Hilmar head coach Frank Marques called the Division 4 bracket the toughest field he’s seen. Atwater finds itself in a Division 2 bracket that includes 10 conference champions.
Teams emerging as Sac-Joaquin Section champions will have to earn their way to the blue banner with talented squads throughout the six divisions.
For the first time since 2009 when the section switched the playoff format, a six-win team didn’t qualify for the playoffs. Both El Camino and Gregori finished 6-4 and didn’t make the playoffs.
Let’s go division by division and break down the playoffs.
The favorite: Folsom (10-0)
The contenders: Oak Ridge (9-1), Stagg (9-1), Pleasant Grove (8-2)
Local team: Merced (8-2)
Folsom is the overwhelming favorite in the Division 1 playoffs. The Bulldogs are led by quarterback Jake Browning, who set a state regular-season record with 56 touchdowns. Browning has passed for 3,948 yards.
Folsom is one of two defending section champions in the field, with No. 11 seed Granite Bay (7-3), which won the Division 1 state championship last year.
Third-seeded Oak Ridge is a popular pick to meet Folsom in the championship game. The Trojans are led by sophomore quarterback Ian Book, who has thrown for 1,989 yards and 25 touchdowns. Folsom defeated Oak Ridge 35-0 earlier this season.
Merced draws a tough first-round matchup against No. 12 seed Jesuit (7-3). All three of the Marauders’ losses have come to section title contenders Folsom, Oak Ridge and Pleasant Grove.
Section final prediction: Folsom 42, Oak Ridge 28
The favorite: Del Oro (8-2)
The contenders: Rio Linda (9-1), Elk Grove (9-1), Grant (7-3), Rocklin (7-3)
Local team: Atwater (6-4)
The Division 2 field is loaded from top to bottom. Del Oro earned the top seed by beating Rocklin 14-13 last week. The Golden Eagles ask running back Dylan Kainrath to carry the offense. The senior carried the ball 54 times for 244 yards and three touchdowns in a 30-28 win over Granite Bay this season. He has 1,215 yards and 20 touchdowns on the season.
There are four or five other teams capable of winning the section title. Grant has a huge offensive line and lost 38-35 to Del Oro earlier this season. Elk Grove has a lights out defense, led by Noah Letuligasenoa Ta’amu and his 15 sacks.
Atwater will square off against Elk Grove in the first round in a matchup that features the most playoff appearances by any two schools in any first-round matchup this week. The Falcons are making their 35th postseason appearance and the Thundering Herd are making their 58th.
Section final prediction: Del Oro 21, Elk Grove 14
The favorite: Inderkum (8-2)
The contenders: American Canyon (9-1), Manteca (9-1)
Local team: Pacheco 7-3
Inderkum is seeded No. 3 but the Tigers are the team to beat. Their only losses came to Pleasant Grove and Rocklin. Inderkum averages close to 300 yards rushing per game, led by a trio of backs in Terence White, Marcus Gilbert and Tyler Dean.
American Canyon has a talented running back of its own in Jomon Dotson, who has rushed for 1,517 yards and 23 touchdowns. Manteca made an impressive run to a Valley Oak League title. The Buffaloes are big and physical.
Pacheco earned the No. 9 seed and will open against a very fast Christian Brothers team. The Panthers have a shot to make a nice run behind their power back Frank Ginda.
Section final prediction: Inderkum 28, American Canyon 17
The favorite: Central Catholic (9-1)
The contenders: Hilmar (10-0), Center (7-3), Ripon (9-1)
Local team: Hilmar
The Yellowjackets earned the No. 2 seed despite being the only undefeated team in the field. Hilmar has a tough road to the finals with a possible rematch against Escalon in the quarterfinals and a very fast Center team in the semifinals.
Central Catholic is the big dog as the defending state champions. The Raiders are led by running back Matt Ringer, who has rushed for 1,596 yards and 22 touchdowns. Central Catholic’s only loss came to St. Mary’s. The Raiders could have a tough second-round game against the winner of Colfax and Sierra of Manteca.
Section final prediction: Hilmar 24, Central Catholic 21
The favorite: Le Grand (10-0)
The contender: Mariposa (8-2)
Local teams: Le Grand, Mariposa, Delhi (5-5).
The Bulldogs appear to be a lock to win their fourth straight section title. The Bulldogs already have decisive wins over Mariposa, Delhi and Waterford. Le Grand is led by runing back Ryan Martinez, who is closing in on a 2,000-yard season. The senior has 1,848 yards and 29 touchdowns.
Delhi is making the longest trip of any team in the section this week with the 140-mile drive to Garden Valley to face Golden Sierra.
Section final prediction: Le Grand 41, Mariposa 28
The favorite: Bradshaw Christian (8-2)
The contenders: Woodland Christian (9-1), Ripon Christian (8-2)
Local team: Stone Ridge Christian (5-5)
Bradshaw Christian is in the playoffs for the seventh straight time. The Pride have a balanced offensive attack led by quarterback Kevin Williams, who has thrown for 25 touchdowns and 1,000-yard running back Jakobe Hawkins.
Stone Ridge Christian is making its first playoff appearance in school history. The Knights are led by running backs Estevon Herrera (1,403 yards and 18 touchdowns) and Jaime Trevino (984 yards and 8 touchdowns). The Knights have a tough matchup against Ripon Christian and running back Andrew Brown, who has 2,155 yards and 36 touchdowns.
Section final prediction: Bradshaw Christian 34, Ripon Christian 28