Week 8 Predictions: Crucial region matchups on deck as playoff push continues
Published 8:38 am Thursday, October 12, 2023
By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor
As region play resumed last week, we saw teams snap back into form with the end of the season in sight.
Thompson, Spain Park, Montevallo and Vincent all got back in the win column thanks to strong performances in important matchups, while Helena, Evangel and Cornerstone are all still undefeated after the Huskies and Lightning faced their biggest tests of the season.
Speaking of going undefeated, I earned my first perfect week of picks last week despite Week 7 being one of the busiest slates of the year.
There’s no resting on past success for either this sports reporter or any of the area teams, as key matchups abound all across the county in the thick of the playoff hunt. For multiple teams, they will be fighting to stay alive, while others can improve their seeding with a win here.
Let’s go classification-by-classification through all 10 matchups in Week 8, starting with our Game of the Week.
Last Week’s Record: 12-0
Spain Park (3-3) vs. Chelsea (2-5) (Game of the Week)
It’s difficult to understate how big of a win Spain Park’s victory on the road over Tuscaloosa County was last week. The Jags’ first region win does put them back on track for a run at the fourth and final playoff spot in Class 7A, Region 3, but the dominant fashion that they earned the win in showed me that this offense could finally be back to the form we saw in non-region play against Briarwood and Calera. A lot of that comes from having Derick and Dakarai Shanks back healthy, as well as Reggie Jackson, who had a big game on Friday. That was always the hope from coach Tim Vakakes going into their Week 6 bye week, and now the Jags are firing on all cylinders going into a crucial game against Chelsea, which also has one win in region play. The Hornets are mathematically still alive for the final playoff spot, but they will have to be strong from here on out, and that means beating 280 rival Spain Park on the road this week. Chelsea is likely feeling encouraged by the offense posting three touchdowns against a difficult Vestavia Hills team that held even Thompson down for most of the game earlier in the season. The Hornets will obviously be hoping for a healthy Emerson Russell in the backfield as he is the biggest playmaker on the offense, but if Carter Dotson’s connection with Nick Sulinski and Jaxon Shuttlesworth continues to strengthen this week, then they have a better chance at a win. However, they will have to overcome a stout Spain Park pass rush and secondary, and I believe that despite all of the praise and hype that Spain Park’s offense is receiving this week, it is their defense that will prove to be the x-factor. Look for the Jags to come out and establish the tempo early on both sides of the ball and take control off of a big play or two to win. Spain Park 35, Chelsea 17.
Pelham (4-2) at Benjamin Russell (4-2) (Thursday)
You’d be hard pressed to find a more important game to the playoff picture than Pelham’s trip to Alex City to take on Ben Russell in the state’s Thursday night game of the week. Ben Russell has been a dark horse in some people’s eyes because of their quietly impressive offensive performances. Those people would be right, as the Wildcats’ 35.8 points per game have established them as one of the most dangerous units in the region. However, the defense has been an issue for the Wildcats as they allowed 41 points to Homewood in a loss and gave winless 7A side Smiths Station their best scoring night of the season in a 34-23 win for Ben Russell. In addition, Ben Russell still has to face Briarwood and Helena in addition to Pelham, which means that while their 4-2 record has been impressive, they have yet to face some of their biggest challenges. On paper, that could point to a shootout between the teams, but Pelham’s defense could have something to say about that as the unit has held teams to an average of 17.2 points per game, including allowing a touchdown or less in both of their last two games against Chelsea and Calera. Those wins could give the defense its belief and momentum back after a pair of challenging weeks against Briarwood and Helena, and that could make the difference this week. Both teams are entering off of runaway wins, so the momentum should be fairly even. This game is a true toss-up because of the all-around strength of both teams, but for the reasons listed above, I’m giving the slight edge to Pelham on the road. Pelham 28, Benjamin Russell 21.
Oak Mountain (1-6) vs. Thompson (5-1)
In a matchup of two teams moving in the opposite direction, Thompson has its confidence flowing after a wire-to-wire win over one of the top defenses in the state in Hewitt-Trussville to remain unbeaten in region play, and Oak Mountain is still winless in the region after falling prey to a rebounding Hoover team. The Eagles need a win badly here, but it will be a tough task against a Warriors team that rarely overlooks opponents and can perform on the road in a hostile environment. Trent Seaborn has looked as strong as ever in the pocket with successful downfield connections with Kolby Hearn, Colben Landrew and Deuce Oliver, and the defense proved last week especially that one of their strengths is getting off of the field early even against quality offenses. Oak Mountain needs to overcome both to win, but I expect Thompson to assert control early in the matchup and continue down its road to the playoffs. Thompson 48, Oak Mountain 7.
Calera (0-6) vs. Briarwood (3-3)
Despite the loss to Helena, Briarwood proved last week that it can hold its own with the best teams in the region. That is a great sign as the Lions continue their quest for a return to the playoffs. They’ll hit the road once again, but instead of facing a team with no losses, they will face a team with no wins in Calera. It has been a struggle for Calera to generate any momentum on offense or defense before the opposition opens a wide gap, and Briarwood will hope to get off to a fast start against a defense allowing 44.2 points per game. With Briarwood’s offense reaching a new gear with every passing week, Josh Thompson should be able to orchestrate a well-balanced attack with run plays from him and Cooper Higgins to take time off of the clock as the big passing options open up to Sawyer Click, Caleb Keller and Ben McNulty. That should be the path to success again this week while the stout Briarwood defense controls the opposite side of the ball and takes the Lions back over .500. Briarwood 35, Calera 6.
Shelby County (1-5) vs. Selma (1-6)
The Shelby County Wildcats still have a solid chance of reaching the Class 5A playoffs even though they sit at 1-5. Demopolis and Holtville have firmly entrenched themselves in the top two seeds of Class 5A, Region 3, but the bottom four is a logjam with Shelby County, Selma, Marbury and Jemison all sitting at one win or less in region play. Everyone has a chance, and that means the Wildcats have to take advantage in their final two region games. Selma made the playoff picture even more interesting with its first region win last week, but up until that point, the Saints had scored eight points or fewer in each of their previous six games. The blueprint to Shelby County’s success this season has been standout defensive performances that lead to the offense taking advantage on a big drive or two to score points. That bodes well for a Wildcats win here, which would give them momentum going into a showdown with 1-6 Marbury next week that could potentially be a play-in game for the playoffs. Expect the Wildcats to show up hungry and motivated this week with the stakes firmly in mind. Shelby County 14, Selma 0.
Montevallo (5-1) at Bibb County (6-1)
With a 5-1 start to the season, Montevallo has positioned itself well to earn one of the four playoff spots in its region, but the Bulldogs’ biggest tests of the season will come in two of the next three weeks with Bibb County and American Christian still left on the slate. No. 9 Bibb County is this week, and the current region leaders have looked very strong this season with their only loss coming to top-ranked Andalusia. Bibb County’s offense has been electric so far as it has scored 31.1 points per game, and the defense has kept opponents at bay. Montevallo has ridden its defense to success in both of the last two games against Jemison and Sipsey Valley, and last week’s performance was especially impressive given Sipsey Valley’s success on offense up to that point. The Bulldogs will need an even greater defensive effort this week against Bibb County if they want a chance to win, and they must keep up on the offensive side as well. If the Bulldogs are to win, it will come in a close game in the second half where the offense comes up with a clutch drive late much like the last two weeks. The only difference between those games and this week’s matchup: Bibb County is much more talented than Jemison and Sipsey Valley. I think that talent gap will be what makes the difference here, although I have faith that this year’s game will be closer than in years past as Montevallo looks to make a statement here. Bibb County 28, Montevallo 17.
Vincent (5-2) vs. Woodland (2-4)
Vincent is back in the win column and not a moment too soon with the final three region games on the horizon, including likely playoff teams Isabella and Thorsby. Before those two games, however, the Jackets will face the 1-3 Woodland Bobcats, which have the second-worst offense in the region with just 51 points scored this season. That is a great sign for the Vincent defense, especially after losing linebacker Ray Albright for the season last week. The defense will look to establish control early and enable the offense to make big scoring plays to demoralize the Bobcats. Much like in weeks past, Vincent rode its running game to success last week, but especially if Vincent gets ahead early, expect coach Lucas Weatherford to use this game to experiment and stay fresh ahead of the final two games of the season. While Vincent knows its identity by now, Weatherford and the Jackets know the benefit of having a healthy team firing on all cylinders going into the playoffs, so that could guide the personnel decisions come Friday. Expect a big Vincent win ahead of the stretch run. Vincent 34, Woodland 12.
Evangel (9-0) vs. Southern (1-4)
While Evangel’s dominance has become commonplace over the past several years, it doesn’t make coach Tim Smith and the Lightning’s accomplishments any less incredible. The Lightning are a win away from their second-straight undefeated regular season after already wrapping up home field advantage in the ACSC playoffs. This team hasn’t lost a football game since the 2021 ACSC playoffs and is riding the longest active win streak in the state, 8-man or 11-man, at 26 games. It hasn’t been easy either, as evidenced by last week’s hard-fought, come-from-behind win on the road over national No. 2 Franklin Christian. We are witnessing something truly special. As for this week’s game, Evangel should win handily against a struggling Southern team, and another fast start for the Lightning would allow them to get a head start on their bye week next week ahead of the state playoffs. Expect just that from an Evangel side that is firing on all cylinders and has more than earned its undefeated record. Evangel 62, Southern 8.
Cornerstone (7-0) vs. Meadowview (0-7)
Cornerstone got back to its dominant ways last week with a comfortable win over Trinity, which could be just what the Chargers needed after having to fight for their last three wins. With the playoffs looming in just a few weeks, games like last week against Trinity and this week against similarly struggling Meadowview are crucial confidence builders. This week could also allow Cornerstone to test new strategies in-game and become a more well-rounded team ahead of the postseason. We saw that last week with some big pass plays from Zeke Adams to his receiving corps, so honing their quarterback’s arm could be in the cards again this week. Cornerstone should cruise to victory here as Meadowview’s struggles on both ends are likely too great to overcome the undefeated Chargers, which would put Cornerstone one step closer to a historic undefeated season. Cornerstone 55, Meadowview 6.
Coosa Valley (0-7) at Abbeville Christian (1-6)
For Coosa Valley, the story of the season so far has been little signs of progress in oftentimes big defeats. The Rebels’ latest flash of success came on a 70-yard pass play from Konner Steele to Hunter Willis late in the game against Crenshaw last week. While those flashes are obviously encouraging in the long-term development of the Rebels, the offense and defense have yet to come together and turn in a complete performance. That could change against a struggling Abbeville Christian team coming off of a blowout loss of its own. This may well be Coosa Valley’s best chance at a win before the end of the season, but earning a win will likely require seeing that complete performance from all sides of the ball. I don’t have enough confidence in Coosa Valley to pick a win here, but if a win going to happen, it’s likely this week. Abbeville Christian 15, Coosa Valley 6.