As hard as it is to believe, we have reached the midway point of the 2018 high school football season. Once Friday's games are complete, Scott and Oneida will be exactly halfway through the season.
For the first time this season, both teams are at home on Friday, and it's homecoming for both schools. Oneida will host Cumberland Gap, and Scott High will host Gatlinburg-Pittman. Both games have major playoff implications.
With four games complete, this is a brutally-honest assessment of where each team stands as we enter Week 5.
Oneida: Two weeks ago, there was some thought that Oneida -- with continued improvement -- could give top-ranked Meigs County a run for its money . . . if not in the regular season, then certainly in the postseason. The Indians have a stable of running backs that is as deep as any the program has had since advancing to the Class A state semifinals in 2008. It has an offensive line that can move people around. And, for the first time in what seems like a long time, the Indians have speed.
As Oneida enters Week 5's game against Cumberland Gap, it's safe to say that the Meigs County talk has cooled. The Indians are coming off a 19-7 loss to Harriman that exposed some serious weaknesses, one week after they struggled early against Wartburg.
The final score of the Wartburg game indicated a game that was never seriously in doubt. The Indians won 46-6. But that game was just 13-6 at halftime, and the Bulldogs moved the ball well in the first half. If not for a bizarre scoop-and-score by Oneida's defense, Wartburg would have likely had the lead at halftime. Once the train got rolling in the second half, the Indians had little trouble disposing of the Bulldogs, but the game was concerning because of a lack of effort early. Coach Tony Lambert said his team played flat, and was guilty of buying in to the hype. "We read the newspapers a little too much," he said.
In and of itself, the Wartburg game would not have been especially concerning. But when the Indians followed it up with another lackluster effort at Harriman seven days later, it suddenly became more of a red flag. "I just didn't feel like our team looked like Oneida tonight," Lambert said after the Blue Devils put the finishing touches on a 19-7 win.
Except for self-inflicted wounds, Oneida dominated the first half against a solid Blue Devil football team. Harriman scored on a pick-six, and the Indians saw two scoring threats end with turnovers, while a third was nullified by a fumbled snap that ultimately forced a punt. The score could have just as easily been 28-0 at halftime. It wasn't, and Harriman dominated the second half. The Indians entered the game averaging over 300 yards per game on the ground, but had less than half that against the Devils. In fact, the Indians had just five yards on six carries in the second half. All-in-all, Harriman limited Oneida to minus one yard of total offense in the third and fourth quarters, a stunning statistic.
Suddenly, a Cumberland Gap game that some might have overlooked earlier in the season becomes important. If the Indians aren't able to regroup, the Panthers are just good enough to make the trip back to Powell Valley with a major upset win on Friday. And that would certainly shake up Region 2-2A.
With its 46-6 win over Wartburg, Oneida has essentially secured a playoff spot already. But if the Indians are to host a first round postseason game, Cumberland Gap is a must-win game.
The Panthers are a tough team to get a read on. They've already had their bye week, so they have played only three games. One of those was against the best Class 2A team in the state, a 40-6 loss to Meigs County. The other two were against weak competition: a 15-13 win at Union County, and a 26-0 win over Hancock County.
While neither of those latter two teams are very good, Union County did defeat Claiborne last week, 36-16. That's a Bulldog team that Oneida defeated 49-9 in the season opener. If you compare those scores, which is never very wise, you might conclude that Oneida is two-to-three touchdowns better than Cumberland Gap. Lambert would tell you that you better think again.
The Panthers played Oneida exceptionally close last year, with the Indians finally pulling out a 34-20 win on the road. They're well-coached, and they're experienced. That 40-6 loss to Meigs County might seem like a blowout, and it was. But that's the closest anyone has played Meigs County this year. And the Tigers' other competition has included Sweetwater, a Hixson team that gave Anderson County a bit of a fight, and a good Sequatchie County team.
If Oneida plays the way it played against Claiborne and Gatlinburg, it's a game the Indians should win by a couple of touchdowns. But to do that, they'll need to regroup. Lambert is confident they can.
"Our kids have been known to be resilient and our coaches work hard. My job is to try to get them to bounce back and see what we can do. If our kids prove to be what I think they are, we’ll come back ready to play," he said last week.
Scott High: The Highlanders received a huge shot in the arm with last week's dramatic win over Grainger, and now they'll entertain Gatlinburg-Pittman with an opportunity to really turn Region 2-3A football on its nose.
In a seven-team region, it stands to reason that if you want to make the playoffs, you have to beat three of your conference opponents. That's not always good enough, but it usually is, and likely would be this year. There are going to be opportunities to do just that later on, but there's no better place to start than with Gatlinburg.
However, Gatlinburg is playing good football. After being embarrassed at home by Oneida, G-P responded with a 43-0 shellacking of Northview Academy, then defeated a much-improved Hampton team by two scores. The Highlanders look like they could very well give Austin-East a run for its money for the coveted No. 2 spot in the region and a first round playoff game at home.
The good news for Scott High is that its defense is rather stout, and Gatlinburg tends to be somewhat one-dimensional. Runningback Bryce Akey is a load to bring down, and he is very likely to get to 100 yards rushing on Friday, but G-P doesn't have a lot of formidable offensive weapons besides Akey.
The question, though, is where Scott's points will come from. Through four games, the Highlanders have not been very effective on offense. They're averaging 166 yards per game and have had difficulty finishing drives in the red zone.
The good news is the Highlanders' gritty approach has kept them in ballgames. Their defense has kept opponents well enough in check and the offense has played just good enough that it's easy to point to the season thus far and say that, but for a play here and there on the offensive side of the ball, Scott High could be 3-1 instead of 1-3.
Its hard to get a firm handle on how well Gatlinburg would stack up against the teams Scott High has already played. G-P looked really good against Northview Academy and Hampton, but Scott's first three opponents (sans Alcoa, which is always going to look like a world-beater) have looked pretty good, as well. Clinton only lost by one point to a pretty good Seymour team, and Stone Memorial is off to a 4-0 start. Grainger isn't a very good football team, but the Grizzlies did defeat Pigeon Forge, and only lost by a touchdown to a very solid Sullivan South team.
Friday's game is not a must-win for the Highlanders' playoff hopes. Even if it were to be a blowout, which seems unlikely, Scott High is still very much alive for a postseason berth. The season would then become all about October, when Kingston, Northview Academy and Pigeon Forge await. Gatlinburg has already dominated Northview, Pigeon Forge lost to the Grainger team Scott defeated last week, and Kingston is in a rebuilding year. Wins in those three games, even if the Highlanders are 1-6 going into that stretch, would be enough for a playoff berth.
But that's a long ways off. The Highlanders can take a huge step towards the playoffs with a win over Gatlinburg on Friday. If you beat G-P, you know you've defeated teams that have beaten two of the other teams in your region. And, suddenly, you wouldn't be playing simply for a playoff spot, but for a first round home game.
To beat Gatlinburg, Scott High must play good defense — which just happens to be its strength. If G-P jumps out to a two- or three-score lead in the first half, the Highlanders' offense is not geared towards a significant comeback. For Scott's defense, it begins with stopping No. 15. Shutting down Akey won't guarantee a victory for the Highlanders, but if Akey gets loose early, it makes things much more difficult.
Offensively, the Highlanders are likely to turn to the wildcat package that they have been utilizing more in recent weeks, getting the ball to the team's best playmaker, Grainger Smith, while also putting Daniel Hembree and Dawson Branstetter in the backfield to block for him.