Four teams remain. Four teams are each one win away from the coveted achievement of practicing and playing through Thanksgiving. There are no easy match ups anymore. When it comes to teams most likely to win a state title, I'd rank the remaining teams in this order: Strom Thurmond, Williston-Elko, North Augusta, Silver Bluff. But teams can't worry about the state finals this week, they've got to get past the state quarterfinals or (in Willy-Elko's case) the state semifinals. Here's what I expect to see this week:
Season picks: 54-22
Last week: 5-0
Class A Division II semifinals
No. 2 Williston-Elko (10-2) at No. 1 Christ Church (11-1)
Throw away whatever happens in this game, and it's still impressive what has happened at Williston-Elko this year. The team lost nearly everyone off of last year's state finals squad, started this season with two losses and then lost top tailback Kendric Salley for a large portion of the season due to injury. And yet, here are the Blue Devils, Region 4-A champs again and winners of 10 in a row. Some are calling this the unofficial Class A Division II state championship game, because many consider these two teams to be the best two of the four remaining. I agree. The winner of this game will go on to win a state title, but getting back to the state finals for the fourth consecutive year won't be easy for Williston-Elko. Christ Church's only loss last year (a season-ending defeat in the state semifinals) came at the hands of Williston-Elko by less than a touchdown. This year, the game is at Christ Church, which will be a big advantage. But I think Williston-Elko's size, experience and raw power will win out in an "upset" pick.
Prediction: Williston-Elko wins 31-30
Class AA Division II quarterfinals
No. 7 Mullins (7-5) at No. 3 Silver Bluff (8-3)
Talk about improbable match ups. No one expected Silver Bluff to have a home game this deep into the playoffs, and no one expected Mullins to make it this far at all. But Mullins, which posted a mediocre 5-5 regular season record, upset No. 2 Woodland last week, and Silver Bluff took care of business in the second round. Both teams have had their trials this season and seem to have come through the worst of it better off. Mullins is a defensive team that held mighty Woodland to just 14 points and loves to bring pressure to the quarterback every play. Can Silver Bluff's line give its backfield enough time to run the offense? If the Bulldogs can take advantage of their speed and get outside, they should win this game. Considering all the hard times Silver Bluff has faced this year, any success beyond this point is a bonus. The Bulldogs have had a mighty fine turn around this year, but I think it ends here.
Prediction: Mullins wins 14-7
Class AA Division I quarterfinals
No. 6 Emerald (7-5) at No. 2 Strom Thurmond (11-0)
State semifinals match ups have not been kind to the Rebels in recent years (they've lost here the last four seasons), but it's a new year with a new playoff format that kind of waters down the state quarterfinals. This isn't the difficult match up past Strom Thurmond teams have faced at this point. Now that EVERY Class AA team makes the playoffs in a split-class format, it'll take another week for the really high-quality teams to meet each other on the football field. Strom Thurmond's experience and home-field advantage will be enough for an easy win.
Prediction: Strom Thurmond wins 35-14
Class AAAA Division II quarterfinals
No. 13 South Florence (8-4) at No. 5 North Augusta (11-1)
North Augusta benefitted greatly this year from a fortunate bracket placement, which resulted in another home game tonight. South Florence was mediocre in the regular season, blowing a pair of region games to ruin their playoff seeding. But the Bruins took care of business last week, knocking off No. 4 West Florence easily. The offensive similarities between these two teams should make for an exciting game. Everyone around here knows about the Yellow Jackets' fast-paced, quick-scoring offense (despite recent problems in the passing game). South Florence does the same thing with a quarterback, Ethan Grainger, who has thrown for 2,400+ yards (slightly more than North Augusta's Tyrell Hillary). But Granger has also thrown 18 interceptions. If the Yellow Jackets win the turnover battle, they'll win this game.
Prediction: North Augusta wins 42-35