HOMERVILLE -- When Clinch County plays Lincoln County, the stakes are always high.
The winner may go on to become state champions. The two programs have combined for 10 Class A titles, and several times they've had to go through the other one to get there.
Clinch and Lincoln, both 12-1 and ranked No. 3 and No. 4, respectively, in Class A, square off at 9 a.m. in the state semifinals at Atlanta's Georgia Dome.
"These are two football teams with a lot of history," Clinch County head coach Jim Dickerson said. "We've had some great teams, and Lincoln's got a long history of winning and a coach who's a legend."
That legend is Larry Campbell, Georgia's winningest high school football coach. Few coaches at any level of football have won more games than Campbell, who's been Lincoln's head coach since Richard Nixon was president (1972).
"Larry Campbell's got 377 wins. He's averaging about 12 wins a year over a 32-year career," Dickerson said. "He knows every trick of the trade. His teams are sound, well-disciplined. They're going to be one of the most fundamentally sound teams you'll play. They're going to wait for you to make a mistake, and then they're going to capitalize on it."
Clinch and Lincoln have faced each other six times. Clinch has won three, and Lincoln's won the other three. All three years Clinch has won state, the Panthers have had to defeat Lincoln in the playoffs (21-7 in the 1988 quarterfinals, 11-8 in the 1991 state title game, 28-14 in the 2002 quarterfinals). The 1991 Clinch victory ended Lincoln's then-state record 44-game winning streak. Lincoln defeated Clinch 14-7 in the 1987 title game. Lincoln also won 7-2 in the 1984 semifinals and 12-6 in the quarterfinals in 1997.
"Every time we've played them, it's been for high stakes. It's always been the quarterfinals or later," Dickerson said. "So much is at stake this year. The winner plays for the championship. We're no stranger to this game. They aren't either. Last year, they played in the Dome, and won in the Dome."
Points should be at a minimum today. Clinch has allowed an average of 6.1 points a game, Lincoln 6.0. Clinch has six shutouts this year, Lincoln has five. Clinch's strength is its front seven, and the front is also a strength for Lincoln, led by two Division I prospects at defensive tackle.
Both teams have historically won with defense, and this year is no different.
"We kind of mirror each other in that defenses are our strong suits," Dickerson said. "They've given up 78 points all season (Clinch has allowed 79)."
In 13 games this season, Clinch's defense has given up 66 yards rushing. The national record is unofficially 184. The Panthers would love to set that record, but like Dickerson said, they don't care if they give up 400 yards each of the next two weeks if they win state.
Clinch's offense centers around the running game, with tailback Justin Gainey (1,330 yards, 20 TD), playmaking quarterback Lamar McKnight (531 yards, 11 TD), and Jared Bighams (559 yards, 9 TD), who backs up both Gainey and McKnight. Lincoln's offense is more balanced, as Gavin Williams (881 yards), Shawntavious Jennings (458 yards) and Darrell Norman (287 yards) share the running load, while quarterback Cordaryll Coppin has thrown for 1,230 yards and 14 touchdowns.
"You've got to be ready for everything against Lincoln," Dickerson said. "You've got to be ready for power football, reverses, anything from the wishbone to five-wide. (Campbell) knows the game inside and outside, frontwards and backwards. He was winning football games on Friday nights when I was a kid in kindergarten.
"We've got to have a basic game plan and allow our athletes to make plays. We've got to be sound in what we do and do it well. We've got a chance; we just have a simple game plan, and as long as we execute and don't make mistakes, we've got a chance."
This is Clinch's fourth straight trip to the Georgia Dome. The Panthers lost to Buford 15-7 in 2001, beat Hawkinsville 36-0 in 2002 and lost to Hawkinsville 25-7 last year. The winner of those games went on to become state champions each year.
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