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At this point last season, the high school football playoffs were decided and the biggest question heading into the final week of the season wasn’t which Tampa Bay team would win a state title, but how many would win.
The answer turned out to be two, later changed to one.
This season, the question is quite clearly: Will any of our teams win a state title?
Best first-round matchups
1. Armwood (7-3) at Largo (9-0): The Packers are the Tampa Bay Times’ No. 1-ranked team, and the Hawks have fallen from the top 10 after a difficult-to-fathom season. But it’s still a scintillating matchup because it’s still Armwood, and it may just be Largo’s toughest test of the season.
2. Tampa Bay Tech (6-3) at Durant (9-0): In the preseason, I forecasted a deep Titans playoff run. I did not, however, expect the Cougars to win their first nine games and dominate pretty much every opponent. These might be the two most smash-mouth teams in Tampa Bay, and I fear for the earth’s tectonic plates when they collide in two weeks.
3. Orlando Freedom (7-2) at Plant (8-1): Freedom’s only losses this season are to Class 8A No. 1 Dr. Phillips and No. 9 Timber Creek. Combined record: 18-1. But the Panthers outscored two Orlando opponents 103-34 in the first two rounds last year. Still, the road to a second straight 8A title should be tougher in 2012. We’ll know for sure after this game.
Underdogs to root for
1. Mike DePue: Robinson (9-0) may not need your help, but what a great story it would be to see the longtime Knights coach go out with a 5A state title, as well as the boost it would provide to a school and a community that has had a few rough years.
2. Osceola: After a 1-3 start, Osceola won six straight games to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2006. George Palmer, one of the game’s true good guys, doesn’t have any Division I-A athletes like first-round opponent Hillsborough, and will be outmanned against a bigger and better team. But with a week of rest and momentum on the Warriors’ side, you never know.
3. Indian Rocks Christian and Carrollwood Day: Why not? The young Golden Eagles are a year early, but got a bit of good fortune when 2011 state finalist Admiral Farragut was stunned by Cambridge last week. As for CDS, it has a QB-RB-WR combo (Vidal Woodruff, Robert Davis, Andy Embody) that is as good as any in Class 2A, and this senior-laden team has been built for a 2012 playoff run.
Here’s the best bets to win a state championship (or at least make the title game):
1. Largo (6A): I predicted three years ago this team would win a state title in 2012, so I might as well stick with it. A really tough route awaits (Armwood, then potential games against Hillsborough, undefeated Gainesville, undefeated St. Augustine and undefeated Naples). But with smooth, cool dual-threat quarterback Juwan Brown — an easy choice for Player of the Year if voting were held today — leading them, the Packers seem ready. Brown has completed 73 percent of his passes and has intercepted three more passes on defense than he has thrown in 122 attempts, which is, uh, zero.
2. Plant (8A): Giving the Panthers the edge over East Lake because of a more balanced attack and running back Wesley Bullock. The senior rushed for more than 100 yards in every playoff game last year, and don’t be surprised to see him do it again. Besides, betting against Plant in the postseason is just bad form. And dumb.
3. East Lake (8A): Lack of a running game, and a run defense, may catch up to the Eagles but the passing attack is a blast to watch. Do opponents have enough to stop Artavis Scott and George Campbell?
4. Robinson (5A): The Knights are in a tough region, but there’s not a single matchup I see that makes me say uh oh. Unfortunately, for the Knights, there’s not many where I’m willing to write in Robinson in ink, either. But the Knights have the most balance in the region, and quarterback Zain Gilmore works behind a fantastic offensive line.
5. Pasco (5A): I’ll take a Tom McHugh defense against anyone, even Robinson. But the absence of a proven quarterback — like last year’s playoff hero, Jacob Guy — may finally catch up to the Pirates.
6. Lakewood (5A): The Spartans have never made it past the third round, but their three second-round losses have only been by a total of 18 points. If they get by Robinson and Pasco, the Spartans may have some history in ’em.
7. Clearwater Central Catholic (3A): CCC, which has criminally underrated offensive and defensive lines, could make the state championship game, which is pretty bold considering the Marauders probably will have to get by defending champion and undefeated Delray American Heritage or favorite University. But Madison County likely awaits after that, and that double is just too tough to pull off.
*NOTE: Got my brackets confused, so CCC projections have been edited and are different than what appeared in the newspaper.
8. Tampa Bay Tech, Durant, Gaither (7A): No one beats Bradenton Manatee in this class, but any of the local teams have the talent to make the final and take their shot at the national No. 1.
7:30 p.m. Nov. 16
Orlando Freedom at Plant
Wharton at Dr. Phillips
Treasure Coast at East Lake
Palm Harbor U. at Vero Beach
Tampa Bay Tech at Durant
Newsome at Gaither
Venice at Pinellas Park
Northeast at Bradenton Manatee
Ocala Vanguard at Springstead
Hernando at Gainesville
Armwood at Largo
Osceola at Hillsborough
North Marion at Pasco
Anclote at Gainesville Eastside
Atlantic at Robinson
Lakewood at Orlando Bishop Moore
Frostproof at Clearwater Central Catholic
Tampa Catholic at Fort Meade
Moore Haven at Carrollwood Day School
Indian Rocks Christian at Naples First Baptist Academy
John C. Cotey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org