Photo: Josh Martindale
Buford receiver Paris Head jukes past Lovett defender Grant Haley during the state semifinals last week.
BUFORD — Many of the names have changed from the previous two state championship meetings between Buford and Calhoun.
But when the No. 2-ranked Wolves (13-1) and the third-ranked Yellow Jackets (14-0) square off for a third straight season in the Class AA title game today at the Georgia Dome, many of the keys to victory will remain the same.
“It goes along with the keys in any big game,” Buford coach Jess Simpson said. “It’s just fundamentals.”
The Wolves have been fundamentally sound in wins over the Jackets each of the last two seasons — 45-21 in 2008 and 13-10 a year ago.
They’ve run for an average of 294.5 yards in both games and turned the ball over just once, while forcing six miscues from Calhoun.
Those are numbers Calhoun coach Hal Lamb knows must improve if the third time is to be the charm for his Jackets.
“No doubt, turnovers are going to be the key again this year,” Lamb said. “Other then the turnovers, we played very well last year and had a chance at winning the football game.”
If the Jackets can hang onto the football, they aren’t lacking in playmakers even having lost such dynamic weapons from the past like Da’Rick Rogers and Nash Nance.
UT-Chattanooga-bound running back Dustin Christian has run for over 1,500 yards and 22 touchdowns this season, and has played in each of the previous two title games.
Meanwhile, Calhoun’s spread passing attack is just as potent behind quarterback Landon Curtis and Division I receiver prospect J.T. Palmer, which would make for an interesting matchup with a Buford defense that features the pressure of Rick LeGrant and Kurt Freitag on the edges, plus linebacker Dillon Lee, and strong coverage from a secondary that includes C.J. Moore and Eric Barr.
But it is the other matchup featuring Buford’s offense against the Calhoun defense that Simpson finds most intriguing.
“They’ve got eight starters back on defense,” Simpson said of Calhoun. “That’s going to be an important matchup for us. Can we run the ball? We did it well (in beating Calhoun the last two seasons), and we didn’t turn the ball over. (This year), we have, knock on wood, done a good job protecting the ball and taking it away.”
If the Wolves are to get the same kind of production from their stable of running backs that includes Seon Jones and Dominique Swope, they will have to deal with a dynamic corps of Calhoun linebackers. That group features juniors Alex Kirby and Hunter Knight, who have combined for more than 240 tackles and assists on the season.
But as much as the physical aspects of the game will play a role in the outcome today, the mental aspects will be just as important, especially given the tradition of a program like Buford, which is going for its eighth state title since 2000.
“Buford is the program that everybody wants to be like,” Lamb said. “They’ve got great players, great coaches, a great community and great tradition. Buford will always be the state champion until somebody knocks them off.”
In a way, both teams can claim some sort of connection with an underdog status.
For Buford, it is trying to beat an undefeated Calhoun team that just knocked off top-ranked Carver-Columbus, which handed the Wolves their only loss of the season.
However, that game also presents an opportunity for the Jackets to claim the underdog status, especially given Buford’s tradition, plus how much anticipation there was around the state for a Buford-Carver rematch.
“A lot of people expected (the title game) to be Buford versus Carver (Columbus),” Lamb said. “When we upset Carver, all of the sudden, here we are playing for a state championship. ... You’ve got two good teams that have probably gotten better as the season has progressed.”