Class AAAAA Title Game (8:30 p.m. Friday)
Ware County (13-1) vs. Gainesville (11-3)
Overview: The Ware County Gators are making their third appearance in a state championship game and their first since losing to Northside-Warner Robins 20-14 in the 2007 Class AAAA final. Ware County has not won a state championship, although Waycross High, which merged with Ware County in 1994, won four titles between 1960 and 1981. … The Gainesville Red Elephants are making their seventh appearance in the final. Gainesville has been to the semifinals or beyond 19 times, the most of any team in the state that has not won a championship.
Ware County season: Ware County lost to Class AAAAAA Coffee 21-14 in the opener and then won 13 consecutive games, earning its first region title since 2007 and ninth overall. The Gators’ 13 victories are a school record.
Gainesville season: Gainesville won seven consecutive games after a 32-30 loss to Class AAAAAA West Forsyth in the opener. However, the Red Elephants struggled down the stretch, losing their final two regular-season games to 4-6 Loganville and region champion Flowery Branch to settle for the No. 2 seed in 8-AAAAA.
Ware County strength: Ware County has the top-ranked defense in AAAAA, allowing 8.6 points per game for the season. The Gators have held eight of 14 opponents to a touchdown or less, including five shutouts. Their past two playoff opponents, Stephenson and Northside-Warner Robins, had their lowest-scoring games of the year against the Gators.
Gainesville strength: Gainesville has the highest-scoring offense and likely the most dangerous offensive player in Class AAAAA. QB Deshaun Watson can be lethal throwing or running, and he is surrounded by a stable of dangerous receivers. The Red Elephants have averaged 45.1 points for the season, 48.5 in the playoffs and 35.0 in their three losses.
Ware County’s top players: RB/LB Xavier Tobler (committed to Georgia Southern) was the co-player of the year in 3-AAAAA. He has rushed for 1,648 yards and made 112 total tackles. Jimal McBride was the region’s defensive co-player of the year after finishing with 136 tackles, including 25 for losses. QB Jammar Johnson, WR Isa Lowe, OL Sam Baptiste, PK Seth Starling, LB Dedrick Mills and DB Cameron Gibson made the first-team all-region team.
Gainesville’s top players: Junior QB Deshaun Watson (committed to Clemson) has more than 5,000 combined yards rushing and passing and had a hand in 69 touchdowns. Sophomore Rodney Lackey and senior Caleb Hayman (South Alabama) are the top receivers. Junior LB Devan Stringer has the led the team in tackles for two consecutive seasons.
On Ware County: “They’ve improved from the time we played them, and they were really good when we played them. … The thing about Ware is you’re going to have to beat them. They’re not going to beat themselves.” – Glynn Academy coach Rob Ridings, whose team lost to Ware County 27-10 on Oct. 5 in the regular season.
On Gainesville: “We scored 42 against them, and you’d think if you scored 42 you’d have a pretty good chance of winning. But I don’t know if that’s the case anymore because offenses are so explosive now. They’re going to let you score so they can get it back and do it again. It’s like NBA basketball now.” – Kell coach Derek Cook, whose team lost to Gainesville 61-42 in the second round of the playoffs.
AJC pick: Gainesville 27, Ware County 21