Iowa high school football playoffs will change, but 32-team fields shouldn’t return

Iowa high school football playoffs will change, but 32-team fields shouldn’t return
Quarterback Max Duggan and Council Bluffs Lewis Central will likely be one of the favorites in Class 3-A next season after moving back from Class 4-A. (World-Herald News Service)

Sixteen or 32?

That is the burning question when it comes to the Iowa high school football playoffs.

In 2008, the Iowa High School Athletic Association expanded the playoffs from 16 teams per class to 32, and it remained that way for eight seasons.

Then, prior to the 2016 campaign, stating a variety of reasons, the IHSAA went back to 16 qualifiers per class for two years. Many coaches said they were caught off guard by the move.

On Dec. 20, the Iowa Football Coaches Association’s board of directors met with and made several recommendations to the IHSAA’s football playoff advisory committee, and among those was a return to 32 qualifiers per class. The IHSAA seems to prefer to remain at 16.

The IHSAA’s board of control — composed of school administrators — is expected to rule on the number of qualifiers per class among other decisions when it convenes on Jan. 24.

This reporter has always believed that within reason, the more difficult the achievement, the more meaning it carries. So I looked closer at the numbers, starting at the collegiate level.

The Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) and National Junior College Athletic Association both allow 3.1 percent of their schools to compete for a championship. For the FBS it’s 4 of 129 schools and for the NJCAA it’s 2 of 65. In my opinion, not enough.

The other levels allow 12 to 20 percent into the playoffs. In the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), it’s 24 of 124 (19.4 percent). In the NAIA, it’s 16 of 88 (18.2 percent). In NCAA Division II, it’s 28 of 169 (16.6 percent), and in NCAA Division III, it’s 32 of 249 (12.9 percent). Those levels seem to do it about right.

Turning to Iowa high schools, between 27.6 and 33.3 percent of schools reached the playoffs last year, depending on the class. In 4-A, it was 16 of 48 (33.3 percent); 3-A, 16 of 56 (28.6); 2-A, 16 of 55 (29.1); 1-A, 16 of 56 (28.6); A, 16 of 55 (29.1) and Eight-Man, 16 of 58 (27.6).

Again, a little greater inclusion than the majority of college football, but I’m OK with it.

If the board of control elects to return to 32 qualifiers per class, between 50 and 60 percent of Iowa schools will make the playoffs, depending on the class.

In Eight-Man and Class A, it will be about 50 percent. In 1-A, 2-A and 3-A, it will be 59.3 percent (32 of 54) and in 4-A it will be 57.1 percent (24 of 42).

It says here that that’s too many, for several reasons.

First is the physical toll on the young athlete’s body. When the IHSAA was playing playoff rounds every five days I believe that was downright neglectful, and I can’t believe how many years it took the state to rectify it.

The IFCA’s current proposal is for 32 playoff teams and at least six days between rounds. The first round this year would be Thursday, Oct. 25, the second round on Wednesday, Oct. 31, and the quarterfinals on Tuesday, Nov. 6. The semifinals at the UNI-Dome would be Nov. 12 through 14, with the finals Nov. 19 and 20.

From this viewpoint, the physical grind of an extra round isn’t warranted.

Last year, 16 of the 50 schools in our western Iowa coverage area reached the playoffs, or about one-third. But the key is that I didn’t feel there were any truly deserving teams who were left out.

Regardless of how many teams reach the playoffs, you won’t eliminate blowouts. But in 2015, the last year of 32 qualifiers per class, 41 of the 96 first-round games (42.7 percent) ended in blowouts between 31 and 64 points. Only 14 of the 96 (14.6 percent) ended in single-digit margins. Is it worth inviting all those marginal teams just to appease the small number capable of making a deep run?

In speaking with IFCA president Steve Milder last week, I can see the coaches association has good intentions and believes it’s trying to do what’s best for their athletes.

But let’s be honest. Half of those coaches didn’t reach the playoffs the last two years. Of course they’re going to want to double the number of qualifiers. However, that doesn’t necessarily make it right.

Perhaps the biggest news locally is that Council Bluffs Lewis Central will return to 3-A after a four-year stay in 4-A, because the IHSAA reduced the number of 4-A football schools from 48 to 42. The Titans, in Max Duggan’s senior season, likely will become one of the 3-A favorites.

Classes 1-A, 2-A and 3-A have been reduced for the next two years from 56 schools to 54. So the board of control likely will break those classes into either six districts of nine teams or nine districts of six.

The IFCA is recommending six districts of nine, meaning you would have eight district games and only one non-district game. The IHSAA would prefer nine districts of six, which would allow four non-district games and five district games, similar to what 4-A has done the last several seasons.

Many coaches believe that’s too many games that don’t mean anything, but the IHSAA also is studying a new system to determine its at-large qualifiers. Todd Tharp, the football administrator at the IHSAA, said it models a successful system used in Colorado. This “RPI” system could take into account a team’s record, its opponents’ records and its opponents’ opponents’ records.

If adopted, it also has the potential to take into account all regular-season games, and not just district games, in determining at-large berths. That would have a great effect on how schools determine their non-district opponents.

Another likely change is the way in which the semifinal pairings are formulated. In the past, it’s always been a “West vs. West” and “East vs. East” format.

The IFCA has recommended breaking the brackets into quadrants, then rotating the quadrants that meet in the semifinals each year.

However, if this new “RPI” system is adopted, Tharp said, the data would be in place to seed the semifinals, with the top seed meeting the fourth seed and No. 2 facing No. 3.

Finally, the IHSAA also is looking into allowing border schools to schedule football games with schools from other states. So it’s possible Iowa schools could be meeting Nebraska foes on the field.

Regardless of your stance on these various issues, one thing is certain: Change is coming.

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