Since being surprisingly placed in the same region four years ago, Cartersville and Troup County have met in big games every season. The past three years have been de facto Region 5-AAAA championship games — with Cartersville winning each time in convincing fashion.
This year's meeting doesn't carry the same significance. The Canes have already clinched the region title, the program's eighth straight, and the Tigers have much more on the line, as they fight for their fourth consecutive postseason berth.
With an extra few days to prepare for the game due to last week's open date, Cartersville head coach Conor Foster said his team has taken the same approach it would have if the region crown was up for grabs.
"I don't know that we've prepared any differently than we have the past couple of years," Foster said of the matchup. "The last few years was for a region championship. We've already got that locked up, but the goal is to prepare to go 1-0 every week.
"We have got a tremendous amount of respect for the Troup football program. They have a great team and a great coaching staff that does a tremendous job. ... We spent this week focusing on them and last week focusing on ourselves, getting better at what we do and working on the details of blocking and tackling. We've had two good weeks of practice."
Just because Cartersville (9-0, 5-0) has clinched another region championship, it doesn't mean there wouldn't be consequences for a slip up this week. The top-ranked team in Class 4A, the Canes have a chance to tie a state record with its 58th straight regular-season win, matching a mark set by Camden County in 2006.
A 10-0 end to the season would give the Canes their fifth consecutive perfect regular season. While this year's team has higher aspirations, namely winning the program's third state championship during that same stretch, Foster did acknowledge the significance of such an impressive streak.
"That's not something we spend any time talking about, per se," Foster said of the winning run. "It's a tremendous blessing. It's a credit to so many great coaches, so many great players who have contributed to this program for a long, long time."
While a trip down to Callaway Stadium in LaGrange is not exactly a hop, skip and a jump, Cartersville's 2019 iteration should have an easier time making the trek this week. That's because the same group literally played in the exact location less than a month ago against LaGrange High.
That should make things quite a bit easier on the team.
"We've got basically the same itinerary as when we went down and played LaGrange," Foster said. "... Our young men have been through this trip once, and hopefully, these type of trips prepare you if you need to make a long road trip during the playoffs, as well."
Having secured the region title, the Canes wouldn't have to travel in the playoffs until at least the quarterfinals. After hosting the loser of this week's Region 7-AAAA matchup between Flowery Branch and Denmark, Cartersville could host Thomson in the second round in a rematch of the 2016 state final, which the Canes won by a 58-7 score.
Cartersville should be prepared for a fired up Troup (6-3, 3-2) this week. The Tigers lost region games to Sandy Creek and Cedartown earlier this year and could miss out on the playoffs with a loss and other results not falling their way.
Then again, be it playoff, region or non-region, every game the Canes play seems to be of significant value for the opposition. That only enhances Cartersville's ability to step up in the biggest of moments, and it showed last week with a dominant second-half performance to dispose of Chapel Hill, 41-6.
"I thought our kids did a good job of handling what would be potentially some distractions," Foster said, mentioning senior night and adverse weather. "Chapel Hill played well early, and I thought we did a good job of weathering the storm and made some great adjustments on the sideline and at halftime. I think our kids are very proud of how they were able to adjust on the fly and able to tweak a couple of things on both sides of the ball. ...
"I'm proud of how consistent their effort has been. Every week, everybody is going to throw their best shot at us. Every week, somebody is playing for their playoff lives. We've been playing with pressure on us all year, and I think they've just handled it really well."
Cartersville will get another tough test this week, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
Troup boasts one of the state's top playmakers in Kobe Hudson. A four-star recruit committed to Auburn as a wide receiver, Hudson has played quarterback for Troup each of the past two seasons. He helped lead his current Tigers to the state semifinals last year.
Senior backfield mate Trey Williams is also dangerous. According to Georgia High School Football Daily's newsletter, he rushed for 265 yards and two touchdowns in last week's 37-14 win over Central, Carroll.
"They're as dangerous as anybody you could want to play," Foster said of the Tigers offense. "The quarterback, Hudson, is one of the best athletes in the country. At any given time, he can break a big one on you. He throws it a lot better than people give him credit for. He's able to extend plays and keep plays alive. His receivers do a good job in the scramble drill of getting open. The running back [Williams] is really coming into his own. He had a heckuva game last week.
"They've just been a team that has gotten better every week. I know they had a hiccup earlier in the year, but they're a very, very dangerous football team, especially on offense."
Another four-star prospect anchors the defensive side of the ball for Troup. Andy Boykin, an uncommitted strong side defensive end, is ranked 14th in the country at his position. He has offers from several top collegiate programs and could join Hudson as a future Auburn player.
Even with Boykin, defense has been a problem for Troup this year. The team has allowed 200 points through its first nine games, including 55 to Callaway and 38 to Sandy Creek. But the unit hasn't allowed more than 15 points in a game over its past three outings.
"They throw different looks at you," Foster said of Troup's defense. "They play different zones, and they play some man coverage. They've got athletes out there to press you and try to take away some of the passing game. They also also have some guys who can come off the edge.
"An extremely athletic, talented and well-coached football team. We're looking forward to the challenge."
Despite Troup's inconsistent play on defense, this week's game likely won't be an easy victory. Yes, the Canes have blown out the Tigers in each of the past three years by a combined 140 points, but it would be unwise for Cartersville to take Troup lightly.
To be fair, it would only be natural for a team with aspirations of a state championship to be looking ahead to the postseason at this stage of the year, especially with a No. 1 seed already guaranteed. Foster, though, believes his players won't fall victim to the potential trap.
"I think it depends on your team," Foster said of avoiding a letdown. "I hope we're not the type of team that needs some special circumstance for us to focus and be prepared. ... I think we've got the type of team that will prepare in a championship manner every week, regardless of opponent and regardless of circumstance."