28-16 to No. 7 Saraland. Last year, Spanish Fort put together a run to the Class 6A State Championship game where the Toros lost 23-13 to Pinson Valley, so they also enter this season hungry for redemption. Scoring 35 points per game and giving up 14.7, it is a talented team that has given up 28 or less in every game and 17 or less in seven games.

The Eagles, however, have come so far since the start of the season. Calera won’t roll over in this game with a defense that has drastically improved and an offense that has scored 30 points per game yet still hasn’t reached its full potential. If the Eagles can find that success with the speed they possess at the receiver position as well as two powerful running backs, they’ll be able to surprise a lot of people in this tough road test. Plus, I think they’ll play loose and energetic rather than nervous. If that happens, Calera will hang around, but the Toros are one of the state’s best teams with championship aspirations. Calera 21, Spanish Fort 35

Chelsea at Oxford

It’s not the same dominant Oxford team as in year’s past that Chelsea will face in the opening round of the playoffs, but that doesn’t mean the Yellow Jackets aren’t still a threat for a deep postseason run. After starting 3-3, they won three in a row to close out region play and claim the region championship with a 5-1 region record ahead of their regular-season finale against Central-Phenix City, who they lost to 53-7. The Jackets are giving up 29.2 points per game and are scoring just 20.9. Chelsea couldn’t ask for a better chance to pull off the upset in the 4 vs. 1 matchup. It won’t come easy, but the Hornets also finished the season strong, winning four in a row following a 0-4 start just to earn a spot in the playoffs. They did lose 31-21 against Calera last week, but again showed a strong half of football. They’ll have to find a way to put together four complete quarters this week for a chance.

The defense has also started playing some of its best football in the second half of the season, which should be a good sign going up against an offense not lighting up the scoreboard. That said, Chelsea’s offense has to find its rhythm again. The Hornets scored 31 or more in a five-game stretch, and have to return to that form to have a chance in this one. Hayden Garrison has to have confidence in making every throw, while Cooper Griffin and Thomas Simpson need to make plays downfield or in the middle of the field. They’ll also need to establish any sort of run game to not become too predictable. The Hornets also have to remember they lost four of their six losses by 13 or less and had chances against several top-10 Class 6A teams. If they play like that, they can win. That, however, will have to be proven on the field. Chelsea 21, Oxford 31 

Helena vs. Baldwin County

It all comes down to this for the Helena Huskies. After a great trek through the regular season, they feel like they’re one of the best teams in Class 6A, but with the season on the line the rest of the way and no easy opponents, they’ll have to be ready to make the same big plays they made during the regular season. That is even more evident after a 31-0 loss to Class 5A No. 5 UMS-Wright to end the regular season. The Huskies are battle tested in tight games with seven wins by 13 or less, but that shows that one mistake or bad stretch could end their season. Scoring 31.3 points per game and giving up 20, the Huskies are a scary opponent for any team, but finding balance offensively will be key.

They’re a team that wants to establish a physical run game and wear down opponents, which can payoff, but there has to be a threat of the pass in the playoffs for a deep run. Baldwin County will offer a tough test with the Tigers’ three losses coming in tight games against three of the best 6A teams in the state. The Tigers have won four in a row since their last loss to McGill-Toolen, giving up eight points or less in that stretch, while the offense has scored 35 or more. The defense is giving up 13.8 points per game, while the offense has also hit its best stretch and is averaging 13.8 points per game. If Helena isn’t careful, this could very well end in the Huskies’ postseason ending early. But against the best defenses they have faced, Baldwin County has scored 24 or less. Expect the Huskies to come out ready to prove themselves on both sides of the ball after a lackluster performance to end the regular season. Helena 27, Baldwin County 20

Briarwood vs. Fort Payne

After losing in the second round of the playoffs last year, the Briarwood Lions now have a taste of what needs to happen for them to put together a strong run this postseason. They’ll look to kick start a deep run against Fort Payne and former Chelsea head coach Chris Elmore, who knows the Briarwood program well. But the Lions are starting to find their groove defensively, which should be the ultimate key in this game. They have given up 22 or less in all but one game this season and have started to play their best football on that side of the ball late in the season.

They’ll hope that trend continues against a Fort Payne offense that has struggled against its toughest defensive opponents and has scored more than 28 just four times. The Wildcats, however, have won six of their last seven games, giving up 16 or less in four of those six. And if it comes down to the kicking game, Fort Payne has one of the country’s best kickers in Alex McPherson, who nailed a 61-yarder last week and just missed one from 70-pus. Briarwood will have to find more consistency offensively, struggling on that side of the ball late in the season, but Luke Reebals is getting back to full strength, while Ethan Anderson has become a top target for highly-touted quarterback Christopher Vizzina. The defense should be enough to win it, but that group of offensive players needs to take a big step forward to show the Lions can win a state championship. Briarwood 31, Fort Payne 21

Shelby County vs. Faith Academy

It will be a special moment for the Shelby County Wildcats when they hit the field against Faith Academy this week. Their first home playoff game in more than 11 years, they’ll be plenty motivated for this test. But as a two seed, there aren’t many more difficult three seeds to face in Class 5A. Faith Academy has lost all four of its games by eight points or less, including three of them by three points or less. They’re averaging 30 points per game and giving up just 13.4 points per game.

Shelby County is also playing well defensively, giving up 22 or less in their last five in a row and in seven of nine this season, but the Wildcats are giving up nine more points per game than the Rams, while the offense is scoring eight less points per game. I do think this can end up being a tightly-contested game with Shelby County’s defense giving up 21 or less in the final five games, but Faith has shown more consistency on the offensive side, which should allow the Rams to make the late plays to win. Shelby County 14, Faith Academy 27

Montevallo at Jackson

Last season, the Montevallo Bulldogs took down a good St. James team in the opening round of the playoffs to pull off a first-round upset in overtime. This year, the Bulldogs have shown they have taken strides in year two under head coach Blake Boren and are even better than last year’s crew on both sides of the football. But, they’ll also get a tougher opponent in the opening round of the playoffs this year with a matchup against No. 9 Jackson. With just two losses, one to the No. 2 team in the state by a score of 39-13, the Aggies are the two seed out of a difficult region and talented enough to win this game.

But Montevallo has only lost two games as well, one to No. 3 American Christian 34-10 and one to Bibb County 35-13. Since the two teams lost back-to-back games in weeks three and four, both have been on a tear and dominated their opponents, including the Bulldogs taking down state power and Class 1A No. 3 Maplesville 20-7 to end the regular season. Jackson, however, had a bye week to rest up going into the playoffs. That and home-field advantage for the Aggies is the only difference I can see in this game. Montevallo 20, Jackson 28