After weeks of speculation and amateur number-crunching, the FHSAA finally revealed its playoff brackets Sunday morning, and five football teams in the Daily News’ coverage area — Baker, Crestview, Freeport, Niceville and South Walton — made the cut.
The time has finally arrived. Somebody wake up Jim Mora. It’s time to talk playoffs!
After weeks of speculation and amateur number-crunching, the FHSAA finally revealed its playoff brackets Sunday morning, and five teams in the Daily News’ coverage area — Baker, Crestview, Freeport, Niceville and South Walton — made the cut.
The road to Tallahassee and Daytona begins now.
Let’s break it down:
BAKER (9-1, 0.665 RPI)
The undisputed kings of Region 1-1A, Baker got punched in the mouth Saturday, falling to undefeated Blountstown 33-7 in the Sunshine State Athletic Conference North Florida Championship game, but it did nothing to knock the Gators out of their No. 1 seed. No. 2 Vernon and No. 3 Northview remained distant threats for the top spot with 0.629 and 0.625 RPIs, respectively.
With a first-round bye secured, the Gators’ quest for a fifth straight Final Four appearance wont begin until Nov. 15 when it hosts either No 4 Freeport or No. 5 Graceville. That gives coach Matt Brunson and Co. plenty of time rest, re-tool and reload after averaging an uncharacteristic 3.1 yards per play on Saturday; Baker entered the game averaging 10.3 yards per play.
No matter which team emerges on the other side of the bracket, it will be a familiar face.
Baker beat Freeport (6-3) in early October, 55-12, behind 605 team rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns; lead back Joe Brunson totaled 232 yards and three scores on just 10 carries.
The Gators didn’t play Graceville (7-3) during their 2019 campaign, but they did see the Tigers this past November in their regular season finale; Baker won handily, 47-0, behind 156 yards and two touchdowns from graduated running back Junior McLaughlin. Given the Gators average 377.9 rushing yards per game this year, duplicating that performance shouldn’t prove too difficult.
CRESTVIEW (5-5, 0.567 RPI)
In the end, Crestview’s brilliant schedule saved the Bulldogs’ season. Tim Hatten and Co. played not one, not two, not three, but six playoff teams during their 2019 campaign to secure the eighth and final seed in Region 1-7A.
Their reward? Well, they get to play No. 1 Edgewater (9-1) at 6:30 p.m. CST Friday in Orlando. The 404-mile trip covers just 15 fewer miles than the Bulldogs’ trip to play Armwood in the Final Four a year ago.
And Edgewater looks to be just as tough an opponent. Boasting the 16th best RPI in the state, the Eagles outscored their opponents 460-150 during the regular season and didn’t lose a home game.
Offensively, junior quarterback Canaan Mobley paces the Tigers’ attack with 1,754 passing yards and 22 touchdowns against just three interceptions. His top-two targets, juniors Christian Leary and Tommi Hill have both hauled in six touchdowns receptions and average 26.4 and 24.1 yards per catch, respectively. Running back Isaiah Connelly balances the offense, averaging 7.2 yards per carry and 140.3 yards per game with 12 rushing scores.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs are scuttling as of late. After winning four in a row, Crestview lost its final two regular season games against Navarre and Madison County by a combined 86-27. The Bulldogs turned the ball over five times in each game.
It goes without saying, cutting out those giveaways will be key to pulling off the upset.
FREEPORT (6-3, 0.574 RPI)
With teams such as Baker, Vernon and Northview in its region, Freeport likely wasn’t going to play for that coveted first-round bye. Securing the fourth seed and home field advantage is nothing to sneeze at, though.
Now the Bulldogs get to welcome No. 5 Graceville to The Port at 7:30 p.m. Friday. The two teams haven’t faced off since September 2018, the Tigers taking an early season matchup 44-19; Freeport running back Brandon Siples had 115 rushing yards and a touchdown in the loss.
Siples will again be key to the Bulldogs’ success Friday. Averaging 177.5 rushing yards a night, the senior has run for 1,420 yards and 18 touchdowns this season. He has also caught 11 balls for 248 yards and five scores, thrown a touchdown pass and housed a 99-yard kickoff return.
With 24 total touchdowns, Siples has accounted for 52% of Freeport’s scoring offense.
That said, Freeport has not won a game since Sept. 27, dropping its last three regular season games to No. 1 Baker, Jay and South Walton, which earned the No. 5 seed in Region 1-4A, by a combined 127-73.
Meanwhile, the Tigers own a modest two-game win streak and have outscored opponents 206-99 this season.
NICEVILLE (10-0, 0.678 RPI)
We knew the Eagles were going to make the playoffs weeks ago after they wrapped up the District 1-7A title with a 57-8 victory against Chiles on the road in Tallahassee. We just didn’t know whether they would be able to catch Edgewater for the top seed in Region 1-7A.
Niceville didn’t, claiming the No. 2 seed instead, but that says more about Edgewater’s strength of schedule than it does anything about the Eagles.
Niceville was dominant from start to finish, holding opponents to just 10 points per game with three shutouts, while quarterback Will Koch and the offense carved up opposing defense for 344.8 yards and 32.6 points per night.
Now with their 19th straight playoff berth secured, first-year coach Grant Thompson and Co. begin their quest for Niceville’s first state title since 1988 at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Eagle Stadium against No. 7 Chiles, which sneaked into the bracket with a 6-4 record and a 0.567 RPI.
Playing any team a second time can be tricky, but the Eagles thoroughly beat the Timberwolves in their meeting Oct. 21 thanks in large part to the play of Dom Annichiarico. The junior receiver hauled in four catches for 145 yards and both of Koch’s touchdown passes, then scored three more times on the ground. Meanwhile, that vaunted Niceville defense forced three interceptions and a pair of fumbles.
SOUTH WALTON (5-4, 0.538 RPI)
Credit where credit is due, South Walton made this second straight playoff appearance happen with its back against the wall.
With just three weeks left in the regular season, the Seahawks were 3-4, ranked sixth in the Region 1-4A RPI standings and reeling from a 53-20 loss to Northview on Homecoming night. They knew they would have to win out to make the postseason, and that’s exactly what they did, beating Freeport 25-21 and Rutherford 40-22 to finish 5-4 and claim the No. 5 seed.
Now Phil Tisa and Co. get to hit the road to play No. 4 Marianna (6-4), a team they have already beaten on the road once this year, 30-27. Dandy Dozen quarterback Drake Roberts completed 27-of-31 passes for 311 yards and four touchdowns, while the Seahawk defense chipped in an interception and a blocked field goal.
For the season, Roberts has completed 65% of his passes for 2,118 yards, 13 passing touchdowns, six rushing scores and just three interceptions.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs have won just one of their past three games, though they have outscored their opponents 268-238 this season.
Navarre (6-4) barely missed the cutoff in Region 1-7A, finishing ninth in the standings. The Raiders boasted the regions’ eighth-best RPI (0.557), but Winter Springs (6-4), owners of the regions’ 12th-best RPI (0.485), was awarded the No. 4 seed by rule after winning the District 4-7A crown, forcing Navarre off the bracket.
Likewise, Choctaw (5-5) finished ninth overall in Region 1-5A with a 0.501 RPI, just 0.016 percentage points behind No. 8 Suwannee (5-5).
Walton (6-4), too, just barely missed the cut, placing seventh in Region 1-3A with a 0.527 RPI.
Finally, Fort Walton Beach (3-7) finished 13th in Region 1-6A with a 0. 442 RPI, and Rocky Bayou (2-7) finished eighth in Region 1-2A with a 0.406 RPI.