Figuring out who is the favorite to emerge from South Florida as this season’s Class 8A state championship participant has been a challenge this season.
Flanagan won the state championship last season and opens the postseason Thursday as a district champion led by its stingy defense.
Columbus has made it at least as far as the state semifinals four of the past five seasons and seems picked up momentum after wresting the district title from Coral Gables, another defensively stout team.
Deerfield Beach often looks like it has all the parts necessary to make a run for its first championship, but has suffered its slip-ups like last week against Cardinal Gibbons.
But in a region where the best defense looks like it will ultimately decide who makes it to Orlando, no one has shut down opponents like Southridge.
Region 4-8A quarterfinal - Southwest (7-2) at Southridge (7-2), 7, Thursday: The Spartans are aiming for their first state title since 1993 and the pieces look like they’re finally coming together for this preseason favorite.
Southridge’s defense has allowed only 38 points in its nine games this season and enters the playoffs having shut out five consecutive opponents. The Spartans have six shutouts overall this season and have not allowed a point since Sept. 23 against Carol City.
Southwest is in the playoffs for the sixth consecutive year, and boast a prolific running game with freshman tailback Andre Stringfield, junior running back Te’Cory Tutson and senior quarterback John Jaramillo.
But the Eagles will find it difficult to break through the stingy Spartans’ line of defense. Southridge improves to 3-0 all-time in playoff meetings. Andre’s pick: Southridge 26, Southwest 3.
Region 4-8A quarterfinal - Palmetto (8-1) at Belen Jesuit (7-3), 3, Friday: This could be the most evenly matched games in the first round. Palmetto is making its first playoff appearance since 2008 following a three-year progression back to relevance under coach Mike Manasco.
But Belen is always tough at home in this first-round game, which it finds itself playing for the third consecutive season. The Wolverines have an explosive player in freshman Don Chaney, Jr. and are always capable of controlling a game with their Wing-T offense.
Palmetto has struggled in recent weeks against good running teams.
Andre’s pick: Belen 17, Palmetto 14.
Region 4-6A quarterfinal - Carol City (5-3) at Dillard (6-3): These two have split four previous playoff encounters with the Chiefs routing Dillard 44-6 last year. The Panthers can prevent this one from being that lopsided, but Carol City has the potent offense and stingy defense capable of securing a victory here. The Chiefs are itching for a rematch with Northwestern. Andre’s pick: Carol City 27, Dillard 10.
Region 4-6A quarterfinal - Boynton Beach (6-3) vs. Northwestern (9-1) at Traz Powell: And Carol City will get its rematch as Northwestern shouldn’t have any trouble dominating an overmatched opponent. Andre’s pick: Northwestern 38, Boynton Beach 7.
Region 4-7A quarterfinal - Doral (8-2) at McArthur (10-0): Doral plays its first playoff game after a drastically improved season under first-year coach Jase Stewart. But a very athletic Mustangs squad that is making its first playoff trip since 2008 after winning its first district title since 2003 may prove a lot to handle. Andre’s pick: McArthur 28, Doral 21.
Region 4-8A quarterfinal - Coral Gables (8-1) vs. North Miami Beach (6-3) at North Miami Stadium: The Cavaliers keep winning with defense, and that should be enough to prevail for one more week before a rematch with Columbus. Andre’s pick: Coral Gables 20, NMB 6.
Region 4-8A quarterfinal - American (4-5) vs. Columbus (6-3) at Tropical Park: Columbus hasn’t lost an opening round game since 2010. That won’t change this year. Andre’s pick: Columbus 34, American 7.
Region 3-8A quarterfinal - Piper (9-1) at Flanagan (8-2), 7:30, Thursday: The Falcons had a rough one last week against Aquinas, but should patch things up to handle the visiting Bengals and win their sixth consecutive playoff game. Andre’s pick: Flanagan 19, Piper 3.
Region 3-8A quarterfinal - Western (6-2) at Deerfield Beach (7-2): The Bucks didn’t fare so well against Gibbons’ potent offense last week. Expect them to correct some mistakes as they hope to make a run for their first state championship. Western makes its first playoff appearance since 2010, but is yet to win a postseason game. Andre’s pick: Deerfield 27, Western 14.
Region 4-7A quarterfinal - Cooper City (4-5) vs. Mater Academy (9-1) at Milander, 7:30, Thursday: Cooper City pulled off what many consider the biggest upset of the season when it knocked off South Broward to claim its first playoff berth in five seasons. The Lions made it for the first time last season and are on a nine-game winning streak. Andre’s pick: Mater 31, Cooper City 20.
Region 4-7A quarterfinal - Palm Beach Lakes (8-2) at St. Thomas Aquinas (7-2): If two plays at the end of two games had gone Aquinas’ way, they’d be the No. 1 team in the nation right now. Andre’s pick: Aquinas 47, Palm Beach Lakes 6.
Region 4-7A quarterfinal - Fort Lauderdale (4-4) at Dwyer (9-1): The Flying L’s are in the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. Staying in it will be extremely tough against one of the classification’s best. Andre’s pick: Dwyer 40, Fort Lauderdale 14.
Region 4-5A quarterfinal - Cardinal Gibbons (8-1) at Riviera Beach Suncoast (4-5): The Chiefs continues to surprise teams many expect to beat them. Gibbons found enough offense to pull past 8A contender Deerfield Beach last week and continue an impressive turnaround season under first-year head coach Matt DuBuc. Despite being on the road, Gibbons shouldn’t have trouble setting up a rematch for next week with the only team that beat them this season – American Heritage. Andre’s pick: Gibbons 38, Suncoast 12.
Region 4-5A quarterfinal - Fort Pierce Westwood (3-6) at American Heritage (9-0): The Patriots hope this is the first step in a run to their third state title in four seasons. Andre’s pick: American Heritage 38, Westwood 7.
Region 4-4A semifinal - Belle Glade Glades Central (6-4) vs. Booker T. Washington (7-3) at Traz, 7, Thursday: The drive for five begins this week for the Tornadoes who are looking to beat the visiting Raiders for the fourth consecutive season. Andre’s pick: Booker T. Washington 37, Glades Central 14.
Region 4-4A semifinal - Edison (7-1) at Clewiston (5-4): Another one of Dade County’s turnaround teams this season faces a stiff test on the road. Edison ended its long playoff drought after 11 seasons and might have enough firepower on offense to pull off a road win and secure a rematch with Booker T. next week. Andre’s pick: Edison 20, Clewiston 18.
Region 4-3A semifinal - West Palm Cardinal Newman (5-4) at Chaminade (6-3), 3, Friday: Chaminade hosts a playoff game for the first time since 2009. And the Lions are getting starting quarterback Henry Colombi back. Colombi suffered a shoulder sprain Oct. 14 against Citra North Marion and has missed the Lions’ past three games. His return should energize Chaminade’s offense. Andre’s pick: Chaminade 27, Cardinal Newman 20.
Region 4-3A semifinal - Westminster Christian (5-5) at West Palm Beach Oxbridge (9-1): It’s been an up and down year for the young Warriors, who are building for the future. Andre’s pick: Oxbridge Academy 42, Westminster Christian 7.
Region 4-2A semifinal - Naples Community School (8-2) vs. Champagnat (8-1) at Milander: The Lions got a glimpse of the type of team they’d have to beat to win a state title a couple of weeks ago in a tough loss to Melbourne Central Catholic. That experience should prove valuable going forward. Andre’s pick: Champagnat 36, Naples Community School 21.
SFC championship - West Palm Beach Kings Academy (10-0) vs. Pine Crest (8-2) at FIU, 6, Saturday: Pine Crest has had a great season in conference. But Kings Academy, as it proved in a 51-19 rout of the Panthers earlier this year, has been the best team in the SFC. Andre’s pick: Kings Academy 34, Pine Crest 19.
Gold Coast semifinal - Key West (6-3) at Archbishop McCarthy (8-1), 7, Thursday: Led by Jacob Baptiste, Broward County’s leading rusher, McCarthy continues to dominate the Gold Coast Conference. Andre’s pick: McCarthy 38, Key West 7.
Gold Coast semifinal - North Broward Prep (8-2) at Calvary Christian (8-2), 7, Thursday: This one has the potential to be an entertaining duel to see who matches up with McCarthy in next week’s final. Defense tips the scales in Calvary Christian’s favor. Andre’s pick: Calvary 27, North Broward Prep 20.
NOTE: All games at 7:30 p.m. Friday unless noted otherwise.
South Florida Top 20 rankings
Final regular-season rankings
1. American Heritage (9-0)
2. St. Thomas Aquinas (7-2)
3. Northwestern (9-1)
4. Carol City (5-3)
5. Central (6-2)
6. Cardinal Gibbons (8-1)
7. Booker T. Washington (7-3)
8. Flanagan (8-2)
9. Southridge (7-2)
10. Deerfield Beach (7-2)
11. Columbus (6-3)
12. Coral Gables (8-1)
13. McArthur (10-0)
14. Edison (7-1)
15. Western (6-2)
16. Champagnat Catholic (8-1)
17. Palmetto (8-1)
18. Mater Academy (8-1)
19. Piper (9-1)
20. Belen Jesuit (7-3)
Dropped out: 14. Dillard (6-3), 20. Doral Academy (7-2). Under consideration: Boyd Anderson (7-3), Southwest (7-2).
Andre C. Fernandez’s record — (Dade) Last week: 21-4; Season: 235-47; (Broward) Last week: 16-4; Season: 202-43.