Though not the oldest rivalry in the state of Georgia, Jefferson-Screven has come to mean more over the past two seasons.
Since Jefferson County moved back down to class 2A in 2014, this meeting has decided the last two region 4-AA championships.
It’s the first time since the early 2000’s this game has meant this much to either side. Screven ousted Jefferson in the first round of the playoffs in 2002 and 2003, but since then Jefferson has had the upper hand in the series.
Following Mark Daniel’s departure as head coach in 2005, Screven and Jefferson were grouped into region 3-2A. But Screven failed to reach the level they had been at the turn of the century, and would drop five straight matchups to Jefferson County. All while Jefferson would thrive at the top of the region, winning two 3-AA titles and never finishing lower than second in that stretch.
“It seemed like we were always close, like a big play here or a fumble there,” said team historian and radio announcer Burton Kemp. “There always seemed like there were a couple of games the team should have had but never could push through.
But in 2011, ironically in one of Screven’s worst seasons of football, the Gamecocks pulled a shocking 31-19 upset over the Warriors and ultimately costed Jefferson the region title that season.
“The Friday night live host called me that night because he didn’t believe the score,” Kemp said. “But with the season going down the tubes like it did, everyone just kind of forgot about it.”
In 2012 Jefferson briefly moved up to class 3A, putting the series on hiatus. But as previously mentioned, the winner of this game has claimed a No. 1 seed on the playoffs since the two teams were grouped back together.
In 2014 Jefferson led 7-0 going into the fourth quarter, but Screven would score 12 unanswered — including an 80 yard-drive to end the game — to win 12-7 in what was the first region game of the year for both teams. Screven would go on to finish 10-2 and win their first region title since 2012.
The following season both sides opened up region play against each other again, this time with Jefferson earning the decisive 44-20 victory. With the game tied 14-14 near the end of the first half, a strip-sack of Screven quarterback Armani Bunbury put Jefferson up 21-14. The Warriors would end the game on a 23-6 run and wouldn’t lose another game until the 2A semifinals to Fitzgerald.
“We can’t think about that game from last year,” said junior CJ Wright. “We made some mistakes, but this is a new year.”
But never has there been a year where the region championship came down to the final game. And with both teams playing fairly week schedules, this game is also going to be a litmus test going into the playoffs.
“We had talked about playing a rivalry game at the end of the year when making the schedules,” said Screven head coach Ron Duncan. “We knew if we took care of business in the first nine games we’d have a huge one set up at the end of the season.”
Region 4-2A hasn’t exactly been a challenge for either team. Outside of 9-0 Jefferson and 8-1 Screven, the next best records belong to Laney and Josey at 4-5 who play each other tonight as well —meaning only two teams out of eight will have winning records.
Screven at least has two quality teams on their resume. The Gamecocks opened against Bluffton (SC), who are currently 8-0 and the No. 2 team in SC’s 3A poll, and lost 32-25 on a last second touchdown. Then Screven came back and beat now 7-2 Wade Hampton-Varnville 32-17, who funny as it is will play Bluffton next week for their region title.
Jefferson’s most impressive win is arguably Savannah Christian, a 6-2 class A private school. Outside those three teams, neither squad has faced a team with a record over .500 and have an average margin of victory over those teams of 27.3 points.
“The region has been down for sure,” Duncan said. “Laney’s solid. But that’s why we schedule bigger teams like Statesboro early on to prepare ourselves for good teams in the playoffs.”
The AJC Maxwell computers have Jefferson as a 21 point favorite with an 89% chance of winning, which seems high until you take a gander at their season numbers.
Jefferson’s point differential through nine games is +297, compared to Screven’s +208. Jefferson averages 8.5 yards per play compared to Screven’s 6.9. Blame the margins on a weaker schedule if you’d like, but they can’t be ignored.
“Not only are they big but they’re fast too,” Duncan said. “It’s going to force us to have our best game.”
Screven has relied on a three-pronged rushing attack all year consisting of Bunbury, Wright and running back Kim Hunter. The three have combined for 1,570 of Screven’s 2041 rushing yards and 25 of their 30 rushing touchdowns. With all three coming out of the I-option attack, teams can’t afford to miss an assignment in the backfield.
Bunbury can throw when needed too. 13 touchdowns, three interceptions, 8.9 yards an attempt and a 54.5 percent completion percentage are signs of good progress from his sophomore year.
Jefferson on the other hand relies on a more balanced attack. The Warriors run a two-quarterback system with CJ Hales and Jaden Jenkins, who can both hurl the ball deep (over 10 yards an attempt) at decent accuracy (over 60 percent completion). However, with seven interceptions in only 114 throws, Jenkins is the more reckless thrower of the two.
But Jenkins is the better runner of the two, averaging 7.5 yards a carry compared to Hales’ 4.0. Add in Jayron McKennie and Nikel Stone — who have combined for 743 yards at 10 yards a pop — and Jefferson County’s rushing attack is just as hard to stop.
“They’re jet sweep is their bread and butter,” Wright said. “I hope they don’t think they can run those small screens and passes against us. We’ve got weapons for that.”
Win or lose, both of these teams will host a playoff game against a region 2-2A team — most likely Toombs County or Swainsboro — but it doesn’t alleviate the high stakes of tonight’s game.