Nick Stevens

Breaking down the new playoff system & MaxPreps rankings

Posted May 6

Devon Lawrence (3) of Wake Forest High School.  Wake Forest High School play Page High School in the 4AA NCHSAA State Finals at Carter Finley Stadium, North Carolina State University.  Wake Forest dominated Page with the 7th shut out of the undefeated season with a score of 29 to 0.  

Photo by:  Suzie Wolf

This week, the N.C. High School Athletic Association Board of Directors approved a new playoff format for the 2017-2018 school year.

Things are going to be much different for football, soccer, volleyball, basketball, baseball and softball next year, especially in the 1A and 4A classifications where only 48 teams will qualify for the playoffs instead of 64.

So why did the NCHSAA make these changes?

The drop from 64 to 48 teams in 1A and 4A playoffs is due to realignment. The NCHSAA adopted the 20-30-30-20 realignment concept for the upcoming school year, which means the largest 20 percent of the membership will go to the 4A classification, the smallest 20 percent will go to the 1A classification, and the remaining 60 percent will be divided between the 2A and 3A classes.

In short, there are fewer teams in the 1A and 4A classifications. That is why the NCHSAA decided to drop the number of teams.

Think 48 isn't enough? Well, an initial proposal gave just 40 teams playoff berths. An ad hoc committee put together by the NCHSAA, which was made up of coaches, athletic directors and administrators, helped to push the number up to 48.

Next school year there will be 101 schools in the 1A classification, 116 schools in the 2A classification, 113 schools in the 3A classification, and 77 schools in the 4A classification.

The numbers look a little off, right?

When the NCHSAA did the new alignment, they took out all the non-football schools and broke the classifications out in the 20-30-30-20 format. Then the non-football schools were added back in. Most non-football schools (not all) are in the 1A classification though, and that has created a potential real problem for 1A schools in sports not named football. In soccer, volleyball, basketball, baseball and softball, only 48 of the 101 schools will make the playoffs.

I think this is something that will be revisited by the NCHSAA at one of its board meetings in December or May.

In the 4A classification, 62 percent of the schools will make the state playoffs. That's still significantly higher than the 2A (55 percent) and 3A (56 percent) classifications.

This means 1A and 4A playoffs will now include first round byes for the top teams in the playoffs, and that means the seeding process is that much more important. That process also changed.

Explaining the seeding process

Buckle up. This one is a little complicated.

The NCHSAA will give automatic berths to the top teams in each conference, but the number of automatic bids is determined by the number of teams in a conference.

A conference with 1-4 teams will get one automatic bid (regular season champion), a conference made up of 5-8 teams will get two automatic bids (regular season champion & second place), and a conference with nine or more teams will get three automatic bids (regular season champion, second and third place).

In a split conference, the highest team from a given classification will be given an automatic berth, regardless of where they finish in the overall conference standings. But the overall conference standings are still important in a split conference. If two teams from the same classification finish first and second in the overall standings, the second place team will also get a bid regardless of the number of teams in the conference.

You'll likely see more conference tournaments in the future too. Conference tournament champions automatically qualify for the playoffs. The conference tournament champion will be seeded as an at-large team, which means they'll be lower than all regular season champions, second place and third place teams.

So how will the rest of the field be determined? This is the biggest change. At-large berths to the playoffs are no longer being determined by overall winning percentage. Instead, the NCHSAA will use the MaxPreps rankings to determine the remaining qualifiers. We'll get into what this means later in this column.

If there are too many teams who qualify automatically for the playoffs, the NCHSAA would adjust the number of spots in the playoffs to accommodate the teams.

When the NCHSAA determines the qualifiers for the different playoffs, they will then seed the brackets. The first step in this process is to break the brackets up into East and West regions by longitude. No school is predetermined to be in the East or West. The NCHSAA will sort the 48 or 64 qualifying teams by longitude and put the 24 or 32 furthest west in the West region, while the other half will go to the East.

After the regions are determined the NCHSAA will seed each region 1-24 or 1-32.

All regular season conference champions and highest finishing teams in each classification of a split conference will be seeded first based on the MaxPreps ranking for each school. All second place automatic berths will be seeded next, followed by all third place automatic berths. Once those teams are seeded, conference tournament champions and at-large teams will be seeded based on their MaxPreps ranking.

Once the seeding is determined, byes will be given to the highest seeds possible.

But what about that MaxPreps ranking? It was used this past year to break ties, but not to seed the playoffs. Seeding has always been done by overall winning percentage. But no more.

Interpreting the MaxPreps rankings

When it was announced on Wednesday that the NCHSAA would begin using a computer ranking to determine playoff qualifiers and seed the playoffs, social media erupted with reaction.

Before we get into the issues, let's talk about why the NCHSAA decided to use MaxPreps. Simply put, by using a computer ranking system instead of overall winning percentage, teams are rewarded for their strength of schedule. Since the NCHSAA went to a seeding system instead of predetermined brackets a few years ago, we've seen many teams in all sports soften their schedules in order to have a better winning percentage when playoff time comes around. Teams who challenged themselves in the non-conference were not rewarded.

Using MaxPreps will, in theory, fix this problem. But there is one major issue – no one knows what the MaxPreps formula is. That means coaches don't know exactly what the criteria is and how much things are weighted in the formula. If you beat a team by five points, does it count the same as if you win by ten points? Are other statistics go into the formula? Does out-rebounding an opponent mean anything? What about defense? What about out-of-state games or games against teams who don't use MaxPreps? These are all legitimate questions that coaches and athletic directors have.

I don't know the MaxPreps formula, but I have been able to gather some information about what the MaxPreps rankings take into account.

First, the MaxPreps rankings are done solely by mathematical formulas. There is no human subjectivity in the rankings. So coaches, fans, message board posters, tweeters, writers, television people – no one gets to give their opinions to MaxPreps to influence the rankings. It's math.

Second, MaxPreps does not take into account previous seasons, school history, the size of the school, rivalries, or anything else of the sort. Again, it's all math and they take the subjectivity out of it. All teams start the season with a rating of 0 and move over the course of the season.

MaxPreps uses the data that is accumulated in its system over the course of the season to calculate the rankings.

The most basic part of the formula: The more you win, the more you go up in the rankings (for the most part). The formula takes into account the quality of wins and strength of schedule too though. That means wins against other highly ranked opponents carry a heavier weight than wins against lower-ranked opponents. A team who loses to a team ranked below them will be hurt more in the rankings than a team who loses to a team ranked ahead of them.

Margin of victory will be used in the formula to generate the rankings, but MaxPreps does not encourage blowouts to help a team's rating. There is a point at which margins are no longer considered. We don't know what those specific margins are for each sport. If you look at the ratings, the difference between the two teams is roughly considered to be the predicted margin of victory. For example, a team with a rating of 80 should beat a team with a rating of 60 by 20 points.

The following example is given in a MaxPreps document obtained by

Team A's rating is 10.
Team B's rating is 0.
Team C's rating is -5.
Team D's rating is -8.
Team E's rating is -10.

The way our program works is as follows. It systematically sorts through all the results for the season (season-to-date results if we're dealing with an in-progress season). It takes each result and compares it to what "should" have happened given the ratings of the teams.  It knows that if A played C, A should have handled them fairly easily.  If A lost that game, or even squeaked by with a narrow victory, its rating is hurt, while C's is helped.  The system keeps checking through all the results for every team.  Sticking with team A though, let's say they also played D and won by 15 (that's about what they should have done- no real impact on either teams' rating there), demolished team B by 22 (which definitely helps their rating), and beat D by 10 (not doing quite as well as could have been expected- another "ding" against their rating.)  When all is said and done, it takes the aggregate of how much better or worse they did than expected in all their games, divides that by the number of games played, and adjusts their rating accordingly.  For example, if they averaged performing two points worse than expected, their rating drops from a 10 to an 8.

Source: MaxPreps

Obviously this does not answer all the potential questions that coaches may have, but hopefully it's a start. I think taking strength of schedule into consideration is a good move, and it is something many coaches have told me they also support.

How will this all play out? I don't think we really know. We will have to watch it over the course of the school year to see how things evolve. I think there will likely be changes, but who knows how many and to what parts.

If you have more questions about the new playoff structure and seeding process that I didn't answer, feel free to tweet me @NickStevensHSOT. I'll post updates at the bottom of this blogpost.

Follow Nick Stevens on Twitter @NickStevensHSOT


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