Vance: The ups and downs of the new 6A football playoffs
The sun is shining (mostly), the kids are out of school and vacations are the name of the game for many families.
For me, that means there's time to reflect on some of the changes coming to the world of high school sports, changes I didn't have time to comment on during the whirlwind that was the 2022 spring season.
In this case, I'd like to share some news about the world of Oregon high school football and how the 2022 fall playoffs will differ from those that preceded it. Back in May, the Executive Committee of the Oregon School Activities Association — the governing body for Oregon high school sports and activities — scrapped the seeded 32-team playoff bracket that has been in place for Class 6A football since 2010.
In its place, the OSAA has shifted to a new two-tiered playoff system for 6A football, with the state's top 32 teams split into two seeded 16-team brackets. The top bracket will, in general, include the state's top 16 ranked teams, while the second bracket will include teams ranked 17-32.
The one exception to the 1-16 and 17-32 alignment is this: any league champion(s) ranked outside the top 16 will be moved into the 1-16 bracket and will bump the lowest seed(s) possible to the 17-32 bracket.
The new playoff format will be in place for at least the next four-year block, the 2022-23 through 2025-26 school years.
Explaining its reasoning, the OSAA's Executive Committee — following up on work by its state championship committee and football ad hoc committee — said that creating more competitive first-round matchups was a major reason for the change.
Since moving to the 32-team seeded bracket for 6A football back in 2010, no team outside the top 14 has ever reached the state semifinals and no team ranked outside the top seven has ever made the final.
Regarding those lopsided early-round games, they're real. When you match the state's top-ranked team against its 32nd-ranked team, you're going to get blowouts. Here are the scores of those 1 vs. 32 matchups from 2010 through 2021 (with no score for the COVID-shortened 2020 season) — 76-0, 68-13, 65-6, 56-21, 70-19, 52-12, 55-7, 54-13, 42-6, 56-20 and 49-40.
Ironically, the closest game in that 12-year span was last fall's 49-40 win by top-ranked Lake Oswego over No. 32 Newberg.
In the four-year block before to the OSAA's move to power rankings and seeding its football playoffs in 2010, with minor exceptions, the top four teams from each of the state's seven Class 6A leagues reached the playoffs.
Of those, four of the seven league champions received first-round playoff byes, while the other three league champions faced fourth-place finishers in their opening-round games.
Guess what accompanied that system? A bunch of first-round blowouts. Here are the worst opening-round scores for each year of the 2005-06 through 2008-09 block — 42-0, 51-0, 48-9 and 71-26.
Before the 2005-06 school year — that's the year the OSAA increased the number of athletic classifications from four to six — there were nine Class 4A (big-school) conferences. Five of those leagues sent their top four finishers into the playoffs, while the other four qualified three teams apiece. League champions faced either third- or fourth-place finishers from other leagues in their first-round games.
Guess what accompanied that system? A bunch of first-round blowouts. Here are the worst opening-round scores for each year of the 2001-02 through 2004-05 block — 60-6, 45-7, 34-0 and 51-7.
This is not a criticism of the OSAA's latest take on the big-school football playoffs. Times change, values change and, sometimes, playoff formats change along with them. My point is just that blowouts — as painful as they are for the losing team — are part of sports. Further, we have a pretty large body of evidence that shows they are almost unavoidable.
Beyond that, the latest format may have a couple unintended consequences. First, employing two 16-team playoff brackets means that the 2022 season will be one week (and therefore one game) shorter than in years past.
Essentially, that means that the teams in the upper (1-16) bracket will play at least one fewer playoff game than they would have in a 32-team bracket. Meanwhile, a bunch of teams in the lower (17-32) bracket will likely get to compete in more playoff games since they won't be eliminated as early as they might have been in a seeded 32-team bracket.
One other quibble — the OSAA has scheduled all football championship games for Friday and Saturday, Nov. 25-26; previously, the Class 6A title contest was held a week later than the other classifications.
From a professional standpoint, this change is potentially disastrous. Covering state championship games on consecutive days, or perhaps, two state championship games on the same day, is a daunting task that, unfortunately, can only result in lesser coverage for the state's best teams in the year's biggest games.
Finally, let me ask this — what is the point of the playoffs? The point is to find the best team in the state, and the previous systems did that. Is it likely that the best team might be one that's seeded 15th, 16th, 17th or lower at the start of the playoffs? Probably not, but up until this year, that underdog always had a chance to prove that it was the best. That chance is gone now.
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