The 2017 high school football season concluded last week with eight state championship games at Orlando’s Camping World Stadium.
This year’s path to Orlando had some new wrinkles.
The playoff format changing to a points-based system aimed to get the best teams in the playoffs along with creating more competitive matchups throughout the playoffs, which included the eight state championship games.
Did it work?
Well, yes and no. Teams traditionally left out from playing in stacked districts were suddenly given the chance to get into the playoffs, though there were some growing pains, and it’s not clear if tweaks will be made.
So let’s examine things a bit closer.
Lopsided playoff games
The concern in the old system, which guaranteed playoff berths for the top two teams in each district regardless of strength, was teams from really weak districts were getting in, especially in three- or four-team districts, over stronger districts due to the cap on how many teams could qualify from a particular district.
And that created huge mismatches in the playoffs.
From 2011-16, 36.3 percent of the 742 playoff games played in Class 8A-5A were decided by 10 points or less. In 2017, that number increased to 44.3 percent.
The lower classifications (4A-1A) saw lots of blowouts leading up to the state championship games in 2017. Twenty-nine of the 56 playoff games ended with a margin of 30 points or more. With a new seeding system, six No. 1 seeds captured state titles with one No. 2 seed and one No. 4 seed winning the other two state titles.
Class 6A-District 16, comprised of Miami teams, and Class 7A-District 11, which included teams from Manatee and Sarasota counties, both produced more than two playoff-worthy teams.
Palmetto High benefited from the new format in 7A-11, and the Tigers affirmed their playoff spot with a first-round victory, despite being the third-best team behind Braden River and eventual state champion Venice.
In 6A-16, Miami Northwestern, which won the 6A state title, was one of four teams from its district in the playoffs. And the Bulls needed to knock off district foes Miami Central and Miami Carol City just to get through their region.
Possible tweaks ahead
If the lower classifications aren’t going to reinstitute districts, then the FHSAA needs a scheduling rule that guarantees a certain number of region games in a similar manner with teams that are obligated to play district opponents. It’s the only way to ensure that a really good team such as Miami Booker T. Washington isn’t stuck putting together a schedule only against bigger public schools that are also pretty decent. Granted, is it a preview of a playoff matchup? Yes, but the higher classifications still saw playoff games pitting two district opponents against each other.
The argument can be made that Booker T. Washington had a chance to move up classifications like Jacksonville Bolles and Jacksonville Trinity Christian did to avoid the scheduling nightmare of being in one of the four lower classes.
Booker T. Washington didn’t play one 4A program during the regular season en route to missing the playoffs, despite being a state-ranked team for most of the year.
Second, the FHSAA must put in a parameter that doesn’t alter a team’s playoff fate when someone on their schedule forfeits games for whatever reason. For example, Southeast High’s five forfeited games flipped the Seminoles’ record from 6-1 to 1-6 and the Seminoles’ Week 10 opponent, Harmony, was no longer in a position to qualify for the Class 7A playoffs. Southeast routed Harmony, but prior to the game being played, Harmony was mathematically eliminated from gaining enough points due to Southeast’s switching tiers in the power point formula.
Third, when a natural disaster such as Hurricane Irma rips through the state to cause so many cancellations, the FHSAA should try delaying the playoffs by a week to avoid the logjam of games many teams faced in October. Or at least allow teams that reschedule games with brand-new opponents to benefit from it with playoff points. The FHSAA prohibited that in the playoff points format, so teams wouldn’t drop teams having a bad season from their schedule for teams carrying more playoff points. But with a natural disaster, it seems appropriate to bend this rule a bit.
Finally, eliminate three-team districts. Again, eliminate three team districts. Find a way, geographically, population-based and under any other guideline to nix the small district that allows a program to only need two victories to lock up a playoff berth. In 7A-Region 3, South Fort Myers defeated two opponents in a three-team district to lock up a top-four seed and a guaranteed playoff berth as a district champion. With that, the Wolfpack earned a home playoff game. Braden River, which had the second-highest playoff points average, was stuck traveling south for Round 1 and was treated to a rematch with district rival and eventual state champion Venice in the second round. That rematch should have been in a regional final.
Nonetheless, there’s no perfect system. It’s only the first year with the playoff system, and more data needs to be tallied to have it all make sense.
Manatee was almost out of the playoff picture this year, losing out on the last wild card berth to Lithia Newsome, a team the Hurricanes beat head-to-head, if not for Palmetto beating Punta Gorda Charlotte in the last week of the regular season. The Tarpons, consequently, lost out to Port Charlotte for one of the final wild card berths in their 6A region despite beating the Pirates head-to-head.
The reasoning? Strength of schedule matters.
Every game matters, and that’s what we got this season.
Ironing out the kinks is certainly on the FHSAA’s agenda, and coaches have a better grasp of how it all works.
And that only enhances the playoff system moving forward.