Biggest surprise (team): Stockbridge

When head coach Kevin Whitley took over the Tigers program in 2008 after six seasons at Creekside, it was seen as a coup for the moribund program. Whitley was expected to turn Stockbridge into a winner. But not this fast. After going 2-8 in Whitley's first season, the Tigers are 6-3 going into tonight's game against Sandy Creek (9-0) and assured a playoff spot for the first time since 1983.

For all the changes Whitley made -- he brought in new defensive and offensive coordinators and the triple-option offense -- none have been more critical to Stockbridge's rapid ascension than his emphasis on discipline and accountability.

Biggest setback: Mt. Zion forfeits

In mid-October, the Bulldogs were 5-2 and in the driver's seat to make a third-straight playoff appearance. Going into a Thursday night game against Morrow, all they needed was a win over Banneker or Tri-Cities in the final weeks to seal it. But Mt. Zion self-reported the use of an ineligible player, forcing it to forfeit its five wins and derail a once promising season.

Biggest injury: LaDarrius Mathis

The North Clayton sophomore running back stepped right in after the graduation of Clarence Jackson, the state's leading rusher last season. That was until Mathis sustained a season-ending injury in the Eagles' 12-7 victory over Jonesboro on Oct. 22.

Biggest hit: Avery Walls

Eagle's Landing Christian opened its season in Tallahassee, Fla., against North Florida Christian, a Class A powerhouse in Florida. Besides an impressive 27-0 victory, the most indelible moment from the game was Walls' hit on a North Florida Christian receiver just after a catch. Walls knocked the ball 12 feet in the air from the force of his hit, producing a moment worthy of over 12,000 views on YouTube.

Best crowd: Griffin at Dutchtown, Oct. 22

Simply put: It was the Bulldogs' biggest game in school history. Over 2,000 fans, easily a record, packed into Dutchtown's stadium to watch two 7-0 teams play for first place in Region 3A-AAAA. They got their money's worth. Griffin won a tough defensive battle, 10-6.

Biggest upset: Mundy's Mill over Jonesboro

Mundy's Mill went into the Thursday night game having lost 25 of its last 26 games. Jonesboro went into the game 2-3, but its three losses were by a combined seven points to playoff contenders Tri-Cities, Mt. Zion and Creekside. The Tigers ruined Jonesboro's playoff hopes with a dominating 27-6 victory. "We worked very hard and I just wanted these guys to get over the hump and see what it feels like," Tigers coach Peniel Dany said after the game.

Closest contender: Jonesboro

Speaking of the Cardinals, they may remember this season as one where they came so close to beating every playoff contender in Region 4-AAAA. Jonesboro lost to Tri-Cities (28-25), Mt. Zion (7-6), Creekside (16-13), Lovejoy (21-14) and North Clayton (12-7) by a combined 19 points. But the Cardinals did find several young weapons on offense this season, including a dynamic quarterback/receiver duo of sophomores Alejandro Bennifield and Cameron Sutton.

Biggest expectations: ELCA, Lovejoy

Both teams came into the season with a bevy of Division I talent and experience, which always elevates expectations. Both teams lived up to the expectations. Lovejoy won its first region title since 2004, made it back to the playoffs for the first time in two seasons and is ranked No. 9 in Class AAAA. ELCA passed a tough non-region schedule, steamrolled through Region 5-A and put itself on the shortlist of Class A title contenders.

Best game: Lovejoy-North Clayton

It was an early season game with playoff implications. It was a Thursday night game with the stage all to itself. It was a game featuring Division I recruits and veteran coaches. And it lived up to the hype. North Clayton forced overtime as time expired in regulation, but Lovejoy pulled out the 27-21 win in overtime. If North Clayton beats Creekside tonight, it will look back at the Lovejoy loss as the one that cost it the Region 4-AAAA title.

bpaglia@news-daily.com