McAlester has proven doubters wrong this season and faces its biggest challenge yet.
The Buffs finished second in District 5A-3 and are back in the Class 5A state quarterfinals for the first time since 2016 — in spite of being picked to finish lower in the district standings and being ranked below teams they’ve beaten this year.
But now McAlester faces the same program that ended their season three years ago in the quarterfinals: top-ranked Carl Albert.
“They have a lot of great athletes and have won three straight titles," McAlester football coach Forrest Mazey said. "But I keep telling our guys they haven't won 2019 and this thing is still kind of wide open."
The Titans (10-1) have won three consecutive state titles and have been dominant again this season. Carl Albert has allowed just 63 total points this year and is beating opponents by nearly 40 points per game.
Carl Albert’s lone blemish ended a 40-win streak in a 10-6 loss at Piedmont, which dominated possession of the ball for most of three quarters. It was the first time the Titans scored fewer than 10 points since 2014.
"We will have to play extremely physical against Carl Albert," Mazey said. "Our guys have shown that they can play physical and will have to stay focused on doing the things we've been doing on both sides of the ball."
Running back Javion Hunt is a four-star prospect with 12 scholarship offers and 247sports.com rates him as the third-overall prospect in the state’s Class of 2021.
The athletic junior has 136 carries for 1,025 yards and 25 touchdowns this year, but is also being recruited as a safety.
Junior quarterback Ben Harris started as a freshman and is 121-of-183 passing for 1,625 yards and 11 touchdowns with just three interceptions this season.
Sophomore running back Kentrell Bizzell has 83 carries for 688 yards and 10 touchdowns, while Jayveion Traylor has 22 catches for 334 yards and one score, and Rico Windham has 21 catches for 285 yards and two touchdowns.
The Titans also have talent on defense.
Carl Albert linebacker Reise Collier is a three-star prospect with three scholarship offers. Windham is a three-star cornerback prospect with eight offers and committed to Tulsa.
McAlester's Chris Hilton is 82-of-130 passing for 1,296 yards and 11 touchdowns with seven interceptions, adding 156 carries for 873 yards and 16 scores.
Hayden Franks has 573 yards and six scores on the ground, while Layne Jarrett has rushed for 394 yards and four touchdowns, and Gavin Johnson leads McAlester receivers with 474 yards and six touchdowns.
McAlester’s offense averages 316 yards and is almost perfectly balanced between the pass and the run — but the Buffs rushed for 433 yards in last week’s win against Claremore.
Defense has been key for the Buffs allowing 236.5 yards per game with several takeaways.
“I'm proud of our guys because they've improved every week and we just have to keep doing what we've been and woorking to get better every day," Mazey said.
Friday’s winner advances to the semifinals to play the winner between Coweta (6-5) and Piedmont (9-2).
Contact Adrian O’Hanlon III at firstname.lastname@example.org