One school of thought in western Kentucky is that no one has a bigger home-field advantage than Fort Campbell, and it's one that could serve the Falcons well during the postseason.
Fort Campbell obliterated district rival Paducah Tilghman 43-14 during the regular season and would get to host a potential rematch with the Tornado in the regional final. That is assuming that Tilghman survives the tough playoff road it forged for itself, which would include a 200-mile second-round trip to Monroe County.
The Falcons, who won three consecutive Class 2A titles from 2007-09 and lost to eventual state champion Central in last year's semifinals, have been somewhat of a surprise this season. Tailback Triston Luke, a sophomore, doesn't look anything like a Division I prospect (he's listed at 5-8, 160 and doesn't have breakaway speed) but he's a shifty runner and has done nothing but put up big yardage — 1,816 yards and 29 touchdowns in 10 games.
But quarterback Jaylen Williams, whose career-best game helped bury Tilghman back in September, went down with an ankle injury in that game and is unlikely to return in the postseason. Jonathan Jethro moved in from receiver and has played well in Williams' absence, although Fort Campbell hasn't been strongly tested since then.
Tilghman made a quarterback change, too, soon after that, going with freshman Jessie Dunigan after moving former starter Jordan Tyler to outside linebacker. Tyler can also play tight end and be used as a wildcat quarterback.
The Tornado's strength remains its speedy defense, led by tackle-end Derek Overstreet, safety Darrius Spivey-Nunn and linebacker Tre Coleman.
Monroe, whose only loss is to unbeaten Warren East, has put up a lot of points with a run-oriented attack led by quarterback Chad Wilson (1,451 yards and 23 TDs on the ground and 2,000 multi-purpose yards, including his passing numbers) and fullback Jacob Hodges.
Hodges and fellow linebacker Cory Bryant lead a defense that has been strong all season — the first team has allowed more than 20 points only once, the 26-18 loss to Warren East.
Projected regional final: Fort Campbell 23, Paducah Tilghman 17
It constitutes one of the longest road trips for a regional final in state history, and as long as Central and Bell County — otherwise a world apart, it seems — are in the same region, it's going to be fixture.
Bell made the trip to Central last year, falling xxxx to the eventual state champs. This year, it would take a miracle to keep the Yellowjackets from invading Log Mountain.
Central has gone 8-2 against a schedule that would likely destroy mortal small-school teams. The Jackets' only two losses are to St. Xavier and Pleasure Ridge Park, the second- and third-ranked teams in Class 6A. Their best win might be against Evansville Reitz, a team that has already won two playoff games in Indiana, and 6A entries Ballard and Manual have fallen by the wayside, too.
Quarterback Tae Shawn Gibbs and tailback Deris Cox lead the offense, but Central's selling point is a defense that hasn't given up more than two touchdowns to anyone but St. Xavier and Reitz and is led by linebackers Donald Styles and Phillip Francis, both juniors.
Bell has looked like the second-best team in 3A all season, and its only two losses are to Lexington Catholic (#3 in 4A) and a top-10 5A team in Harlan County. The Bobcats have gotten a great season from tailback Jonathon Polly (1,467 yards) and solid work from quarterback Peyton Collett, who was thrust into the role after starter Corey Osonian went down with an early-season knee injury.
Osonian's experienced hand and home-field advantage might have been enough to put Bell over the top in the regional final, but Central's defense looks too tough to overcome.
Central traditionally doesn't play well when it ventures outside of the city, but a lot of things will have to go wrong to keep the Jackets from winning their fifth state title in six seasons of six-class football.
Projected regional final: Central 26, Bell County 14
Bourbon County had high expectations entering the season with the presence of tailback Kentayvous Hopkins (1,436 yards), but a big-play passing game has helped the Colonels score points in bunches.
Dalton Pope is averaging 23 yards per completion and has thrown for 14 touchdowns with only two interceptions, with Hopkins and receivers Charles Johnson and Jaxson Hilander combining for 14 touchdowns on only 33 catches. Hopkins has been especially potent with nine catches and six scores.
The list of contenders is a long one. Garrard County or Russell loom in the second round and both could pose a threat — Garrard still has several key players back from last year's run to the state semifinals and Russell is usually a tough out.
In the regional finals could be a Bath County squad that took Bourbon to double overtime in a game that determined the district title and a Mason County bunch that has flown under the radar.
David Buchanan's Royals look like the classic case of a team that got tougher after facing a rough early-season schedule that included a couple poundings at the hands of Highlands and Lafayette. But a late-season win at Russell was a signal that Mason would be a team to watch in the postseason.
Projected regional final: Bourbon County 27, Mason County 13
Breathitt County and Belfry have been on a collision course all season, it seems, and there seems little chance it won't happen again.
Belfry beat the Bobcats 28-14 on the road in the regional final a year ago en route to a heartbreaking state runner-up finish, losing 15-14 to Central on a late fourth-quarter touchdown. Returning to Bowling Green has been the Pirates' mission and a stout defense has them in position to do so.
Linebackers Payton Mullins and Madison Ghormley lead a defense that took its lumps only against talented teams like Henry Clay and Ashland but proved itself with the 17-12 win over 5A-ranked Johnson Central in the regular-season finale.
Breathitt has one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the state in Richard Trent, who has put up some big-time numbers in leading the Bobcats to a perfect 10-0 mark that includes back-to-back wins over small-school powers Somerset and Hazard. Trent has run for 903 yards and 21 touchdowns, and he's thrown for 1,874 yards with 25 touchdowns and only four interceptions.
The only remote possibility of keeping Trent from seeing the Pirates is Morgan County, which battled Breathitt a little tougher than expected in a 27-12 loss in a game that decided the district championship, Morgan would have to visit Belfry for a second-round game, but the Pirates are always tough to beat in the confines of Pike County.
Projected regional final: Belfry 21, Breathitt County 20
Projected semifinals: Central 30, Fort Campbell 14; Belfry 28, Bourbon County 20