As the first round of the Tennessee football playoffs begins Friday, here are 10 games worth keeping an eye on for local fans:
1.) Tellico Plains (7-3) at Oneida (8-2): Tellico Plains started the season 1-2, with blowout losses to Sequoyah and Grace Christian Academy sandwiched around an unimpressive win over Andrews, N.C. It's been quite a remarkable since then for the Bears, however. Tellico Plains bounced back from that "meh" start with five straight wins — including a big 21-20 upset win over Rockwood — before eventually ending the season with a 7-3 record and a runner-up finish in District 3-A, which more than a few observers think could be the strongest Class A district in the state. Oneida started the season 4-0, surpassing most expectations, before giving up a three-touchdown lead and falling to Greenback, 42-38. The Indians' only other loss was to Coalfield, 21-10. Oneida's strength is its rushing attack. In eight out of 10 games this season, the Indians have rushed for at least 300 yards . . . often well over 300. Tellico Plains' strength is its size, an area in which the Bears should have a decided advantage over Oneida. Prediction: Oneida 31, Tellico Plains 21.
2.) Scott (7-3) at Elizabethton (9-1): This has been one of Scott High's best seasons ever. The Highlanders' seven regular season wins are the most since 1999, when Scott finished the regular season 8-2. Elizabethton, on the other hand, lost a narrow game to Science Hill (40-35) in the second week of the regular season and has since steamrolled most of its competition. Last week, the Cyclones upset then-unbeaten Sullivan South, 28-27, to capture the District 1-AA championship. Prior to last week's win over SullySouth, no team had come within three touchdowns of beating Elizabethton. The Cyclones' average margin of victory in their nine wins was an impressive 37.4 points . . . better than five touchdowns. They've pitched four shutouts and allowed two other teams to score only once. Prediction: Elizabethton 42-13.
3.) Rockwood (7-3) at Silverdale Academy (9-1): How is this for fate? Going into the final week of the regular season, Tellico Plains trailed Rockwood in the playoff standings. By virtue of Midway's surprised 38-21 win over Greenback last week, however, Tellico Plains finished second in District 3-A — winning a tiebreaker with Rockwood because of a head-to-head win earlier this season — and thus captured the No. 5 seed in Class 2A's first quadrant, while Rockwood fell to No. 6. As a result, Tellico Plains' road to the quarterfinals of the 2A playoffs goes through Oneida and Grace Christian, while Rockwood's road to the quarterfinals goes through Silverdale and Hampton. Sometimes it is better to be the lower seed. Silverdale Academy's 9-1 record is deceiving. The strongest team the Seahawks defeated this year was Sweetwater. They did not play a team with a winning record. Their opponents have combined records of 29-71. Prediction: Rockwood 35-21.
4.) Greenback (6-4) at Sunbright (7-3): By most accounts, Greenback's 6-4 record is disappointing. The Cherokees lost a narrow decision at Class 3A Gatlinburg-Pittman early in the season, then made headlines by completely dominating Coalfield, 31-14, on Sept. 13. When they rebounded from a 35-14 deficit to defeat Oneida, 42-38, the following week, the Cherokees were 4-1 and appeared on their way to a strong bid for a trip to Cookeville for the Class 2A state title game. But in the first game after that thrilling comeback at Oneida, Greenback was shocked by Rockwood, 28-21, and things really haven't been the same since. Last week, playing without all-star playmaker Jordan Anderson, the Cherokees were throttled by Midway, 38-21. Sunbright, meanwhile, finished third in District 4-A, but their two losses were disappointing showings — 51-7 to Coalfield and 41-7 to Oneida. Midway overcame a two-touchdown deficit with less than two minutes remaining to hand Sunbright its other loss. Prediction: Greenback 42-20.
5.) Grainger (4-6) at Greeneville (10-0): Grainger suffered a disappointing end to the regular season, losing to Claiborne in a game that knocked the Grizzlies out of second place in District 2-AA. As a result, they're faced with a rematch against Greeneville. The Greene Devils, which rolled to a 10-0 regular season, were flat-out impressive, allowing only one opponent (Signal Mountain) to score more than one touchdown while themselves scoring at least 40 points in every game. It is for that reason that the Devils are ranked second only to seemingly invincible Fulton in the statewide Class 4A rankings. In fact, Greeneville's average game score this year is 55-5. Their first game against Grainger ended in a 70-7 win. The winner of this one gets the Elizabethton/Scott winner. Prediction: Greeneville 63-13.
6.) Carter (9-1) at Sullivan South (9-1): On paper, this should be one of the more competitive games in the first round of the Class 4A playoffs. Both these teams were undefeated going into last week's regular season finale, where they suffered crushing defeats that cost them district championships. Sullivan South lost to Elizabethton, 28-27. Carter was annihilated by Fulton. The Falcons led 62-0 by halftime, en route to a 69-0 win. Carter's nine wins came against a schedule that was not brutal but not exactly a schedule to sneeze at. Narrow wins over Gibbs (54-48) and Pigeon Forge (27-24) early in the season were question marks, but the Hornets seemed to get better as the season progressed. Sullivan South defeated Cherokee by a field goal (38-35) to start the season, then was not seriously challenged again the rest of the way until falling to Elizabethton last week. Prediction: Sullivan South 42-31.
7.) CAK (4-6) at Gatlinburg-Pittman (8-2): This is one of those games that, on paper, looks like there isn't much to talk about . . . but, yet, you just have a feeling that the "underdog" is primed for an upset. Coming off back-to-back state championships, CAK admittedly had a lackluster season. Replacing Charlie High, Josh Smith and a number of other players who are currently playing on Saturdays proved tough for the Warriors and coach Rusty Bradley to overcome. CAK lost three straight games to Powell, Catholic and Webb early in the season, then lost three more in a row to Grace Christian, Belfry (Ky.) and Alcoa. But the Warriors were at least competitive in most of those losses, the exceptions being Alcoa (51-17) and Webb (49-7). And they closed out the season with lopsided wins over Livingston Academy and Kingston. Gatlinburg, meanwhile, amassed an 8-win season, but against competition that was weaker than CAK's. The Highlanders' losses were to Fulton (62-8) and Carter (49-42). Early in the season, it looked as though their signature win would be a 20-14 win over Greenback. Now it's tough to find one that really stands out; their wins were against relatively weak teams — Cocke County, Union County, Unicoi County, Cumberland Gap, Austin-East, Grainger and Pigeon Forge. Prediction: CAK 35-27.
8.) York Institute (4-6) at Alcoa (9-1): Getting to the playoffs was the good for York Institute. The bad? Drawing Alcoa in the first round. After a couple of years of being knocked out of the Class 3A title game at the hands of CAK, Gary Rankin and his Tornadoes are anxious to reclaim their rightful place at the podium in Cookeville. Alcoa's only loss this season was a 31-2 setback to Maryville way back on Aug. 30. Rankin was not happy with the way his team played in that one. But they've bounced back nicely, and have not been seriously challenged since. After a 35-14 win over McMinn County on Sept. 13, Alcoa's "toughest" game was a five-touchdown win over CAK. York, meanwhile, had a disturbing trend on its schedule this year: the Dragons failed to score a single point in their six losses, which came to White County, Macon County, Smith County, Upperman, DeKalb County and Livingston Academy. That's a tough resume to take to Blount County on a Friday night. Prediction: Alcoa 49-0.
9.) Gibbs (5-5) at Campbell County (9-1): It has been a magical season for the Cougars of Campbell County this fall — their first-ever nine-win season and a runner-up finish in District 5-AAA. The accomplishments of the Price brothers — head coach Justin Price and his twin brother, defensive coordinator Matt Price — is nothing short of remarkable, as they have quickly built Campbell County into a formidable contender in Class 5A...which just happens to feature one of the toughest districts in the state in any classification in District 5. Gibbs, meanwhile, has struggled at times this season. Still, the Eagles have gotten much better as the season has progressed. They finished the year with three straight wins, over Karns (24-10), Powell (28-14) and Knox Central (24-14). This is a dangerous game for Campbell County. Prediction: Campbell County 28-24.
10.) Cherokee (5-5) at Anderson County (9-1): The first two years after he left Scott High to take over the reins at Anderson County (2009), Davey Gillum led the Mavs to the quarterfinals of the Class 5A playoffs. But getting back there has proven difficult. After two straight losing seasons, however, Gillum has his best team yet at Anderson County. The Mavs' only loss was a 41-27 upset by Powell on Sept. 27. Since then, Gillum's team has rolled, and was perhaps most impressive in a 61-40 win over Catholic on Oct. 11. Cherokee, meanwhile, has won its last three games after a 2-5 start to the season, including victories over Jefferson County, Cocke County and Seymour. Prediction: Anderson County 35-20.