Who Cares About the Underdog?

Another football season has come and gone already. We did alright in the Ozarks, grabbing a pair of state titles, sending a Springfield area team to the Class 5 title game for the first time ever, and getting a Nicki Minaj-size butt load of spots on the All-State teams. The season started earlier than ever before and ended one day short of the latest it could end. And while there were some small controversies due to blown calls, moved playoff dates, players left off the All-State team, etc., nothing excruciatingly terrible happened. In fact, now that I’ve had a few weeks to let the whole season settle and digest it a bit, I really only have one question: Why are we playing the first round of districts?

You’re all familiar with our district playoff format by now, as we’re in the third year of its existence. Each team has a score calculated using a number of factors based on their play during the regular season. The teams are then ranked 1 through 8, match-ups are set using a standard eight-team bracket (meaning the #1 seed plays the #8 seed, #2 plays #7 and so forth), and the top four seeds host the first round games. It’s all very nice, it works well, and it seems ripe for the underdog drama that we love to see out of the NCAA basketball tournament. Except that hasn’t happened…at all.

Whoever created the district seeding formula deserves a bonus from MSHSAA. The rankings are very good at predicting the winner of each district and getting better. You want to see a #8 seed knock off a #1 seed in a district? Hasn’t happened yet. Three years in and teams seeded #8 are 0-100 against their top seeded foes. 

“Surely there’s a #7 seed that has pulled an upset?”  Yes there is. Two #7 teams advanced in 2012, and one in each of the last two years, giving #7 seeds a record of 4-113. And the record of those four teams in the district semifinals? 0-4. 

Ozark at Bolivar (Staff Photo)

Your glimmer of hope comes from the #6 spot. In 2012, five #6 seeds advanced to the district semifinals and two made it to the district championship game. Both lost. The year 2013 was a boom season, as nine #3 seeds won in the first round and one even won a district title, but it was Rock Bridge in Class 6 and nobody in Southwest Missouri noticed. Then the chickens came home to roost this season, with #6 seeds going 4-40 in the first round.

Add it all up and teams seeded 6, 7, or 8 in district playoffs have a combined first round record of 22-327 for a winning percentage of .063. If a major league baseball team won at that pace, they would win 10 games in a 162 game season.

And it’s not just the number of losses, it’s the way the games are lost. The average margin of victory in first round games has grown from 30.99 in 2012 to 34.22 in just two years. The number of games decided by 30 points or more went from 86, to 94, to 101 this season, with 30 of those games decided by 50 points or more. That’s a full 62.4% of the first round games that can be classified as major blowouts. 

The one fly in the ointment in the “get rid of the first round” argument is the 4 and 5 games. In the first two years, the splits were about what you would expect: 29-15 in 2012 and 33-11 in 2013, both in favor of the 4 seeds. But this season the #5 teams pulled a big rally, winning 21 of the 44 first round games. The dark cloud to this silver lining is that a #5 team has not yet won a district title. In fact, only two #5 seeds have even advanced to a district title game.

Camdenton at Kickapoo (Staff Photo)

The cold hard facts are that of the 132 district championships that have been won in the last three years, only one has been won by a team seeded #5 or below. Conversely, 89 have been won by teams seeded #1. Of the 118 first round games played by 6, 7, and 8 seeds last year, 109 were decided by 21 points or more, 87 of those by 30 points or more. That’s not competitive or entertaining football for anyone. And now you know why I wonder why are we playing the first round of districts?

The big reason why we have to keep going this way despite the first round being almost non-competitive is fairness. Everyone gets their chance in the current setup. You just have to keep winning. We’ve seen a number of examples of how this system is fair. For example, last year Aurora was the #5 seed in its district after finishing 2-5 in the Big 8. After beating Monett on the road in the first round, the Hound Dawgs went on the road again to knock off top seeded Reeds Spring. Cabool followed a similar road this year. Both are teams that got roughed up playing in a tough conference, were better for it, and were ready for the playoffs. The current system gave them the chance to prove themselves come playoff time and they did.

To be able to eliminate the first round, you would have to give every team a chance to measure themselves against the rest of the competition in the district. That means playing the other seven teams in the district during the regular season. Letting go of traditional rivalries in some cases. Shirking tradition. And a lot of folks aren’t going to go for that. 

Take the Ozark Conference for example. With the different districts the OC teams are assigned to, they would not be able to play their entire schedule. Think four years ago but even worse. Lamar could not play seven other Class 2 teams and its Big 8 schedule. The SCA would have teams trying to manage their Class 1, 2, and 3 district opponents, along with fitting in conference and rivalry games. It can’t be done.

And while the district formula seems to be very accurate, it’s not perfect. We may never have a #8 seed that wins a district championship. That’s OK. Just like during March Madness, we love to watch them try. Hope springs eternal. If not, sometimes you need a chance to say goodbye to something like playing football.

You may not like the first round of district football action. You may find it boring or pointless. You’re allowed your opinion. You may think MSHSAA has botched this like so many other things you don’t care for. It’s certainly not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s about as fair as it can be without destroying tradition. And for me, that’s a compromise I can live with.

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