Staff Photo: John Bohn Buford tailback Andre Johnson (32) rushes for his second touchdown of the first quarter against GAC during Friday's game.
Buford's road to another Region 6-AA championship -- its third in the last four years and 10th overall region title in the last 11 years -- ends exactly where it started.
The No. 1 state-ranked Wolves travel back to Blessed Trinity for tonight's region championship game -- the same place they opened up the season with a resounding 42-0 victory on Aug. 19.
Predictably, Buford coach Jess Simpson doesn't believe the going will be quite as easy this time around against the Titans (6-3).
"(Blessed Trinity coach) Tim McFarlin has been around the block a few times," Simpson said. "He's certainly added to what they've done (in the past). He's put his stamp on the program now. And their best player had a broken leg and didn't play when we were over there the first time. He's back now. So, they're obviously a better team than they were."
Indeed, after starting the season 1-3 -- with all three losses coming against teams carrying Associated Press state rankings at the time, including the Wolves and fellow Gwinnett region team Greater Atlanta Christian -- Blessed Trinity reeled off five straight wins to claim the Division B subregion crown.
And the return of Sam Roberts -- the player Simpson referred to -- has only made the Titans better as the junior slotback/receiver/defensive back has contributed about 400 yards of total offense and nine touchdowns on offense, plus 25 tackles and two interceptions on defense in just six games since his return.
Add to that improvement from others like quarterback Spencer McManes and running back Jordan Denson and Simpson definitely does not expect his Wolves to purloin six turnovers and hold Blessed Trinity to just 41 yards of total offense and two first downs like they did in the first meeting.
"It's going to be a challenge," Simpson said. "I think they'll throw the ball better, and they have a better idea of what they want to do in their running game. To think we'll get six turnovers this game -- that's just not realistic."
The other concern Simpson has comes from within.
So what's to worry about with a team with a star-studded lineup that includes multiple Division I college prospects and has dominated the way Buford has?
After all, the Wolves have outscored opponents by an average of 46.3 to 3.7 and has rolled up 350 yards of offense per game, paced by five running backs -- Andre Johnson, Darrian Smith, Dontravious Wilson, Nathan Staub and C.J. Moore -- with at least 20 carries and averaging at least 6.5 yards per carry, while holding opponents to just 106 yards per contest.
It may seem minor, but with the schedule having worked out like it has, the Wolves have played just once over the past three-plus weeks.
And even with the break, illnesses and injuries are still an issue.
"You worry about rust after an off week," Simpson said. "We've had two off weeks in the last three weeks. How clean can we play? How sharp can we be? These are things we'll have to see.
"The good news is, we've had a good week of practice. The bad news is, we've had some kids injured and sick."
Accordingly, the biggest challenge Simpson says he will put to his Wolves involves looking within, rather than the opponent.
Even with a playoff spot and a first-round home game already secure regardless of the outcome, the Wolves are looking not only to secure the region title, but the region's top seed, which would mean more home games down the road in the postseason.
"The best teams in the state start to play their best this time of year," Simpson said. "This needs to start a second wave of improving each week. This is the message (the players) have been hearing from us the past few weeks."