The old cliché that every game matters isn't just coach speak when it comes to Region 7-AAAAA.
Last season served as the perfect example that if you don't hit the field 100 percent focused on the task at hand, you could very well get your feelings hurt when the lights go out on Friday night.
"The one thing that definitely did not change — and I don't know if it ever will — is we're still the best overall region in all of AAAAA football, in my opinion," noted third-year Carrollton head coach Sean Calhoun. "I think from top to bottom you have teams that can really compete. I think you have a handful of teams that can really make deep playoff runs. I don't know if any other region can truly say that. If you win this region, you're doing something special. You really are."
The cream of the crop over the past two seasons has been two-time defending state champion Rome, which enters the 2018 campaign riding a 15-game winning streak in region play and a 27-game winning streak overall after posting a perfect 15-0 standing last fall.
Although everyone will be gunning for the Wolves in 2018, both in the region and Class AAAAA, Calhoun said you're not doing yourself any favors by game-planning too soon.
"You win a state championship, and I've been fortunate enough to be on two of them, you do get that target on your chest," Calhoun said. "They know it, and I think probably every team in the region wants to knock them off. But every team in the region is going to focus on them that week. If we focus on them now, there's no telling how we're going to play against Bremen or East Coweta."
Second-year Villa Rica head coach Rico Zackery was introduced to 7-AAAAA last year in his first fall in charge of Wildcat football. Already having an idea of what to expect, Zackery said the league was everything it was hyped up to be and he anticipates more of the same this year, in terms of how competitive it will be each Friday night.
"There's no easy week in our region. It's a tough region. You've got to fight and scrap every single week to try to find a spot in the playoffs," Zackery said. "Our goal this year is to try to get into the playoffs. I know that's going to be a very, very tough road. All of our opponents are very respectable, they're coached well. It's just a tough region. But it is what it is. All we can control is us."
And that's where Zackery is hopeful that Year 2 will produce more success after finishing 5-5 overall and 3-5 in 7-AAAAA play last year.
There were a handful of swing games between the teams in the middle of the pack last year that ultimately finalized the playoff picture, and Zackery said taking care of the little things will make the difference in coming out on top of those tight ones this time around.
"If we do what we're supposed to do and we take care of us, I think we have a better chance this year. Last year we made a lot of mistakes in those kind of games," Zackery said. "We had a couple of games we felt like we could have won if we didn't make mistakes. It didn't have anything to do with the other team. So we've got to get over that hump. We've got to be really good at what we do and we can't make those mistakes. We can't kill ourself. I feel like that's the most important thing. You can't make a lot of mistakes in this region."
Both Carrollton and Villa Rica have two non-region games before locking horns on Sept. 7 at Grisham Stadium in the region opener in what should make for an electric start to the eight-game 7-AAAAA journey.
"This region probably has six, seven teams that, in my opinion, are good enough to be in the playoffs. The only thing is, the rule states you can only have four," Calhoun said. "That's why every game matters. Our region is so big, you only have two non-region games. It is eight region games and each one is so important for your seeding purposes. I think the last two years, the three and the four seed has come down to the last week. I could see the same thing happening this year."
The Colonels are coming off an 0-10 campaign that included losses to Villa Rica (42-7) and Carrollton (31-13) in the final two weeks of the season.
Cass was a bit snakebitten in 2017, losing three games by eight points or less en route to the goose-egg in the win column and stretching its playoff drought to 11 consecutive years.
The Colonels will look to bounce back in 2018, opening region play on Sept. 7 by hosting Woodland, Cartersville. They travel to VR the following week and host Carrollton on Sept. 28.
The Trojans reached the state quarterfinals for the second consecutive season under Calhoun in 2017, marking back-to-back runs as the No. 2 seed.
Carrollton is focused on getting over that hump this fall, but it's going to be another tall task to reach that point. Of course, landing another top-two seed will certainly help the cause.
Following two non-region contests against East Coweta and Riverdale, respectively, Carrollton opens the region slate on Sept. 7 against rival Villa Rica at Grisham Stadium before a trip up to Rome the following week.
From there, the Trojans continue their stretch of eight games in eight weeks leading up to an open date on Oct. 19. They close the regular season at Paulding County on Oct. 26 and at home against Hiram on Nov. 2.
The Raiders were in the playoff hunt until the final week of the season in 2017, but back-to-back losses in Games 9 and 10 dropped them to 4-6 overall and 4-4 in league play and a fifth-place finish in the first season under Billy Shackelford.
It marked the second consecutive year East Paulding missed the playoffs after reaching the postseason for eight straight seasons from 2006-15.
East Paulding played both VR and Carrollton tough in 2017, handing the Wildcats a 30-14 setback and nearly stunning the Trojans in a 42-40 decision in the region opener.
East Paulding faces a tough slate upon opening region play on Sept. 14 against Kell, followed by a road trip to Carrollton on Sept. 21, hosting Hiram on Sept. 28 and visiting Rome on Oct. 5. The Raiders close out the regular season on Nov. 2 against Villa Rica.
The Hornets were a bit of a Jekyll-and-Hyde ballclub in 2017, finishing 4-6 overall and 3-5 in the region.
Hiram delivered impressive wins against playoff qualifiers Carrollton and Kell, but it lost three games by a combined 10 points to Villa Rica, East Paulding and Paulding County that kept it on the outside looking in during Pete Fominaya's first year at the helm. It also marked the third consecutive 4-6 campaign for the Hornets.
The Hornets host Villa Rica on Oct. 12 and travel to Carrollton Nov. 2 for the regular-season finale.
The Longhorns have been a postseason fixture over the past decade, including reach Game 14 in 2016, but they took a step back last year in the first season under head coach Brett Sloan.
Kell appeared to be on its way to a No. 2 seed after building a sizable lead over Carrollton on Oct. 20 of last season. In a contest that ignited a late-season rally for the Trojans, it shifted things south for the Longhorns, who barely held on to defeat Woodland the following week and then suffered a loss to Hiram in the regular-season finale and a first-round setback to Flowery Branch in the state playoffs.
It marked the first time Kell had not made it beyond the first round since 2009.
The Longhorns will attempt to rebound this season, rumbling into region play by hosting Rome right out of the gate on Sept. 7. Kell welcomes VR on Oct. 5 and travels to Carrollton the following week.
The Patriots rallied to their third state playoff berth in the past four seasons in 2017, knocking off rival East Paulding in a 19-14 decision in Game 10 to land the No. 4 seed out of Region 7-AAAAA. Another key win for PC was a 31-24 victory at Villa Rica in one of the key swing games of the season that created separation between fourth place and seventh place when all was said and done.
Paulding County could be one of the wild cards once again in 7-AAAAA in 2018, as it travels to the City of Gold on Sept. 21 and serves host to Carrollton on Oct. 26.
Despite graduating one of the most decorated defensive fronts in the history of Peach State football, the Wolves are still the team to beat in Region 7-AAAAA.
Rome returns star quarterback Knox Kadum and senior tailback Jamious Griffin, although nobody in the region will be sad to see Jamarcus Chatman, Adam Anderson and Ja'quon Griffin all suiting up on Saturdays at the Division I level this fall.
"Their defensive line, it would be hard to think that they could have a collection as good as they had, but it wouldn't surprise me if they don't drop off hardly at all. Coach (John) Reid's got them going and they do a good job coaching them up over there — Calhoun on the Wolves.
Carrollton travels to Rome on Sept. 14, while VR makes the trip up Hwy. 27 on Oct. 26.
The Wildcats have two non-region dates with Campbell (Aug. 17) and M.L. King (Aug. 24) on tap before opening 7-AAAAA play at rival Carrollton on Sept. 7.
Villa Rica will have an open date in between the two non-region games and the tussle with the Trojans, a game that went down to the wire last year before Carrollton hung on for a 36-34 nail-biter.
The Wildcats have a pair of home games against Cass and Paulding County following the Carrollton game leading up to the second open date of the season. VR closes the regular season with three of its final five on the road, including trips to Kell and Rome.
The Wildcats were an early surprise in 2017, sitting at .500 through six games, including a 2-2 mark in league action, before dropping the final four games of the year.
But after going a combined 1-29 the previous three years, it proved to be a step in the right direction for the program moving forward into 2018.
Woodland plays host to Carrollton on Oct. 5 and travels to VR on Oct. 19.