Photo: Josh Martindale. Buford's Andr'e Johnson (32) crashes through Pepperell's Kyle Shiflett (11) and Mason Clark (39).
This is typically a blowout round. It's played in the friendly confines of Tom Riden Stadium, with one of the state's most impressive pre-game videos blaring intimidation on a large matrix board.
Not tonight, though.
Traditional powerhouse Buford, thanks to not getting Region 6-AA's top seed this season, play on the road tonight in the second round of the Class AA playoffs. Instead of a usual Game 12 mismatch, the third-ranked Wolves (10-1) travel to play No. 7 Jefferson (11-0).
The Dragons, champions of 8-AA for the second straight year, are unbeaten in their first season under 300-game winner T. McFerrin, previously a successful coach at South Gwinnett. Bill Navas, now Duluth's athletic director, also had Jefferson 11-0 last season before a second-round loss.
So Buford's two-year hold on the AA state championship faces a stern test tonight, in a hostile environment.
"This is more like a third-round or fourth-round game if you look at our recent history," Buford head coach Jess Simpson said. "Jefferson is one of the top teams in the state. We're playing a really good team."
That's a major change for a Buford team that has played its last nine second-round games, all decisive victories, at home. The Wolves averaged 40.2 points during that span, while holding opponents to 9.8. And most of their second-round points allowed came late in blowouts against their reserves (48-19 over Adairsville in 2003 and 58-22 over Mt. Zion-Jonesboro in 2001).
Jefferson is far from a pushover. Quarterback Darius Minor triggers a dangerous offense, while Simpson thinks the versatile Lucas Redd is the Dragons' best player. Redd can line up at quarterback, wideout or running back, is a top defensive player at strong safety and also is the team's kicker.
"He's one of those guys who does it all and does it all well," Simpson said.
Minor has two big targets in 6-foot-3 wideout J.J. Damons and his brother Hoytes, a 6-4, 230-pound tight end. They will take on a smallish Buford secondary that is perceived to be the defense's weakest link.
That Jefferson is coached by McFerrin only makes Buford's task tougher. Simpson said the veteran coach, who led South during its best era in school history (1998 to 2004), is "one of those guys you just know about as a young coach."
Though Simpson has never coached against McFerrin, he knows about all of his success against his fellow Gwinnett coaches in the past at the AAAAA level.
"I've watched tapes of his teams and heard him speak at clinics," Simpson said of McFerrin. "(Buford assistants) Dicky (May) and Neal (Auer) have coached against him. ... He's known for being detailed, organized and for having a plan. It's obvious they have a plan at Jefferson."