A complete 2021 playoff primer: Defense, Dark Horses and Preseason Predictions, plus links to opening round previews

Can Tommy Amankwaa and Hillsborough go unbeaten, and bring home the Raiders’ first state title in 21 years?

After a one-year hiatus due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the NJSIAA high school football playoffs are back, and everyone’s excited: players, coaches, parents and fans.

Oh, and don’t forget about us: the media. This is our favorite time of year!

So, we’ve got a unique look for you at the 2021 playoffs, with some random thoughts, hot takes, and a look back at preseason predictions.

Coverage Plans…

Central Jersey Sports Radio’s coverage of the 2021 NJSIAA high school football playoffs begins with the Big Central Game of the Week driven by Autoland, this Friday night at 7, when 5th-seed New Providence visits 4th-seed Delaware Valley in a South Group 2 first-round game out in Frenchtown. Mike Pavlichko and Dom Savino have the call with pregame at 6:45. Click here to listen live.

We’ll also have live drop-in updates from Justin Sontupe covering 6th-seed Ridge at 3rd-seed Woodbridge in a North 1 Group 4 opening round matchup at Priscoe Field, while student reporter Matthew Lesnik will cover 2nd-seed Bernards’ home game against 7th-seed Bound Brook in a Central Group 2 first round matchup.

We’ll have postgame reaction from all three games on cjsportsradio.com late Friday night, and a full scoreboard, plus other postgame interviews from other contests as well.


How did we do?

Before the season started, we used the state’s Strength Index formula and the 2019 playoff brackets to determine how many wins a team would need to guarantee they would get in the playoffs.

Out of 58 public school teams in the Big Central, we were right on 53 of them, although two of those were on a technicality. So, really, we were only off on three of 58.

Read more and see the full numbers for the entire Big Central Conference here.

The Big Central would be wise to use this data as a component of scheduling. Some teams, we projected, only needed to win two or three games to get in the playoffs, while some would have needed six or seven. What happened to those teams?

One one hand, you have a team like Dayton, which would have needed to win six or seven won only three, and was nowhere near the playoffs.

Then, there’s a team like Manville. Their schedule was so “easy,” according to the state formula for Strength Index, they would have had to win eight or nine games to get into the postseason. They wound up losing a game due to flooding from Ida, and in the end, finished 6-2, missing the playoffs. by one spot.

The bottom line to learn from this data is: A team that has to win eight games to make the playoffs has too easy a schedule. A team that only has to win two probably has it too easy.

Previewing Playoff Runs…

Below are links to some playoff teams people are talking about in the Big Central. These will be updated heading into Friday’s opening round games, so keep checking back as these stories go live and for more:

Terriers will need to tame Barth to continue best season under Haughey, advance in playoffs

New Providence up for an opening round road challenge against a Big Central foe with a big receiver

Hillsborough – trying to finish unbeaten for the first time in nearly 50 years – still have work to do to bring home a title

Woodbridge looking to regroup as state playoffs begin against potential sleeper in Ridge

Union hitting on all cylinders as it begins playoffs with a top seed

Could sneaky Sayreville make a run? Bombers could be an under-the-radar threat in North 2, Group 4

Benitez, Cougars know a tall task awaits them in top-seed Northern Highlands

Tenacious D…

When we saw Union only put up 14 points against Westfield, in CJSR’s first in-person look at the Farmers, we weren’t sure what to think. But now that we’ve seen the rest of the season, the game said more about Westfield’s defense than Union lacking anything on offense.

For one thing, Union has scored no fewer than 42 points in its four games since, averaging 45.5 points per game.

But while that 14 point defensive effort by the Blue Devils was Union’s lowest offensive output of the season – half it’s next lowest total of 28 in a season-opening loss to Millville – it wasn’t the first – or last – time Westfield cranked it up on defense.

Consider they also held Phillipsburg to a season low of 13 points, albeit in a 13-0 loss last Friday night at Maloney Stadium.

They’ve also held three other teams to their second lowest point totals of the season. They allowed only seven points to Elizabeth (who was shutout by Union), 28 to Hillsborough (whose low of 21 came in an overtime win against Phillipsburg) and 20 to St. Joseph-Metuchen (which also scored 20 against Edison, and had a season low of 18 against New Brunswick).


Listen to all previous “Breakfast with Harry” segments from 2020 by clicking the image above.

Are we there yet?

Not having playoff teams in traditional sections and not deciding what sections teams are in until the playoffs are seeded using a snaking method, with ne regard for geography leaves some pretty long trips.

Click hear to read more about who has the longest road trip in the opening round of the postseason.

It’s a story of turnabout being fair play. Sort of.

Suffice it to say there are five Big Central teams whose drives will take them at least an hour, without traffic. Now try that on a Friday night? Buckle up, it’s going to be a long ride.

Lucky 13, Perfection?

Only one current Big Central football team has won 13 games in a season, the 2018 Piscataway Chiefs. They beat Union City for the North 2 Group 5 title, then took out Ridgewood at Met Life Stadium in the Meadowlands for the North 5 “regional bowl” title.

The only other league team to go perfect since the advent of the regional bowl games in 2018 was Union, in 2019. They finished a perfect 12-0.

No playoffs were held last year, the inaugural season for the Big Central Conference, so technically, no league team has gone 13-0 while playing in the fledgling conference.

Three undefeated teams remain. But Hillsborough is the only one that can go 13-0. The Raiders are a perfect 9-0, and could play four more games.

However, Cranford is only 8-0 and would max out at 12 games. And St. Thomas Aquinas – at 9-0 – would only get three more games if they went as far as they could, to the Non-Public B Final.

Weekend Slate…

Here’s the schedule by day of games involving Big Central Conference teams, noted in bold:

FRIDAY (7 pm unless otherwise noted)

8-Montgomery at 1-Northern Highlands, 6:15 pm (North 1, Group 4)
5-Westfield at 4-West Orange (North 1, Group 5)
8-Livingston at 1-Union (North 2, Group 5)
6-Union City at 3-Phillipsburg (North 2, Group 5)
5-Eastside (Paterson) at 4-Bridgewater-Raritan (North 2, Group 5)
8-New Brunswick at 1-Hillsborough (Central Group 5)
6-Eastern at 3-North Brunswick (Central Group 5)
7-Edison at 2-Manalapan (South Group 5)
6-East Brunswick at 3-Toms River North (South Group 5)
6-Ridge at 3-Woodbridge (North 1, Group 4)
8-Linden at 1-Irvington (North 1, Group 4)
7-North Hunterdon at 2-Middletown South (North 2, Group 4)
6-Middletownn North at 3-Sayreville (North 2, Group 4)
5-Colonia at 4-Randolph (North 2, Group 4)
8-Demarest at 1-Cranford (North 2, Group 3)
6-Warren Hills at 3-Sparta (North 2, Group 3)
5-Rahway at 4-Somerville (South Group 3)
5-New Providence at 4-Delaware Valley (South Group 2) (CLICK TO LISTEN)
7-Bound Brook at 2-Bernards (Central Group 2)
6-Brearley at 3-Boonton (North 2, Group 1)
6-Middlesex at 3-Woodstown (South Group 1)
8-Summit at 1-West Morris, 7:30 pm (North 1, Group 3)


8-South Hunterdon at 1-Paulsboro, 11 am (Central Group 1)
8-Elizabeth at 1-East Orange, 1 pm (North 1, Group 5)
5-Overbrook at 4-Hillside, 1 pm (Central Group 2)

No. 6 seed St. Thomas Aquinas opens the Non-Public B playoffs next weekend at 3rd-seed St. Joseph-Hammonton.

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