Some Big Central teams will have it easier than others on the road to the NJSIAA playoffs

Somerville’s Jaimen Bryant recovers a fumble in a 2020 postseason game against Woodbridge. The Pioneers struggle annually to finish atop the playoff standings despite a strong schedule and an unprecedented run of success.

All schedules are not created equal.

That’s the takeaway from a deep dive into the NJSIAA’s Strength Index numbers, and what it will take to get into the first state playoffs in two years, and the last before the state begins to crown overall group champions in football.

Of course, no team wants to just get into the playoffs. That’s just the first goal.

After that, you shoot for a home game. Then, you take a run at a top seed, guaranteeing you home field advantage through the sectional finals.

But you can’t get any of that without qualifying for the first place. Every team has an assistant who’s a math whiz, and would try and figure it out in the preseason, based on how they thought teams would fare, and some power points projections.

The system has gotten much more complicated in the past few years with the use of Strength Index, OSI, and UPR.

But the Strength Index, and the resulting Opponent Strength Index, can actually be a good preseason predictor of who will make the playoffs. How good, we don’t know, since it’s only been used once (in 2019).

But here’s the concept:

Take a look at your playoff section, and see what was the highest OSI of a team that got left out of the playoffs. Then find the next highest OSI, which should be a team that got in the playoffs. That would be the minimum, or “Target OSI.”

For example, in the North Group 5 supersection in 2019, the 16th seeded team was Bayonne, with an OSI of 39.08. However, Kennedy (Paterson) got left out at 39.94. So we can’t say Bayonne’s OSI would get you in. The next highest above Kennedy is 40.20 for Paterson Eastside. So, that would be the “Target OSI” for playoff qualification.

Below is the Target OSI for each supersection with a Big Central Team:

  • North 5 – 40.20
  • South 5 – 43.69
  • North 4 – 42.74
  • North 3 – 41.56
  • South 3 – 41.23
  • South 2 – 37.63
  • North 1 – 37.33

Some notes here:

Middlesex, Highland Park and Manville are moving from South 1 to North 1, so we didn’t include South here. For the record, its 36.98, pretty similar to the North.

Bernards is now in North 2, where no Big Central teams were before, which means we don’t have tracking data. Based on the other sections above and below them, we estimate it to be between 37.00 and 39.00.

IMPORTANT: We used the NJSIAA’s draft 2021 Football Classifications, a copy of which has been obtained by Central Jersey Sports Radio. These may or may not be official, but they haven’t yet been posted on the NJSIAA website as of this time.

The Step Method

This theory was first introduced to me by John Thompson, a longtime volunteer assistant at Piscataway who has been my sounding board for all things power-point, Born Index, and OSI/UPR-related for many years now. His theory was that you could determine how many OSI points each win in a season was worth.

Go back to Strength of Schedule for a moment. The way we calculate is: the average SI of all your opponents (OSI) – regardless of wins or losses. That would be the maximum OSI you could get, if you went undefeated. But there’s also another number: the minimum you could get, which would be if you lost every game.

The simplest example is, if you played all teams ranked exactly at 60, the best OSI you could end up with is 60, having won all your games. (Of course, team values change week to week, so this isn’t practical, but it’s a simple example.)

If you lost them all, you’d end up at 30; half the value of all opponents you lose to.

How do you figure out how much each game is worth? Well, if it takes 30 points to get from your lowest to highest possible OSI, divide that by the number of games. For the sake of easy math, let’s say you played ten games (not allowed by NJSIAA, but play along). Divide 30 points by 10 games and you’d get 3. That’s how many points you’d gain for each win.

Go winless, your OSI is 30. Win one game, it’s 33. Win two, it’s 36. All the way up to winning all ten games and getting 60.

Again, it’s not the truest method, since some opponents have higher SI values, and some have lower values. Just like power points, some games are worth more than others. But it’s a good start. And we’ll know more as the years go on and we have more data. But for now, it’ll do.

Who has the easiest path to the playoffs?

In our analysis, we looked at the minimum number of wins to get to or just above the Target OSI. Only a handful of times, we went below the Target, if it was close enough, off by say two-tenths of a point or so.

There are seven teams we believe could qualify for the playoffs with one or two wins. And while it’s a good bet almost all of them will have a lot more than two wins.

We believe Bernards, Bridgewater-Raritan, Phillipsburg, Piscataway, Union, Westfield and Somerville all could qualify for the playoffs by just winning two games. Whether power points would change that is another story, but one thing is common among all those teams: they play among the toughest schedules in the conference, and even losses will generate them some power points.

Again, here’s how we calculated: Piscataway’s OSI – if they lost all their games – would be a 34.13. One win would get them to 38.39, and two wins would get them to 42.66. Since the Target OSI for North 5 is 40.20, we say two wins would likely get them in the playoffs.

A third win would put their OSI at 46.92, making them almost a lock. There were five teams in the 16-team North 5 supersection in 2019 that had OSIs lower than 46.92; they’d be a shoo-in.

Also figure: if Piscataway were to go 3-6 in their 9 games, likely the teams they played would go up in value, so their OSI would be even higher, maybe closer to a 48 or 49.

Here are the minimum wins for the rest of the Big Central Teams:

Three wins (4 considered a “virtual lock”): Cranford, Governor Livingston, Summit, Voorhees, Linden, Ridge, Sayreville, Elizabeth, Watchung Hills, Delaware Valley, Hillside, Carteret, Rahway, Franklin, Hillsborough, Hunterdon Central, North Brunswick

Four wins (5 considered a “virtual lock”): Middlesex, Roselle Park, North Hunterdon, Warren Hills, Colonia, JFK, Montgomery, Scotch Plains-Fanwood, Woodbridge, JP Stevens, Plainfield, Roselle, South River, North Plainfield, South Plainfield, Edison, New Brunswick.

Pausing here, we’ll note that under the “old” traditional power points system, a team had to be .500 or better through eight games to make the playoffs. That changed years ago, but for you old-timers (like me) that means the majority of teams would have to go .500 or better to get in; our analysis found 24 of the Big Central’s 60 teams would have a good shot getting in with fewer than four wins.

Five wins (6 considered a “virtual lock”): Brearley, Bound Brook, Johnson, New Providence, East Brunswick, Monroe, Old Bridge, South Brunswick

Six wins (7 considered a “virtual lock”): Dayton, South Hunterdon, Metuchen, Spotswood, Perth Amboy

The rest: Belvidere would need a minimum 7 wins to be on the cusp of the playoffs, but 8 to be a lock. That means likely only 8-1 would guarantee them a playoff spot. That’s a tough spot to be in. Perhaps the County Seaters deserve to be in a division with some stronger opponents? Stronger opponents means higher OSI.

Dunellen would need seven, but at last check only had seven games on their schedule. Thus, the Destroyers would likely have to go undefeated to get in the playoffs.

Highland Park would need to win 7, and 8 to guarantee it. They’d also have to go 8-1 to be considered a “virtual lock.”

And Manville would have to win 8 to be on the bubble, 9 to guarantee it, since all undefeated teams automatically qualify for the state playoffs.

Below is a PDF document of the probable minimum wins each Big Central team wold need to qualify for the playoffs, with the minimums for each supersection listed at the bottom. Please note non-public schools such as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Joseph-Metuchen are not included since they generally are either seeded by committee (the math doesn’t always play a role) or do not have enough teams to fill out a full eight-team bracket, and most teams are included.

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