Football playoffs need reform
Posted November 3, 2011
When you say you made the playoffs, it's supposed to be an accomplishment. It's supposed to honor you for having a successful season.
When you make the the state playoffs in North Carolina, it means you might have won four games – maybe even less.
The N.C. High School Athletic Association needs to take a look at the way it selects teams and how it seeds them in the football state playoffs, and I have a solution.
In order to understand what I'm about write, you need to understand the current playoff system. Here's how it works:
Step 1: In each conference, the top three teams get automatic bids into the state playoffs. In split conferences (1A/2A, 2A/3A, 3A/4A) the top two teams get automatic bids.
Step 2: Once the automatic qualifiers are determined, the remaining seats in the playoffs (64 total) are determined by overall record, then by conference winning percentage. All ties that cannot be broken by head-to-head competition are broken by a random draw.
Step 3: When the 64 qualifying teams are determined, the NCHSAA uses the Average Daily Membership (ADM) numbers to determine which teams go to which subdivision. For example, the 32 largest 4-A teams go to the 4-AA playoffs, while the 32 smallest 4-A teams go to the 4-A playoffs.
Step 4: After the 32 teams are identified for each subdivision, the NCHSAA uses the longitude of each school to determine which schools will go west and which will go east. The 16 schools whose longitudes are furthest to the east will go to the east, while the other 16 will go to the west.
Step 5: Once the teams are separated into their regions, the teams are seeded 1-16. All top seeds from their respective conferences are seeded in order of their record first, then all No. 2 teams, then all No. 3 teams. So, no team that finishes second in its conference can be seeded higher than a team that finishes first in a conference, etc. Once the automatic bids are seeded, then the at-large teams are seeded.
Step 6: After the teams are seeded 1-16, the NCHSAA goes back to the longitudes. In the east, the eight teams that are furthest east go into the east pod, while the other eight go into the mideast pod. The same is done in the west for the west and midwest pods.
Step 7: After the pods are determined, the teams are again seeded, this time 1-8.
Teams, teams, and more teams
The first issue I have with the state playoffs is the number of teams that are selected for the state playoffs. According to the NCHSAA website, there are 99 4-A teams, 97 3-A teams, 95 2-A teams, and 99 1-A teams – a total of 390 football teams in the state of North Carolina.
A total of 64 teams from each class make the playoffs. That means 256 (or 65.6 percent) of those 390 teams make the state playoffs. No joke. Two-thirds of the teams in the state play in the state playoffs each year.
When you have so many teams that make the state playoffs, you end up with teams in the playoffs that have no business being there.
At the 2-A and 4-A level, there are 22 teams with records of .500 or worse. There are 19 teams in the 3-A playoffs with records of .500 or worse. And at the 1-A level there are a whopping 34 teams with records of .500 or worse. That means more than half of the teams in the 1-A playoffs have won half of their games or less. HALF!
Under no circumstances does a team with two wins deserve to be in the state playoffs.
The NCHSAA needs to reduce the number of teams that make the playoffs in each classification.
Planting a bad seed
I was recently asked who I thought got the short end of the stick when it came to playoff seeding. My answer? Everybody.
Currently, the NCHSAA gives the top three teams in each conference automatic bids to the state playoffs. In split conferences (such as 3A/4A or 1A/2A conference) the top two teams get automatic bids. Under no circumstances can a team that finishes second in its conference be seeded above a team that finishes first. At the same time, no team that finishes third can be seeded about any second or first place team. And at-large teams? Well, they can't be seeded over any automatic qualifier.
What does that mean?
Well, Northern Durham 0-3-1 in non-conference play this year. The Knights played in a relatively weak PAC 6 Conference, and beat four conference opponents who had a combined record of 9-33. Northern finished third in the league, claiming an automatic bid to the state playoffs with a 4-5-1 record.
That's not all. Northern Durham will host Southeast Guilford in the first round. The Falcons have a 6-4 record – a winning record. Southeast Guilford was an at-large team in the playoffs though, so they cannot be seeded above Northern Durham.
It's fundamentally wrong to have a team with a losing record in the state playoffs. It's absolutely unacceptable to have a team with a losing record hosting a home game!
The seeding issues don't stop there though. They continue, thanks to... you guess it, the pod system.
Break the pod
It's no secret. I hate the pod system.
I have many issues with the pod system, but a major one is the fact that the pod system continues the seeding issues that we see in the NCHSAA state playoffs.
After they determine who goes to the east and the west regions, the NCHSAA seeds the teams from No. 1 to No. 16. But those seeds mean absolutely nothing until you get to the regional final.
The regions are just the first geographical determination made by the NCHSAA. After the regions are determined, the pods are determined. The teams are split into two groups of eight based on geography. The eight teams furthest to the east go to the east pod, the next eight go to the mideast. The same thing happens in the west and midwest pods.
After teams are put into their pods, they're seeded again from No. 1 to No. 8. There is no regard for the original seeds.
What does this mean?
It means we have teams playing teams they shouldn't be playing in the first round. For example, Cary got the No. 7 seed in the 4-AA East Region. In any normal tournament, they'd play the No. 10 seed, which in this case is Seventy-First. But instead of playing a 4-6 team, the Imps are playing a 7-3 Lumberton team that earned a No. 9 seed. These types of discrepancies can be seen across all divisions in the NCHSAA playoffs.
Here's another example. 9-1 Gray's Creek earned the No. 6 seed in the 3-AA East Region which means it should be playing the No. 11 seed, 6-4 Asheboro. Instead, Gray's Creek will be playing No. 7 Nash Central, a team that finished with an 8-2 record. Gray's Creek and Nash Central worked hard to get a winnable playoff game in the first round. In fact, Nash Central with a No. 7 seed would get a home game in the first round of any normal 16-team bracket.
Meanwhile, in the same 3-AA playoff, 4-6 Forestview has the No. 7 seed in the West Region and will host 4-6 Kings Mountain, the No. 14 seed.
There's another No.7 vs. No. 8 game in the 2-A playoffs where East Duplin (8-2) will host two-time defending state champion Tarboro (8-2) in the first round.
This is not a fair way to seed your playoffs.
The seeding isn't my only issue with the dreaded pod system though.
When the NCHSAA creates conferences during each realignment process, they do so based on geography. It makes sense. You want schools that are close in proximity to play one another in a conference. It keeps them from traveling too far, and it creates natural rivalries. No argument there from me.
At the same time, you allow 64 teams in the playoffs, and you break them up into eight-team pods which are determined by geography.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist (obviously, since I figured it out) to understand that if you seed your playoffs with the same geographical criteria that you create conferences with, you're going to end up with miniature conference tournaments.
And that's what we're seeing - particularly at the 4-A level.
In the 4-AA East Pod, it is possible for a Cap 8 team to go to the regional final without playing a single team from outside the Cap 8 Conference. That's ridiculous, and it defeats the purpose of a STATE playoff.
The same thing can be said for Panther Creek and Middle Creek in the 4-AA Mideast Pod. Those two teams could go through to the regional final without playing a single team from outside the Tri-9. And that's just as ridiculous.
I've interviewed over two dozen coaches over the last several days - coaches from all sizes of schools from 1-A to 4-A - and they all agreed on something: the pod system is a bad thing. Seriously. I haven't spoken to a single coach yet this week that supports the pod system. I'm not exaggerating.
If the NCHSAA doesn't change anything else, this is the one thing that needs to go. We need to lose the pod system!
Step 1: All conference champions get automatic bids to the state playoffs.
Step 2: After the conference champions are seeded in order of overall record and conference winning percentage, we fill the rest of the playoffs with at-large bids sorted by overall wins and conference winning percentage. A total of 32 teams from each class will make the state playoffs.
Step 3: After the 32 qualifying teams are determined, the teams are divided into East and West Regions based on longitude.
Step 4: Teams are seed 1-16. Highest seeded team is the home team.
What does this mean? It means no more sub-divided playoffs, no more pod system, and no more losing records in the playoffs (except perhaps at the 1-A level).
What would it look like? Well, I redid the 4-A playoffs based on this criteria, so have a look.
This will never happen. I'm not naive, but if Nick Stevens were in charge of the NCHSAA, this is what the playoffs would look like in football.
If the NCHSAA would make a few changes though, I'd be happy. The first change, drop the pod system all together. Wash your hands of it, and forget it ever happened. Then, midway through the next realignment (2015 season) let's add a 5A class and drop the subdivisions.
The current playoff system awards teams that don't deserve playoff bids and isn't fair to those who have fought all season for good seeds and home games.
Not everyone deserves to be in the playoffs. The state playoffs are supposed to determine a state champion, not be a source of an extra game for average teams.
If you have feedback, I'd love to hear it. Send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet me @HighSchoolOT.