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Is it time to revamp the state playoffs?

Published 11/7/2012

Is it time to revamp the state playoffs?

By BRETT MARSHALL

bmarshall@gctelegram.com

When the Kansas high school football playoff system came into existence with the 1969 season, there were simply four geographic areas with four teams qualifying in each classification.

Two semifinal games and then the championship game. That was all.

A complicated point system based upon a team's record against teams above .500, below .500 and if a team played up or down a classification could add or subtract from a team's total points earned. Suffice it to say, it was complicated.

Over the past 43 years, there have been numerous tweaks to the system and at least now, teams have the chance to determine a championship on the field.

That's the upside of the postseason games that begin early in November and conclude with five, 11-man classification championship games on the Saturday after Thanksgiving every year.

While that's the good news, the bad news is that the system still needs some adjustments.

And it needs to be done sooner than later.

Take Classes 3A and 4A, for example.

The current set-up for the two middle-sized classes in Kansas allows for 16 districts comprised of four teams each, a total of 64 teams. Each team plays three district games with the top two teams advancing to the postseason.

Virtually all of those teams play the final Thursday night of October to end the regular season. Playoff pairings are then announced the next morning and first-round games are quickly prepared for the next Tuesday. That's right, a 5-day turnaround.

With 16 games in each class, all runner-up teams have to travel to a district champion and most of those are based on geographic location. The Kansas State High School Activities Association, the state's governing body for high school sports, has the state divided into East and West brackets for the playoffs, 16 teams on each side of the state.

Just a week ago, those first-round games produced some dramatic results. And they're fairly consistent with what happens each year in the first round. In Class 3A, the district champs with the home field and travel advantage, posted a 15-1 won-loss record. The lone road win in 3A came when a 4-5 Sabetha team beat a 5-4 Riley County team. The 15 district champs won by a margin of 33.8 points.

In Class 4A, the district champs were 13-3 with an averaging winning margin of 21 points. Ironically, the three district runner-up teams that won had a margin of victory of 18 points. Go figure on that one.

The winners from round one only had three full days to prepare for their second round games. That's not much time for physical recovery and for game preparation by those players and teams.

One idea that had been proposed by a number of Class 4A schools was to reduce the number of schools to 48 for football only and then have 8 districts of 6 teams each. Each team would then have played five district games with the champion and runner-up advancing. That would mean 16 teams moving into postseason play as opposed to the current 32 teams who qualify. One could surmise that eight, first-round games would produce more competitive contests than the current system.

Another option with the current 64 schools would be to make them into 8-team districts, each team playing seven district games. The top two teams would advance, thus 16 teams making the postseason versus the current 32.

Class 2-1A made that switch from 16 districts to the current eight a few years ago and it has made opening round games more competitive. It still has some ways that could be improved.

First-round games saw district champions compile a 6-2 record with a winning margin of 32.3 points while the two runner-up team wins were by a margin of 9.0 points.

One runner-up team actually had a better won-loss record than the district champion it defeated while the other runner-up team had a tough regular season schedule against primarily 3A and 4A schools and two highly-ranked 2A teams. For the most part, the Class 2-1A structure is on solid ground.

Again, a downside for many people would be the likely elimination of league games and a league champion.

In the two 8-man divisions, district championship teams went 7-1 and 5-3 (most were in 6-team districts). Teams in 8-man Division I won by 36.6 points and Division II district champs won by an average of 40 points. There was just one runner-up winner in Division I and that came by a slim four points. The three runners-up in Division II had winning margins of 26 points.

For the first 15 years of the playoffs, there was just one division of 8-man playoffs. Over the past 30 seasons (1983), a Division I and II champion has been crowned. While some believe it has watered down the overall competition, there are others who like it just the way it is. KSHSAA has set up the schedule for the 8-man schools to finish the playoffs a week earlier than the 11-man divisions, thus forcing them into the same three-game schedule over 10 days that plagues Classes 3-4A. That needs to change as well.

In all, district champions were 60-16 (.789 percentage). If that's not cause for a study for change, I'm not sure what it would take.

One could make the case that with fewer districts in 3A and 4A, the advancing teams would have at least one week between games. Now, they have to play three games in a 10-day span. Not even the NFL makes their teams do that. And it forces student-athletes and fans to travel on a week day with the probability of missed class and work time.

Then, there are the two largest classifications — 6A and 5A.

Each class compiled 5-3 records for district champs against runners-up. The winning margins were 28.8 points in both classes while the three runners-up in 6A won by 21 points and by 14 points in 5A.

There are 32 schools currently in each of those two classifications. There are eight districts of four teams each.

The top two make the postseason. How about switching to four, eight-team districts allowing for seven regular season district games and the top two teams earning postseason berths?

It would seem that you'd get better quality teams for the playoffs with that type of change.

For Garden City, it could possibly mean a district that could be comprised of Garden, Dodge City, Maize, Hutchinson, Wichita Northwest, Wichita Heights, Wichita North and Wichita South. The other west side district would have Haysville Campus, Derby, Wichita East, Wichita Southeast, Manhattan, Topeka High, Junction City and Topeka-Washburn Rural.

Again, it would ensure a better runner-up team qualifying than the system currently produces. The downside would be the demise of the league schedule in the Western Athletic Conference.

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