Congratulations, NJ: You’ve come up with playoff reform without even knowing it!

Sayreville celebrates after winning the North 2, Group 4 title in 2016 at Rutgers University in Piscataway. (Photo: Mike Pavlichko)

by Mike Pavlichko

New Jersey had three different playoff formulas from 2017 to 2019: Power Points, UPR with the Born Power Index, and UPR with OSI.

But did you know that in 2020 we’ve been testing a new kind of arrangement without even being aware of it?

Really, it’s true.

It’s exactly the kind of thing I have been talking about for a couple of seasons now, and which I will lay out here once again for your reading pleasure.

And what it comes down to is a tradition we absolutely love in the Garden State: home rule.

There are 565 municipalities in this state. Each one has their own control over government. You could be the largest (Newark, with nearly 290,000) or the smallest (Tavistock, with 5 – seriously, go look it up).

What works for Newark, Easst Brunswick, Belvidere, Tavistock and everyone else is not nearly the same.

So why are we using one playoff formula throughout the state?

Well, the NJSIAA has been testing something new this year, without even meaning to. And the experiment is not done yet. But it’s laying the groundwork.

The 2020 “postseason” – Weeks 7 and 8 – is a hodgepodge. The NJSIAA – in a moment of great clarity – decided to let the leagues and conferences have complete control over their own postseason, and said it would only step in if needed. As in, if an odd team out needed an opponent from another league.

How did that work?

In the Big Central, we got some great matchups in Week 7, like Woodbridge and Somerville. More than 60 percent of those in an informal Central Jersey Sports Radio Twitter poll said that was the matchup they wanted to see most this weekend – in a question that was asked before the pairings came out. Next weekend we’ll get to see Somerville-Phillipsburg.

I’m also looking forward to Bridgewater-Raritan facing Hillsborough, North Brunswick-Old Bridge (neither has a Big Central loss), and Rahway at Cranford in Week 7.

Edison at Rahway, Cranford at St. Joe’s, Woodbridge at North Brunswick (both undefeated) also look like great games.

The Big Central put together what it deemed good matchups, and got in some local rivalries they either didn’t have before, or got whacked because of COVID.

But not everybody did it that way.

The NJIC did what it’s done for a few years now. That is, they scheduled their playoffs. Those are a fun two weeks every year in the NJIC, and they seem to like it.

The West Jersey Football League scheduled its “pods” as four-team playoff brackets. There are four of them, and the rest of the teams all got “assigned matchups.”

Three different leagues, three different concepts.

Because what’s good for Montclair, Union City and Northern Highlands, isn’t necessarily what’s good for Lawrence, Egg Harbor and Shawnee, nor for Westfield, Ridge or Woodbridge.

The NJSIAA recognized that this year, and now it’s time to take it a step further.

The sooner the NJSIAA can apply what it did this year to the future of the high school football playoffs, the better off we’ll all be.

There will be a lot of people who won’t like this concept, because – perhaps – there are too few teams participating. Keep in mind that can be changed if the NJSIAA adds Groups 6 and 7 – and maybe even 8 – as has been talked about.

I am calling for an overall state playoff format that includes some teams determined by the leagues and conferences themselves, and others determined by the state. With the number of rounds I propose, this plan achieves a number of goals:

  • Have true, public school Group champions. For those still seeking sectional titles, it can be done by breaking up the bracket into a North and South (read on)
  • Keep local rivalries (failure to do so is what killed the VanZile plan)
  • Allow leagues and conferences more of a say in playoff qualification
  • Allow the state to retain some say in playoff qualification
  • Adds no additional weeks to the season
  • Keeps Thanksgiving open for those who wish to continue their rivalry games, reducing the time between a first round playoff exit/consolation game and Turkey Day

Let’s start with the basis for how this would work. Remember, this can be tweaked; it’s only a starting point.

How many teams would qualify?

We’ll start with Group 5. Each Group wold have 16 state playoff participants. That’s 80 public schools, and only half of the 160 teams currently in the state playoffs. But how many first round games are complete and utter mismatches? A lot of them.

One remedy could be expanding to 8 groups. The argument would be that there is sometimes a big dropoff in the current range of Group 5 schools for example, from the smaller to the biggest. Adding three more groups to have 8 would invite more parity, in theory.

Adding three more groups would get you up to 128 teams participating, 32 fewer than the current 160 – which we also had before adding UPR to the mix. There used to be 32 sections. So, this would be equivalent of taking one team out of each section. Remember all those blowouts? This would help a lot. There were not many 8-1 upsets over the years, but the formula you’ll read about below would remedy that.

Where would the teams come from?

Each league would get a number of “automatic bids” to the state tournament based on the numbers of schools it has in a given group. In Group 5, the Big Central and North Jersey Super Football Conference each have 21 teams. They would get 4 automatic bids each (about one per every 5 teams). The Shore has 6 Group 5 schools, and would get one berth. The West Jersey Football League would get two since it has 13 teams in Group 5. (The NJIC has no Group 5 schools.)

That’s a total of 11 teams, but we need 16 in each section, so there would be five “at-large” bids.

How do teams qualify?

Automatic bids would be determined by the leagues and conferences – just like how they made their own individual postseason plans this year.

  • They could use divisional standings, which is nice because you’re comparing apples to apples and oranges to oranges. You don’t have schools that don’t have a multiplier available to play competing against those that do. Away goes the argument about a system North Jersey likes but South Jersey doesn’t.
  • They could use power points, if that’s what they feel is best.
  • They could use OSI on its own.
  • They could use UPR.
  • They could use OSI and power points, but in different weights.
  • They could use weighted winning percentage, like Pennsylvania does (too complicated to explain here).
  • They could have a playoff.
  • They could have the team captains engage in a duel in a big, white steed.

I’m kidding about that last option of course, but you get the picture. Leagues and conferences get their own say. The only requirement is that the NJSIAA would have to approve each league’s formula, for fairness (i.e., you could not use a system like the Born Power Index which rewards teams with better seeding for larger margins of victory).

Then, for those five at-large bids, the state can use a universal formula, like the current UPR. Now, the state gets a say, and a team that suffers an early playoff exit gets a second chance. The only requirement is that at least one team come from the North (by Northings) and one from the South.

Basically, think March Madness and the NCAA Tournament, but without a committee. Everything is determined on the field. Seeding would be determined by overall UPR formula.

For those who like sectionals, we could break the bracket into two parts with 8 teams each and have a Group 5 North and a Group 5 South Winner, or put them into four-team brackets (like the early NJSIAA playoffs) with the traditional North 1, North 2, Central and South titles, with the four pod winners facing each other and being reseeded. Take your pick.

Other Groups

  • In Group 4, the NJSFC has 22 teams and would get 5 automatic bids. The Big Central has 9 teams and would get 2. The Shore has 13 teams and would get 2. And the WJFL has 17 and would get 4. That leaves four at-large bids.
  • In Group 3, the NJSFC has 22 teams and would get 4 automatic bids. The NJIC has 2 and would get 1. The Big Central has 9 and would get 2. The Shore has 7 and would get 2, and the WJFL has 18 an would get 3. That leaves 4 at-large bids.
  • In Group 2, the NJSFC has 24 teams and would get 5 automatic bids. The NJIC has 10 and the Big Central has 8; each would get 2. The Shore has 4 and would get 1. The WJFL has 15 and would get three. That leaves 3 at-large bids.
  • In Group 1, the NJSFC has 10 teams and the Big Central has 11; they would each get 2 automatic bids. The NJIC has 14 and would get 3 bids. the Shore has 4 and would get 1 bid. The WJFL has 23 teams and would get 5 bids. There would be 3 at-large bids left.

When would the playoffs happen?

This year, there would have been room to start on the weekend of Friday, September 4, as planned before COVID and get in 9 regular season weeks before the end of October. With a 16-team field, you’d have three weeks of postseason, then Thanksgiving, then one more week of public state finals.

If you didn’t want that extra week before the end of the regular season and playoffs, you could have extra weeks of consolation (have two games), or play around with it any which way. But the idea is we don’t need to go to mid-December to have group championships.

And, no one would have to cancel a Thanksgiving game because they’re in the group finals the same weekend.

Teams could play 9 games before Thanksgiving (with no bye) and – if they don’t make the playoffs – two consolation games. Or they could play eight with a bye and play on Thanksgiving.

This seems to be a plan that – even with some tweaking – could satisfy everyone. There’s local say, state input, group championships, Thanksgiving stays and we don’t add any weeks to the calendar beyond what’s already been added.

Pennsylvania already uses a similar model, with 12 districts across the state. Take a look at the map below.

Each makes their own rules about how teams qualify for the state tournament. Each district has different needs. But it behooves each conference to come up with a formula that will allow the best teams to advance, or else it won’t be well-represented in the state tournament.

What’s good for one isn’t necessarily good for the other, but realizing that would be good for all.

In the end, it’s radical change. Sometimes that’s hard to accept.

But New Jersey has been tweaking this thing for so long, maybe it’s time to start over.

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