The Sac-Joaquin Section football playoffs kick off this weekend, with 26 Stanislaus District teams spread across the six divisions. We'll look at the large-school divisions today, after looking at the small schools on Thursday:
Champion: Franklin of Elk Grove (10-0) doesn't just beat foes, the Wildcats punish them with an aggressive defense that allows just 11 points a game and its list of victims is impressive. It allowed one TD in each of its last four wins, including a 17-7 win over rival Elk Grove (9-1, and the co-favorite in D2). The path to the final could be challenging, with Nevada Union in the opener and possibly Lincoln and USC-bound Justin Davis in the quarters. It's likely Granite Bay in a semifinal, then Burbank or Oak Ridge.
Runner-up: Burbank (10-0) would have been my champion, but the Titans aren't pushed enough in league the Metro League is the capital city's equivalent to the Modesto Metro Conference and how a team improves the second half of the season is going to dictate its playoff fate.
Challengers: Oak Ridge (9-1) lost only to Folsom (10-0, No. 1 seed in D2), but it beat Vista del Lago, Pleasant Grove, Grant and Vacaville teams that routinely challenge for crowns. QB Jason Samuels (1,805 yards, 20 TDs, 5 INTs) leads a diverse attack, as the Trojans pass for 184 yards and run for 178 yards each week. If the Trojans face Downey, the Knights will have their hands full trying to block Zack Claiborne, who leads NorCal with 19 sacks. ... For Downey (9-1) being a challenger might be wishful thinking, but QB Aaron Zwahlen did top 3,000 yards and is No. 1 in the state with 44 TDs. Bethel will bring its run-oriented veer to Downey tonight, and the Knights shut down Enochs' veer to win the MMC a few weeks ago. WR Richard Lopez is second in the state with 17 TD catches.
Darkhorse: Stagg (9-1) lost to St. Mary's a team that threw a scare into legendary De La Salle and the Delta Kings are the wild card with a big-play attack. QB Wayne Brooks (2,87 yards, 34 TDs, 10 INTs; 535 rushing, 11 TDs) is the anti-Zwahlen, racing around the backfield to avoid the rush and throwing deep toward his elusive receivers. Stagg could lose its opener or play for a title.
Champion: Folsom (10-0) isn't scaring people the way it did in 2010, when the Bulldogs won the State Division 2 Bowl after and won their four section games by an average of 36 points. QB Jake Browning (3,438 yards, 40 TDs) is just a sophomore, though he's faced very little competition of note on the schedule and that could become a factor in the later rounds versus more physical foes.
Runner-up: Elk Grove (9-1) lost to Franklin of Elk Grove (No. 1 in D1), but also had too scrape past Davis 17-10 in last week's finale. No worries, not if Robert Frazier and Wadus Parker (combined for 2,586 yards, with 17 TDs apiece) are running it. Thundering Herd is methodical on offense and patient enough to wait for its opportunity. The Herd forced 27 turnovers.
Challengers: Buhach Colony (8-2) lost to Clovis North and Serra (combined 17-2) and is as close to Elk Grove as any team in the D2 bracket with a diverse run game (Stefon Gold, 821 yards, 13 TDs; Leon Miles, 710, 11; Jayce Webster, 451, 4) and a "D" that is fast and loves to hit. BC has to show it can pass the ball effectively, or defenses will clog the line as Vacaville did last year in its 27-17 semifinal win. ... St. Mary's (8-2) has the section's most impressive performance for 2012 a 21-13 loss to De La Salle in Week 3, a week after St. Mary's lost to Central Catholic. A late-season, 43-34 victory over Stagg exposed defensive flaws, so it will be QB Kaleb Parrish (1,935 yards, 24 TDs) who will have to carry the Rams through the playoffs.
Champion: Oakdale (9-1) lost to Oceanside (No. 1 in the SoCal medium-school rankings), but it has rolled to eight straight wins. Not the offensive juggernaut we have seen the last few years, the Mustangs give up just 11 points a game and often the defense gives the offense a short field to travel. QB Spencer Thomas has been a runner-up the last two years to Del Oro, but he won section baseball titles the last two springs he needs a football title to become a legend at this legendary program.
Runner-up: Vista del Lago (9-1) was crushed 49-7 by Oakdale in the quarterfinals a year ago, as it had no answer for the Mustangs' physical Wing-T or its ball-hawking defense Vista's first pass was intercepted and run back for a TD. Sophomore QB Matt Jimison (70 percent completion, 1,954 yards, 32 TDs, 5 INTs) has been close to flawless since Vista was routed 42-6 by Oak Ridge in Week Zero. Its schedule is weak, but this is the thinnest of the four large-school playoff divisions.
Challengers: Sierra (9-1) will go as far as RB Anthony Cota (1,734 yards, 35 TDs; fifth in state with 230 points) can take them on a tender ankle, though QB Jake Pruitt (34 of 46, 607 yards, 5 TDs, 0 INTs the last three weeks) rejuvenated a dormant passing attack in time to be a factor in the playoffs.
Upset special: Manteca (6-4) has struggled playing teams with speed, so it might appear that the Buffs are in over their head with Inderkum in their opener. The Buffs would love to turn it into a slugfest that features long drives and clock-eating run plays. If its defense plays the way it did versys Oakdale in Week 9, the Buffs win.