On an annual basis, there is no greater point of contention in Iowa high school athletics than the football playoffs. Football is the only sport in which not every team is automatically entered into the postseason tournament. Football squads must qualify for the state playoffs via their regular season performance. Those two facts are unlikely to change. But the number of qualifying teams, how they qualify, and where they play in the postseason is a continual source of disagreement.
The playoff system in Iowa changed prior to the 2008 season. Through 2007, the top two teams in each district qualified for the playoffs, creating a 16-team bracket. Teams from the east side of the state were on one side of the pairings, with western teams on the opposite side. But beginning in 2008, each of the top four teams from each district qualified for what was then called the “substate” round (although the Iowa High School Athletic Association has since dropped the distinction). In one fell swoop, the number of qualifying teams doubled. In the new system, neighboring districts were matched up and cross-bracketed. District A’s #1 team against District B’s #4 team, District B’s #2 against District A’s #3, and so on.
The Iowa High School Athletic Association has a unique opportunity. When Ankeny Centennial High School opens in the fall of 2013, Class 4A will return to 48 schools, meaning that the Association has around two years to examine its current football system, ways to improve, and how to implement any changes before August of 2013. On the eve of the Iowa high school football championship games, it’s time to take a look at some ways to improve the current system.
First and foremost, I believe that the current system works. It’s common to hear former players and coaches bemoan the current system for letting in “too many” teams. I often hear people say “Well my senior year we went 7-2 and didn’t get in, despite our only losses coming against top 10 teams.” To me, that statement is more of a testament to how unfair the old system was than a sound reason for keeping teams out of the current system. The bottom line is that more students-athletes have the chance to play for a state championship, and I don’t see that as a bad thing.
You don’t have to look any farther than the 2010 Dike-New Hartford team. The Wolverines have lost two games this season (in consecutive weeks, no less), both against highly ranked teams within their own district. If this were 2007, the Wolverines would not have suited up for a single game in the postseason. But since it is 2010, they got a berth into the playoffs and proceeded to upset four teams (three of them district champions) on their way to Saturday’s Class 1A state championship game, where they will face West Lyon.
The biggest complaint that most people have with the current system has to do with the number of teams with losing records that qualify for the expanded postseason. This year, there were 29 teams with losing records that made the playoffs. 19 of those came from Classes 4A and A, where there are fewer teams competing for the same number of postseason bids (47 in 4A and 51 in A). Additionally, of the playoff teams with records of 3-6 or worse, 10 of the 12 were either 4A or A schools. This leads me to my first proposal on how to improve the playoff system:
Expand Class 4A to 64 schools and Eliminate Class A. One of the biggest issues with the current system (and one of the biggest things I would like to see change) is the disparity between the number of schools competing for playoff positions in Classes 4A and A versus all other divisions. Class 4A is currently comprised of 47 schools (the number dropped from 48 when Newton moved down to 3A but will return to 48 in the fall of 2013). The next biggest 64 schools play in Class 3A, the 64 largest after than in 2A, and so on until you reach Class A, which is essentially the “leftover” schools. These are the institutions that are not large enough to qualify for Class 1A, but have not decided to play in the eight-player division. In 2010, there were 51 schools that played in Class A.
By moving 4A to 64 schools, there will be an additional 16 spots available in 3A. Sixteen teams will move up in each class, leaving just 35 schools “on the bubble.” These schools will have three options: enter into a sharing agreement with another school to continue playing eleven-player football, begin playing eight-player football, or stop offering football altogether. It should be noted that there have already been talks at the IHSAA about whether or not to discontinue Class A, so this is not a new idea. Again, that is 35 schools out of the 388 high schools in the state of Iowa.
As for Class 4A, after it expands to 64 schools, those teams will be divided into eight districts just like all other classes. Each team will play the other teams in their district once, with two non-district contests at the beginning of the season. This change would make all divisions uniform in how teams qualify for the playoffs.
Move the Season Back a Week. The second change I would advocate involves scheduling. As of now, the championship games are played twelve weeks after the Week 1 games. But with odd numbers of teams in Class 4A, A, and the eight-player division, many schools had to play games on August 20 of this year (in what is called Week 0). For many of those schools, that first football game was played before classes had even started. That’s a situation that ought to be avoided, if at all possible. One way to do so would be to push Week 1 back to the first Friday in September. That way, if any Week 0 games are necessary, they can be played on the final Friday of August, when many teams host public scrimmages or practices. This would also require the rest of the season to move back by one week. This year, the final games of the regular season would have been played on October 29, with the playoffs beginning the following Wednesday (November 3). Instead of the weekend before Thanksgiving, this would move the championship games to the Friday and Saturday after Turkey Day.
Many current states already play the high school championships on Thanksgiving weekend. Not only would that change cut down on the loss of class time due to playing in the state finals, but it would also be more accommodating to the University of Northern Iowa. The UNI football team typically finishes their regular season the weekend prior to Thanksgiving, so pushing the championship games back a week would likely mean there would be more locker room space available for the high school games.
Reseed the semifinals. Speaking of the semifinals and championship rounds, why is it that the championship games essentially have to be the east side winner against the west side winner? Here’s a bit of trivia: the attendance record for an Iowa high school football championship game was set in 1999 when 13,375 people saw Cedar Falls play Iowa City West for the 4A title. Under the current set-up, that game would have been played in the semifinals. I can understand why the IHSAA breaks things up into east and west for the first three rounds of the playoffs. It makes more sense from a travel stand-point. But when you get to the semifinal round, all the teams are traveling to the UNI-Dome, so why not try to get the best championship game possible? My third suggestion is one way to do so.
Using the Class 4A point system, which rewards teams for playing better competition, you could establish a #1, #2, #3, and #4 seed in each class, with the #1 seed playing #4 and #2 vs. #3, regardless of geography. If such a procedure had been in place this season, the semifinal match-ups would have looked like this:
Class 4A: #1 West Des Moines Dowling vs. #4 Ankeny, #2 Iowa City High vs. #3 Bettendorf
Class 3A: #1 Pella vs. #4 West Delaware, #2 Sioux City Heelan vs. #3 Solon
Class 2A: #1 North Fayette vs. #4 North Polk, #2 Iowa City Regina vs. #3 Sheldon
Class 1A: #1 Council Bluffs St. Albert vs. #4 Dike-New Hartford, #2 West Branch vs. #3 West Lyon
Class A: #1 Madrid vs. #4 LeMars Gehlen, #2 WACO vs. #3 North Tama
Eight-Player: #1 Fremont-Mills vs. #4 Tripoli, #2 Armstrong-Ringsted vs. #3 Lenox
Establish a Clear Hosting Procedure for the Quarterfinals. There’s an old saying that says “To the victors go the spoils.” Except for in Iowa high school football, apparently. If that saying were true, then why would the top seed on the eastern half of Class 4A (Bettendorf) have had to play at the eleventh seeded team (Cedar Rapids Kennedy) just a couple of weeks ago? Doesn’t make much sense. But then again, neither do the current hosting criteria of the IHSAA, which I’ve pasted directly from this year’s Football Postseason Manual:
For the quarterfinal-round games:
1) If one team has been at home for both games and the other team has traveled for both games, the team which traveled both games, will be the home team.
2) If both teams were at home or if both teams traveled for their first two games, the team with the higher finish in their respective district will be the home team for the quarterfinal round game. However, if the two teams paired have the same district finish, the team with the best district record will be the home team. If the two teams have the same district finish and district record, head-to-head competition between the two tied teams will determine the home school with the winner of the head-to-head competition being the home team. If there was no head-to-head competition, the home school will be determined by the alphabetical system and the school listed LAST alphabetically will be the home team.
3) If both teams have had one home game and one away game, the team with the higher finish in their respective district according to the district playoff qualification procedure will be the home team. If both teams have the same finishing position in the standings, the team with the best district record will be the home team. If the two teams have the same district finish and district record, head-to-head competition between the two tied teams will determine the home school with the winner of the head-to-head competition being the home team. If there was no head-to-head competition, the home school will be determined by the alphabetical system and the school listed LAST alphabetically will be the home team.
4) In other situations, travel will be balanced out between teams. For example, if one team has been at home for both games, while their opponent has been at home for only one game, the team, which has been at home for only one game, will host the game.
5) In any other situation, the team with the higher finish in their respective district according to the district playoff qualification procedure will be the home team.
Clear as mud, right? It’s admirable that the IHSAA tries to even out the travel for the quarterfinal round. But that doesn’t stop it from being a bad idea. After all, shouldn’t home-field advantage be a team’s reward for playing well during the regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs?
Let’s simplify it like this: If you are a district champion, you play at home throughout the first three rounds. In games where neither team won their district, the team with the higher district finish is the home team. If both teams had the same district finish, the game would be played at a neutral site. It’s my opinion that the IHSAA drastically underutilizes neutral fields during the football playoffs. Many late-round postseason games in other sports are played on neutral sites. Beyond that, there are numerous first-class facilities that sit empty during the postseason for no reason other than no high school team plays there on a regular basis. Why not use places like Kingston Stadium in Cedar Rapids, the Rock Bowl in Dubuque, Schipper Stadium in Pella, or Valley Stadium in West Des Moines, just to name a few? The bigger venue would give the games a bigger feel for players and spectators, and I’m sure some of those on-campus facilities would love the chance to host a couple hundred prospective students on a fall evening.
Those are my ideas. I wouldn’t expect any of them to be put into practice by the IHSAA anytime soon, but they make sense to me. If you have other suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments.