The Early Lead: After further review

New 16-team playoff system a touchdown decision

The dawn of the 2016 football season brings a new, 16-team playoff format across the five Iowa High School divisions - a move that should be met with resounding applause. 

For the last eight years since 2007, 32 teams in each class qualified for the playoffs every season, a number supposed to create parity and opportunity among Iowa schools. 

But it mostly brought criticism and generated concern for player safety – student athletes were playing in some casses, four games in 14 days. So in a move to cut down on injuries and stress on athletes’ bodies, the Iowa High School Athletic Association board voted last spring to abandon the 32-team playoff system and move to a 16-team field. 

“It all had to do with our main concern of risk minimization among our students and trying to get our schedule so we are only playing one football game a week,” Iowa High School Athletic Association assistant director and football administrator Todd Tharp said in a recent interview.  

In years past, playoff teams would play the following Wednesday after the conclusion of week nine,  then would turn around and play that Monday then again the following Friday - essentially playing four games in 14 days. Now, playoff games are held on Fridays, with a week in between games. 

The IHSAA, the National Federation of State High School Associations and officials felt that much football in such short amount of time was too detrimental to the young student athletes. They had two options, Tharp said – shorten the regular season to eight games and stick with the 32-team playoff system or stay put with a nine-game regular season but cut the playoff field in half. 

Another reason to stick with the nine game schedule was to give each Iowa school nine home games over a two year stretch. 

“We appreciate and respect the importance of that income and how football basically drives a majority of school’s athletic budget,” Tharp said. “We didn’t feel comfortable taking away a home game from them.” 

The amount of teams ultimately came down to how many playoff rounds would be held each year. Eliminating just eight teams and trimming the field to 24 wasn’t feasible, as 16 teams would still play a potential of five playoff games whereas just eight teams would have a bye. 

With the 16-team system, there are now only four possible rounds of playoffs compared to five rounds, and though it may seem like schools will have an easier route to the UNI Dome now (where ALL state semifinals and championships are played each year) with just two wins needed to advance, it’s not true in the slightest. 

Tharp said he did occasionally hear whispers and complaints from coaches that the 32-team playoff system watered down the competition and there were too many “lopsided” playoff scores. But on the flip side, he said the system often drew praise for the increased opportunities for fringe schools to make a run at the championship. He cited Pella’s run to the state championship as a four seed in the first year of the 32-team system in reference to the possible parity. 

Aside from the obvious safety improvements, which I am absolutely all for, I tend to agree with the critics of the 32-team playoff field. It did water down the competition quite a bit and more importantly, the regular season was de-emphasized. 

Yes, I get the increased opportunities for frignge programs, but Cinderella stories are a rarity, especially in football. The talent gap can be extreme in many cases, and it’s not like baseball or basketball where you can rely on a hot shooting night or a dominant pitcher. Talent almost always wins out on the gridiron. 

The four automatic qualifiers diluted the regular season. Many teams were squeaking into the playoffs with .500 or worse, losing records. 

Just look at some of the first round scores from a year ago, several teams with dismal records made the playoffs just because they happened to play in a weak district and stumbled their way into the third or fourth spot.

Take Iowa Falls-Alden for example. They finished with a 4-6 record a year ago but came in third in 2A district 6. Their stay in the playoffs was very, very brief as they lost, embarrassingly, 56-0 to Albia in the first round. 

Bondurant-Farrar, while they didn’t have a losing record, snuck into the third spot in 3A district 6 and got spanked in the first round by Norwalk, losing by an identical 56-0 score. 

Even the successful local teams made the first round as uninteresting as can be. Glidden-Ralston, who spent most of the 2015 season in the top 10, throttled its first round opponent Stanton, 55-14. 

This fall, each of the eight district winners and runner-ups in the Class 4A and eight man divisions will earn automatic bids into the playoffs. For Class A through Class 3A, only seven districts are formed, which means both the district champions and second place teams advance to the playoffs in addition to two at-large teams (14 auto-bids and two at-large bids). 

Any district that has two or more teams finish in a tie for first, all will qualify. The next at-large criteria will be based on district record. If a handful of teams have identical district records and are vying for a final spot, the criteria will go to head-to-head records. If they didn’t play each other, a +/- 17 point differential will be used as a tiebreaker. If that still dos not decide the at-large team, a modified alphabetical draw will be held. 

This is a marked improvement and I look forward to a thrilling regular season and playoffs in 2016. Enjoy and may the competition be fierce.

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