October Madness

Hillcrest (blue) and Camdenton (white) both should benefit greatly from the new playoff format due to being Class 4 schools in the Ozark Conference, which is loaded with Class 5 programs. (Staff Photo)

Survive and advance. Win or go home. One game at a time.

Football coaches all across the state will be breaking out the clichés soon as every football team in the state will compete in a bracketed district tournament format after the conclusion of the regular season. The new playoff format was unanimously approved by the MSHSAA Board of Directors in April of this year.

Under the previous format, which had been in place since 2008, teams played a 10-game regular season. Each team was assigned to a District, with the majority of Districts across the state comprised of four teams. The final three games of the regular season were played against District opponents, with each District producing a District champion and a runner-up, both of which advanced to the state playoffs.

Under the new playoff format, each team will play a nine-game regular season, with each school scheduling each of these games. The tenth game of the season will be the first round of District play, with every team in the state competing. Each district in Classes 1-4 and Class 6 is comprised of eight teams, and these eight teams are seeded by a complex point system over the course of the regular season. Class 5 (as well as 8-man football) districts will be based on the number of teams in the region.

The District tournament will operate similarly to District tournament formats in other MSHSAA sports, with the top seed hosting the #8 seed, the second seed hosting the #7 seed, and so on. After week one of District play, each District will be narrowed to four teams; to two finalists after week two of Districts, with a District champion crowned following the third week. There are eight districts total in Classes 1-5, which means that District champions advance to the state quarterfinals. With only four districts in Class 6, the district champions automatically advance to the state semifinals.

Another unique aspect of the new format involves the financial ramifications of the tenth game. With each school scheduling nine games, some schools will have five home games and four away games, while other schools will play four home games and five away contests, thus losing the gate revenue from a fifth home game. In order to make the system as fair and equitable as possible, the gate receipts for the tenth game (minus expenses) will be split on a 60/40 basis, with the home team receiving 60 percent of the revenue and the visiting team 40 percent of the gate.

The point system that will be used for district seeding is complex, but does take into account wins and losses, strength of schedule, and point differential, as well as awarding points for playing “up in class” against a larger school. The points for WINS AND LOSSES are simple: if you win, you receive 20 points, while a loss is still worth 10 points. If a team loses in overtime, it will receive 15 points. These points are then added up and divided by the total number of games played.

Teams are also awarded 10 bonus points per class for PLAYING UP IN CLASS against an opponent. For example, when Class 3 Cassville hosted Class 5 Branson in the regular season opener, the Wildcats were awarded 20 bonus points for playing a school that was two classes larger. A team is not penalized for playing “down in class,” though, meaning that Branson was not docked any points for playing a smaller school. Each team’s bonus points for this category are also divided by the total number of games played.

The POINT DIFFERENTIAL for each game will also be calculated, with the total for any one game not to exceed plus-13 or minus-13 points. For example, with regard to point differential, Hillcrest received six points for its 18-12 victory over Camdenton on Aug. 24, but only received the maximum 13 points for its 20-0 win over West Plains on Sept. 14. Conversely, the Hornets were deducted five points following their first loss of the season, a 26-21 setback to Kickapoo on Sept. 27. Once again, the total number of points is divided by the total number of games played.

The points awarded for the three categories detailed above are pretty simple to compute…just add up the total points for each category and divide by the number of games played. However, the formula used to compute each team’s STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE may require an advanced degree in applied statistics, a good understanding of algorithms, and a computer for good measure. Here is an explanation of the formula taken directly from the MSHSAA press release announcing the new playoff format: “Points from opponent’s schedule by taking the sum of the win/loss record from each team you have played times the points for a win and loss, 10, 20 minus your contribution to the opponent’s record, divided by the total number of games played minus the number of games you played.” Got it?

Regardless of the complexities of the strength of schedule component, for the most part, area football coaches are taking a wait-and-see approach with the new system as a whole. A general consensus is that the coaches would like to have had more input on the new process.

“It will be interesting to see how the formula for seeding works out,” said David Large, head coach of perennial Class 3 powerhouse Cassville. “It would have been nice to have had more input on it. It’s hard to comment on it too much when you are not sure how it works. We may end up liking the formula and this procedure after a couple of years.”

“I’m not sure I like this system, but I am curious to see how it goes when we test it and, hopefully, we can work out any kinks with it,” said Lance Gallamore, head coach of Class 2 Pleasant Hope. “I do like the new format and how it now makes the regular season mean more than what it has in past years. For us this format also allows us to play schools that in years past we would not be matched up with due to location. Scheduling will be a huge factor for us because the point system for playing up or down in class can affect your seeding. Bottom line, I think that you still need to play a competitive schedule to prepare you for the districts.”

Most area schools are members of conferences, which means that of the nine regular season games, six to seven may already be predetermined due to conference match-ups. That means that these schools will only have the opportunity to schedule a couple of non-conference games each season. Will teams take advantage of these non-conference games to “schedule up” to gain additional bonus points, or will teams use these games to schedule “winnable” games to add points in that area? “We always try to play teams up, so it really doesn’t change anything,” said Large.

“In my opinion, I think a mixture of both will be the best,” said Gallamore. “Obviously you need to challenge yourself enough to be prepared for Districts. I think a lot of emphasis is on the seeding in districts right now, rather than playing a competitive schedule that will set you up to make a run in the playoffs.

“This will not affect our schedule directly near as much, because we tend to play schools that are the same classification,” added Gallamore. “Playing a tough team in a class below you, though, can be just as valuable. I think most coaches will take that approach, but in my opinion, as far as seeding for districts, most coaches will simply worry about their own win-loss record.”

For the larger schools, such as Class 5 power Ozark and its annual gauntlet through COC-Large juggernauts like Webb City, Carthage and Nixa, the need to “schedule up” is not as important as it may be for smaller schools. In fact, the Tigers used their two non-conference games this season to post a couple of victories over St. Joseph’s Benton and Harrison (Ark.). “It may have a factor in some teams’ scheduling, but it really will not affect us,” said Ozark head coach Mark Bliss. “I truly think that this season will have a wait-and-see effect and see how all things play out in this first year in order to make decisions in the future in scheduling.”

“Scheduling up doesn’t do much if you don’t win,” said Bobby Cornelison, head coach at Springfield Catholic, a perennial Class 3 contender. “You are better off playing down a class against schools with good records over scheduling up against teams with poor records. The bottom line is win!”

One key benefit of the new system is that District seeding will be objective. As the saying goes, “the numbers don’t lie.” In many of the other sports, the District coaches meet toward the end of the regular season and vote on the seeds for the District tournament. Regardless of whatever formula (if any) each coach uses to determine District seeding, the human element means that there is a lot of subjectivity at work in the seeding process in those sports.

“Our district is so spread out it would be difficult to get us all together for a seed meeting,” said Cornelison. “As a former basketball coach, I also think this will keep someone from stacking the deck in their favor.”

Although it is not explicitly mentioned in the explanation regarding the point differential, the underlying purpose in capping the differential at 13 points seems to be to prevent teams from running up the score on inferior opponents. This is something that the coaches certainly favor. However, suppose a team is leading by a touchdown in the waning moments of a game and has the ball deep in their opponent’s territory. Do you take a knee and run out the clock, or do you try and punch in another score to gain the maximum 13 points?

“I think it is a good rule,” said Large. “No one ever needs to run up the score at the high school level. We will still take a knee. A win is a win regardless of the score. That seven points may affect a seeding or a home field game, but not how you play when you show up for that next game.”

Under the old system, which also factored in a point differential, punching in a late touchdown might have been the difference between advancing out of District play to the state playoffs or sitting at home come late October. “It depends on how deep in the season you are,” said Cornelison of whether his Irish would try and tack on a late touchdown under the new system. “Later, when you start number-crunching, you might try to punch it in. I think it will be less of a factor since it is about seeding versus getting in like before.”

There are potential scenarios which could create controversy under the new format. For example, it is entirely plausible that a team can receive a higher District seed than a school with the same overall record which it lost to head-to-head during the regular season.

Another potential area of controversy deals with the competition level in various conferences. Some conferences have traditionally been more competitive top-to-bottom than other conferences. With teams playing the majority of their regular season games against conference opponents, the more competitive conferences may be at a disadvantage come seeding time after beating up on each other in the regular season. One school may be seeded higher in Districts after compiling a better won-loss record in a weaker conference, whereas a team from a more competitive conference may have more losses against better competition. Of course, with every school now getting a shot at competing in the District tournament, every team will control its own destiny regardless of seeding.

The new playoff format will give every football team in the state a chance to win a state championship—or at least a District title—which seems to be a positive change from the previous format. However, what would a “perfect” playoff format look like? According to Cornelison, there is “no such animal.” More than one coach, though, favors the system in play in Oklahoma, in which each district is comprised of eight teams. The first three weeks of the regular season feature “non-district” games, with the final seven games featuring match-ups with district opponents. The top four teams in each district at the end of the regular season advance to the state playoffs and are seeded and cross-bracketed with the top four teams from another district.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. There is a new playoff format in place in Missouri high school football, but despite all of the point systems, formulas and other changes, expect to see the traditional powers advancing under the new format.

“I personally don’t think it will be that big of a deal,” said Cornelison, in his final assessment of the new playoff format. “It puts us on par with most other team sports. After week 10, though, we will still have the same number of teams left as before. The road you take will still lead through the same traditional powers. More than likely, when you get to the quarterfinals, you will end up with the same eight teams you would have under the old system.

“The bottom line is that you need to play your best ball at the end of the year,” added Cornelison. “If you get hot and or peak at the right time, you can make a deep playoff run. I was fine with the old system, was fine when we took one team out, and don’t see anything in this new system that just jumps out at me that looks great or bad either way.”

Survive and advance. Win or go home. One game at a time.

How will the new playoff structure benefit perennial Class 3 juggernaut Cassville? (Photo courtesy of Chuck Nickle Photography)

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Ozark Preps Illustrated.

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