BAKER — The Gators shouldn’t be beating teams in this fashion in the postseason.
Dominating between August and November is one thing, Matt Brunson’s crew finishing 9-0 to prolong its regular season win streak to 29 games and secure a No. 1 regional ranking.
Yet against winning programs, against Panhandle powerhouses, against potential state title contenders, the Gators boast a 186-81 winning playoff margin.
Freeport was running-clocked by 28 points. Northview was routed by 24.
Vernon was bulldozed by 32, and undefeated Port St. Joe, the Region 2 champion, could only watch as the Gators posted 41 first-half points en route to a 21-point victory.
Everything a 1A Panhandle powerhouse stands for, that’s Baker to a tee.
Blue collar. Hardworking. Disciplined. Small in numbers, big in heart.
Yet Baker (13-0), the same team that hasn’t been played to within a single possession all year, will not enter today’s 1A state championship at Camping World Stadium as the favorite.
That honor will be bestowed upon Madison County, the reigning state champion.
What’s that they say? Oh, yeah, “To be the best, you have to beat the best.”
Madison County (12-1) has earned the respect not just because of last season’s triumph, but through a dominant 2018 postseason reminiscent of Baker’s.
After earning a first-round bye with the No. 1 seed in Region 3, the Cowboys routed Lafayette 50-20 and later Chiefland 49-14.
Then came last week’s 24-0 shutout over Hawthorne, the Region 3 champion which entered the state semifinal averaging 51 points per game.
Yeah, the Cowboys didn’t finish the regular season blemish-free like Baker. Yet the lone loss was a 48-24 setback to Columbia, a 7A powerhouse that advanced to the region semifinals before a 31-27 defeat to Lee.
So here’s what you need to know about Madison County.
The good. The bad. The ... well, mostly the good.
Against 1A foes, Madison County boasts a 470-98 winning margin (39.2-8.2 average).
How good is that vaunted Cowboys defense?
It has 54 sacks behind a senior-laden defensive line featuring Patrick Hampton (12 sacks), Marcus Ghent (9.5), Terray Jones (eight) and Devin Norwood (six). It also has 10 fumble recoveries and eight interceptions.
“Their defense is very big, strong and physical but they’re also fast enough that you have to respect them in all phases,” Brunson said. “They’re the reigning state champs for a reason.”
No one, save for Columbia, has been able to throw on the Cowboys' secondary and FSU bound Travis Jay, who has four interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
Jay is also the face of Madison County’s offense, the 6-foot-2 playmaker shining under center with 1,238 passing yards and 13 touchdowns to accent 832 rushing yards and 18 scores.
To contain him, Brunson said the Gators just need to play gap sound defense, limit the big plays and force third-and-longs. The Gators need to be the same crew that’s limited foes to 10 points per game this season.
The Cowboys also possess the big-play abilities of junior running back Vinsonta Allen, who has 1,321 rushing yards, 12 rushing touchdowns and three receiving scores.
Yet Madison County recognizes who the best back on the field will be.
That’d be Junior McLaughlin, who leads the Sunshine State with 2,859 yards and 39 touchdowns. No foe has kept him under 130 yards or out of the end zone. Only two foes have held him below 200 yards.
In 12 of his 13 games, McLaughlin has at least two scores. His average touch goes for 11.3 yards, and last week the Gators gave him the ball nearly every snap out of the wildcat.
“Their running back is the best I’ve seen on film,” Madison coach Mike Coe said.
But Coe was quick to point out the Gators are far from one-dimensional.
“They do odd things – single wing, four-man surface, three on the other,” Coe said. “Unbalanced on one side, tight end on the other. They have a really good receiver (Derek Peoples) they put in backfield and use on sweeps. They play really hard and are well coached. We have our work cut out for us.”
Madison County will be tasked with trying to contain a Baker offense averaging 40.2 points a night. An offense that features a game-changing wideout in Peoples. That features an undersized yet disciplined group of guards and tackles.
“We’ve had a 13-game season and we’ve featured a ton of stuff,” Brunson said. “The important thing is we need to block down and kick out and create some great schemes for Junior. We also have to get DeDe going. And we can have Payton under center, which is not out of the norm for what we've done all year."
As for the trip south, this is old-hat for both teams.
“We've done this before,” Brunson said. “And so have they. We’ll get down there and play our best.”
And Brunson's hoping two droughts end. The first is a 25-year state title skid for Baker, which last won a state title in 1993. Brunson was the defensive coordinator for that crew, and he was a player at Baker for the back-to-back-to-back crowns from 1983-1985.
The next is a 23-year state title drought for the Emerald Coast, the last triumph Fort Walton Beach's title in 1995.
"We’ve been talking about it a lot," McLaughlin said. "We’d love to be the team to make that streak end."