Last weekend was another shining example of how much separation has been created between high school football programs from Miami-Dade and Broward County and the rest of the state.
For the second time in the last three years and the third time since the state went to eight classifications in 2003, the two counties will take six teams to Orlando for the state finals at Camping World Stadium.
That’s out of a possible seven classifications — neither county has a team in Class 1A — and we came darn close to taking a team from all seven classes up there had it not been for University School’s heartbreaking, last-minute 32-31 loss to Cocoa in the 4A semi.
Want some more numbers? Roll these around a little.
Since 2012, the Dade and Broward combo has taken a minimum of four teams to Orlando every year. Out of a possible 42 state championships during that time period, 25 have been scarfed up our locals. That’s 25 for us, 17 for the rest of the entire state. We rest our case.
The record for state titles brought back to South Florida was five in 2013. There will be a good shot to match that this weekend or perhaps even break it should all six teams win.
Columbus will make its fourth trip to the title game and look for a first-ever championship. At the other end of the spectrum, St. Thomas Aquinas will play in its 18th title game and will be looking to match Jacksonville Bolles’ state record of 11 championships with a win.
Out of nowhere from a month ago, Northwestern is returning to Orlando in defense of its 6A title from a year ago. Chaminade-Madonna and Champagnat will defend their respective 3A and 2A titles as they make their third straight trip to the final. The one “newbie” is this group will be Cardinal Gibbons as the Chiefs will make only their second trip to the state title game in program history, the other coming a distant 28 years ago when they lost by a lot (44-14) to Live Oak Suwanee.
On to this week’s picks.
And for the record, this “homer” who picked all seven South Florida teams to win last weekend and was darn near perfect, has no intention of picking against them this weekend either.
Class 8A: Columbus (14-0) vs. Jacksonville Mandarin (10-4), Saturday, 8 p.m.
As was the case four years ago when they played Apopka in the final, look for plenty of tailgate parties outside of Camping World Stadium on Saturday night as the Columbus alumni and student body will show up in full force in hopes of being a part of history as Chris Merritt and his Explorers shoot for the program’s first ever state championship.
If they plan on doing it, they will need to contend with Mandarin quarterback and Alabama commit Carson Beck, who lit up Duval county this past season with 3,216 passing yards and 34 touchdown passes to just 8 interceptions. Pretty heady stuff and the fact that Alabama rarely swings and misses when it comes to recruits, this kid would appear to be the real deal.
But the Explorers have been on fire in the postseason averaging just over 45 points a game.
I think this will be the night Merritt, the second longest tenured coach in Dade County who has suffered brutally painful postseason losses over the years, reaches the Holy Grail. Look for running back Henry Parrish to have another big night and Explorer nation to explode with glee over a state football title.
BD’s Pick: Columbus 38-20.
Class 7A: St. Thomas Aquinas (13-1) vs. Lakeland (14-0), Friday, 8 p.m.
A renewal of old rivals from a decade ago. That’s when St. Thomas and Lakeland met in the title game four times in a five-year span from 2004-08 with Lakeland’s epic four-overtime 48-45 win at Pro Player Stadium in ‘06 dubbed one of the greatest title games ever played.
With legendary head coach Bill Castle still churning out talent, the Dreadnaughts will present an imposing challenge to the Raiders. Most notable is running back Demarkus Bowman, whose 2,211 yards and 35 touchdowns represent a huge chunk of Lakeland’s offense on a team that’s only attempted 92 passes all season.
That plays right into the Aquinas defense’s wheelhouse, as the Raiders are awfully good at shutting down one-dimensional teams who lean on one player. Look for the Raiders to do just that Friday night and tie a state record with their 11th state title.
BD’s Pick: St. Thomas Aquinas 35-17.
Class 6A: Northwestern (9-5) vs. Seffner Armwood (13-1), Saturday, 3 p.m.
Ah yes, the amazing Bulls. Who would have ever thought this a month ago before the postseason started? A team that lost five regular-season games (granted they were to Columbus, South Dade, IMG, Central and Carol City) had Bull Nation in an uproar screaming for change.
Well, it’s a good thing nothing changed because somehow, some way, the Bulls have transformed into a completely different team than they were in September and October. Now, they will take on the same team in Armwood they defeated for the 6A title last year.
And as well as the Bulls are playing now, they can expect just as tough a game as they had last year when they rallied in the second half to pull out a 21-16 win.
Armwood has a balanced attack with talented sophomore quarterback Cam’ron Ransom (1,724 passing yards, 25 touchdowns, 5 interceptions) and running back Eric Wilson (1,223 yardss, 14 TDs) leading the way.
But at this point, given the roll that they are on, one would have to be out of his or her mind to pick against the Bulls now. I’m not about to do it here. Look for head coach Max Edwards, who has been through a difficult year, to lead his team to back-to-back titles.
BD’s Pick: Northwestern 24-21.
Class 5A: Cardinal Gibbons (12-2) vs. Citra North Marion (12-2), Friday, 3 p.m.
It was a great Friday night for the Chiefs. Not long after they punched only their second-ever ticket to the state final, the news got even better when they learned that Jacksonville Trinity Christian, the heavy favorite to win 5A, had been stunned at home by North Marion on a last-second touchdown in one of the biggest postseason upsets in the state.
And thus the door of opportunity has swung wide open for Gibbons to notch its first-ever state title.
Now they will get a team in North Marion that’s just as new to the big stage as they will be. The Colts are making their championship game debut.
But, of course, with quarterback Nik Scalzo again watching from the sidelines on crutches after being lost in the regional semifinals, coach Matt DuBuc and his staff will once again be forced to go with a conservative game plan. They’ll need to rely on running back Vincent Davis to churn out yards on the ground and a defense led by five-star defensive end Khris Bogle to shut things down on the other side like it did against American Heritage and Tampa Jesuit.
I think it will happen. The Chiefs will seize the moment, putting a football state championship banner up on their field for the first time.
BD’s Pick: Cardinal Gibbons 27-16.
Class 3A: Chaminade-Madonna (11-2) vs. West Palm Beach King’s Academy (12-1), Saturday, 10 a.m.
Interestingly, after turning in some hefty offensive numbers during the regular season, Chaminade’s postseason success has come from standout defensive performances. The Lions have given up just one field goal in three playoff contests, including a 16-0 road shutout of Clearwater Central Catholic in the semifinal.
King’s Academy makes its championship game debut and is clearly this weekend’s “team of destiny.” Not only did Kings overcome a 21-point third-quarter deficit on the road last week to stun Tallahassee Florida High 49-48, but hit a Hail Mary miracle on the game’s last play the week before at home to pull out a 23-22 win in the regional final.
But Chaminade is a defending state champion that is making its third consecutive appearance in the title game. That experience, along with simply being a much more talented team, will carry them to a second straight title.
BD’s Pick: Chaminade 31-13.
Class 2A: Champagnat (8-5) vs. Tallahassee North Florida Christian (8-4), Friday, 10 a.m.
It’s Interesting how Champagnat and Northwestern took similar paths this season. Both defending state champions, both struggled mightily during the regular season, and now both have caught a hot set of dice and are now rolling in the postseason.
And, just like the Bulls, I’m not about to pick against the Lions.
The funny part is that the way they seemingly love to go on the road and beat these teams on their home field, Lions players were probably hoping they could travel to Tallahassee and play this one. But a neutral field will serve them just fine and I anticipate another state title giving the program three in the last six years.
BD’s Pick: Champagnat 30-20.
Last week’s record: 6-1; postseason overall: 39-11; season overall: 446-104
Bill Daley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @Billykid11