Did it occur to anyone at TSSAA to simply make a big, albeit to me, obvious, adjustment to the high school football playoff system before it voted again to re-invent the wheel last Monday?
In case you missed it, the state’s major high school sports governing body voted to re-work the playoff format beginning next season to one in which the 32 largest schools automatically qualify for the playoffs while the remaining Division I schools are broken into five classes in which 32 teams from each class, or the top four finishers in each region, qualify for the postseason.
The latter portion of that format – the one in which the top four in each region makes the playoffs – is the same as what was used from 1994-2008 [three teams went in ‘93] before TSSAA adapted the Z-Plan based on a system then used in Virginia which was very complicated and tweaked every season.
The format used from ’04-’08 was a good plan in which teams knew what they had to do to make the playoffs and, most of the time, knew who they were going to play in the postseason as soon as the regular season ended, and sometimes before. Only region games counted as far as the standings, and playoffs, were concerned unless there was a three-way tie, in which case non-league wins would be brought into play. The big drawback was regular-season travel.
The Z-Plan, which I’ve long said stood for zany, called for D-I schools to play in three classes during the regular season [same as in baseball, softball and basketball] before splitting into six for the playoffs. This was done to reduce travel during the regular season and keep more consistent rivalries with the other sports.
Early reports for the regular season were great. The playoffs? Not so much. Due to a number of factors, it was hard to know if a team was in or out. If you had six wins or more, you were probably in. But how to know for sure?
The TSSAA created an NCAA Tournament Selection Show-type program for the Saturday morning following the season in which the brackets would be announced. That delayed coaches swapping game video for the first round. Worse than that, every year mistakes were found in the brackets and had to be corrected after the show was over. A couple of years ago, one team which was announced as in had to be told it was out after a mistake was discovered.
A major problem was the wild card, which had never before been used by TSSAA in any sport until now. One thing the Z-Plan was supposed to do was reward teams who played a tough schedule. Problem was, it rewarded overall wins [not just in the district] first, regardless of how strong or weak opponents were, THEN applied the strength-of-schedule tiebreaker. In other words, an eight-win team against a weak schedule was always rewarded over a seven-win team which played a strong schedule.
That made it tough for most of Rutherford County’s powerhouses to schedule non-district games, and I can’t blame anybody. When Rutherford was placed in a District 7-AAA unto itself, I fully expected those teams to load up their schedules with nearby Lebanon, Wilson Central and Mt. Juliet, especially the Blue Devils, who had long-standing rivalries with Oakland and Riverdale from LHS’ 7-AAA days.
That hasn’t happened. Except for LaVergne, the perennial weak sister of Rutherford County, few of that county’s teams have scheduled any of Wilson County’s [Blackman vs. Mt. Juliet is the current exception]. You can’t blame coaches who need a win against anybody to qualify for the playoffs. But Rutherford County schools had to play teams from far, far away to fill out a 10-game schedule.
The most recent tweak was a good one. It took each district’s champion and placed it into the appropriate playoff bracket, applying tiebreakers along the way. Next up were the district runners-up.
Next were the wild cards which were based first and foremost on overall wins. That was the major mistake.
What TSSAA should have done is, after placing the first- and second-place finishers, taken the third-place finishers and then the fourth-placers and, if necessary, even the fifths until the playoff brackets were filled.
That would place the games of primary importance on the district contests, which it had always been in football and every other sport. Overall wins could still be used to break ties, but it wouldn’t be as big a factor.
With this new format, we don’t really know how teams are going to be split and how far some will have to travel during the regular season.
Another criticism of the Z-Plan was teams in the lower playoff class would have to play, and beat, teams in the higher class [example, a 1A team facing a 2A team in Class A]. Coaches of the odd-number classes cried foul. They may have a point. But I don’t think there’s that much difference from 1A to 2A of from 5A to 6A. It’s not like 1A Gordonsville had to beat 6A Mt. Juliet to get in. In fact, Gordonsville beat 2A Friendship Christian a couple of years ago before both District 8-A teams won state championships.
But the biggest travesty of this new system is in the new 6A, which will be limited to the state’s largest 32 teams who will automatically qualify for an 11th game. Even if one of those teams goes 0-10, it will make the playoffs.
It makes the 10 regular-season games for seeding purposes only. Granted, players should be motivated by winning as its own reward every week. But for some people, the playoffs are the carrot which fuels their fire. Now that that’s removed, I hope high school football in the state’s top class isn’t an exercise of going through the motions.
We’ve seen it in the NBA. It’s largely become that in major college basketball as well as the playoff and NCAA tournament fields have become larger and the regular seasons watered down. We don’t need that in high school football.
If only they had called me first.