Few would disagree that the four Class 7A football teams in Region 1 have the toughest path to qualify for the playoffs.
The four teams in the region — No. 1 Colquitt (7-0), No. 8 Lowndes (6-1), Tift County (5-2) and Camden (6-1) — are either ranked or receiving votes in the Georgia Sports Writers Association poll and all completed tough non-conference schedules with winning records.
But a winning record is no guarantee of a playoff berth for the team that finishes last in Region 1, and that’s a concern for the coaches when their teams face each other in coming weeks.
The problem is Region 1 is the only 7A conference in the state with just four teams. Some Region 1 conferences in the Atlanta area have as many as seven teams. And regions with at least five teams automatically qualify the top four, regardless of their records.
Part of the problem facing Region 1 is geography. There aren’t enough high schools in Southeast Georgia with enrollments large enough to qualify as 7A schools, said Steve Figueroa, media director for the Georgia High School Association.
While coaches in the region believe it’s unfair that the No. 4 seed in every other 7A region qualifies for the playoffs, Figueroa disagreed, saying all the No. 4 seed in Region 1 has to do is have a better power ranking than every other No. 5 seed in the state.
Ashley Anders, head football coach at Tift County High School, said the region is being penalized because the teams struggle to schedule non-conference games.
“I don’t think it’s fair to the region,” he said. “Whoever the fourth team is in this region would beat the majority of teams in the state. It’s not a fair playing field, for sure.”
The teams in the region are forced to travel to Atlanta and out of state to schedule competitive non-conference games, which is an added expense for the teams. It makes it even more challenging to find teams willing to face teams from Region 1 because they are so talented.
It’s even more difficult to schedule games after Week 5 because most 7A teams have started region play.
“There are no available dates to play,” Anders said. “I think this is the best region in the state top to bottom. This year, anybody can be anybody.”
Camden head coach Bob Sphire said scheduling competitive non-conference games is a challenge the Atlanta-area teams don’t have to worry about.
“The Atlanta area regions have the perfect schedule arrangement set up without them having to do anything,” he said. “Our fourth seed is playing against the entire field of Georgia 7A teams to qualify. Our’s is the only spot up for grabs.”
To make matters more frustrating, No. 5 seeds in the Atlanta area can qualify for the playoffs over the No. 4 seed in Region 1, Sphire said.
“We’re playing against the whole field,” Sphire said. “Why are we having to beat all the other teams?”
Atlanta teams are reluctant to schedule games against Region 1 teams because most would lose those games, which makes it even more difficult to move up in the power rankings. And, some of the top teams in Atlanta pad their schedules by beating up on other 7A schools with weak football programs.
“There’s no reason for anyone to care about us down here,” Sphire said.
Lowndes head football coach Randy McPherson said there is a solution to the problem.
“I think we should get all four teams in every year,” he said. “Region 1 also needs more than four teams. That would settle everything.”
Figueroa said all four Region 1 teams are good enough to qualify for the playoffs at this point of the season.
“There’s nothing in the world that says all four Region 1 teams can’t qualify for the playoffs,” he said. “All they have to do is beat anyone’s fifth place team.”
Other than the four teams in Region 1, there are no 7A teams outside the metropolitan Atlanta area that could be added to give the region five teams, Figueroa said. None of the Atlanta teams would want to travel to Southeast Georgia to play sporting events.
“You would get lots of push back from every sport,” he said.
Figueroa said a remedy may be coming when the next high school realignment comes in two years. Several high schools in the region may have enrollments high enough to get bumped up to the 7A classification which would solve the problem.
‘This is probably a four-year situation,” he said. “Hopefully, it will go away.”