The 2018 KHSAA Commonwealth Gridiron Bowl playoffs begin Friday across Kentucky.
Six champions — Class A, Class 2A, Class 3A, Class 4A, Class 5A and Class 6A — will be crowned at Kroger Field by the first weekend in December. Who has the best chance of playing in the finals? Let’s take a stab at predicting the matchups.
Finals prediction: Beechwood vs. Pikeville
Rationale: Beechwood is an easy pick to reach its fourth consecutive small-school title game. The Tigers haven’t lost in their class since 2015, when they fell to Pikeville in the finals, and boast a win over Class 6A contender Simon Kenton in addition to victories over Class 2A threats Somerset and Newport Central Catholic. Beechwood is one of only two Class A teams that’s top five in both scoring (fourth at 40.9 ppg) and scoring defense (allowing 14.5 ppg, third-fewest). Crittenden County, a possible semifinals opponent, is second and first in those categories but its schedule leaves something to be desired.
Pikeville, which hasn’t reached the finals since beating Beechwood for the crown in 2015, had a possible trip snatched from its grasp by a last-second field goal in last year’s semifinals. The Panthers appear motivated by that defeat: Their only losses this season were to Belfry, a Class 3A stalwart, and Point Pleasant, one of the top teams in West Virginia’s mid-sized division. Outside of those games they’ve allowed double-digit points only twice: 36-13 over Paintsville and 33-27 over Hazard, both at home. There’s a solid chance they’ll have to overcome each of those mountain foes again to make it back to the finals.
Finals prediction: Mayfield vs. Christian Academy of Louisville
Rationale: It’s within reason to think that neither of these teams will allow a point before the region finals. Mayfield in that round likely will see Owensboro Catholic, which ranks second in both interceptions and fumble recoveries, but the Cardinals have averaged 10 points better than the Aces and Glasgow, their most-likely semifinals opponent.
CAL, allowing a class-best 7.2 points per game, has a tougher road with an eager-to-avenge-its-only-loss DeSales probably waiting for it in the region finals. Somerset, per the Cantrall Ratings and regular-season performance, is CAL’s most-likely semifinals foe but it would be a big favorite against any of the 7th District heavy-hitters (Danville and Lexington Christian Academy in addition to Somerset) that could end up hosting a state semifinal.
Finals prediction: Central vs. Boyle County
Rationale: It’s a tale of two brackets in Class 3A.
Central, a perennial threat to win the class, is a prohibitive favorite to come out of the top part of the bracket. The highest-rated team it could meet until the finals is Elizabethtown, a late-bloomer that reeled off six straight wins before dropping a one-point loss against Class 2A contender Glasgow to end the regular season. And the Yellow Jackets — owners of the class’s top defense and a top-10 offense — wouldn’t play the Panthers (top 10 in neither category) until the state semis.
Boyle County, on the other hand, will need to take down a who’s who to reach its second straight finals and defend its title. Looming in round two is a possible meeting with Wandale Robinson and Western Hills, who nearly upset the Rebels just two weeks ago. A road trip to Belfry seems most likely for the regional round, but the next-most-likely scenario — a trip to Lexington Catholic — isn’t something you’d conjure if you were drawing your own bracket. Corbin, whom the Rebels defeated for last year’s title, should be waiting for a battle-worn Boyle County after a softer path to the semifinals.
Finals prediction: Franklin-Simpson vs. Johnson Central
Rationale: A rubber match between these two feels inevitable but both could get tried on their way back to Kroger Field.
The Wildcats — Class 4A’s defending champions — can claim not one, but two of the top rushers in the class in Tre Bass (146 yards per game, second in the class) and Carlos McKinney (128 ypg, eighth). Predictably, they lead the class in rushing, right ahead of Johnson Central. Franklin-Simpson should ease past the first round before likely seeing a 9-1 Logan County team looking to play spoiler. The regional opponent is tough to predict — Hopkinsville, Madisonville and Warren East all boast cases — but the Wildcats ought to be able to run against all of them. Between Moore and Taylor County — the most probable semifinal challengers — Moore might have the better shot of pulling an upset based on its strength of schedule (The case against? Moore’s lone loss was a rout at Johnson Central).
A path to the finals shouldn’t be harrowing for the Golden Eagles until the regional finals, where they’ll likely see Ashland Blazer. They had an easy go against the Tomcats in the regular season but an upset shouldn’t be ruled out when it involves the No. 3 team in the class. The semifinals could feature a number of teams, but whoever wins a likely second-round meeting between Franklin County and Wayne County would be my pick to get there; Johnson Central would be the favorite, but the Flyers’ pass-happy mentality would be fun to see against the ground-and-pound.
Finals prediction: South Warren vs. Covington Catholic
Rationale: There might be a better shot of frog precipitation than Covington Catholic failing to reach its second straight championship game. The Colonels have won 25 straight games — the state’s best streak — and are considered the top team in the state, an uncommon distinction for a team outside the highest class. Only a possible region finals date with rival Highlands — which held the Colonels to a season-low for scoring in a 21-14 defeat — might tempt a pick against CovCath, but there’s as much a chance of a more inspired performance by the Colonels if that rematch occurs. Pulaski County, CovCath’s most-probable semifinals foe, has championship runs in its recent past and can’t be dismissed.
A likely region finals meeting between South Warren and Bowling Green could just as well be considered a state semifinal. Either team would be favored in the next round but the Spartans get the edge based on their regular-season rout of the Purples, whose best win (24-21 at St. Xavier) might be the best in-state win of the season. South Oldham should be on the other side of the semifinals regardless of which Warren County juggernaut it’s hosting.
Finals prediction: St. Xavier vs. Frederick Douglass
Rationale: After a dispiriting start to the Kevin Wallace era, St. Xavier is performing the way it hoped it would when it lured him to Louisville. The Tigers reeled off seven straight wins after opening the season with three-point losses to other-class contenders DeSales and Bowling Green, Wallace’s old team. Five of those wins — Butler, Central, Male, Manual and Trinity — would be the best single victory on the resume of many in-state teams, including title contenders.
St. X won’t get a cakewalk. Butler — ranked sixth in the entire state — should be its second-round opponent. Male — fourth in the state — should be there waiting in round three. No. 10 Trinity, which suffered one of its worst seasons in recent memory, is in the opposite part of the top bracket and has a path that should have it waiting for the Tigers in the semifinals.
Learning how to handle championship-level expectations will be as much a battle for No. 2 Frederick Douglass — a second-year program — as its playoff road. On the plus-side, that road could feature only one road trip if things go chalk — at No. 16 Simon Kenton in the region finals, and could be road-trip free if Henry Clay can knock off the Pioneers in round two (an extra prediction: it does).
Before that game a possible rematch with Scott County looms in the second round, and it’s not hyperbole to say that might be the Broncos’ toughest game leading up to the finals if they go that far — the Cardinals are ranked 15th in the state and have the best championship pedigree of any potential foe before the finals. Madison Central, whom Douglass dealt a 42-7 defeat on the road in September, is the Broncos’ most-likely semifinals foe based on the Cantrall Ratings. Should it survive that road, the state’s top scoring defense will get its toughest challenge yet against a Louisville powerhouse on the first Saturday in December.