Every couple of years, sometimes every year, leagues and conferences around New Jersey do The Shuffle.
It’s less a dance than a Rubik’s Cube, but the goal is to get all their teams in competitive divisions. Ultimately, someone will say they’re playing too many big schools, or will wind up slaying a bunch of smaller schools, but the decision-makers have nothing to go on other than coach or athletic director recommendations, the eye test, and records.
The reformation of the state’s playoff formula four years ago may have made the system much more complicated – and now requires a slide rule for the average fan to understand – but it also leaves us with some numbers based on the on-field results that can help leagues when they make their divisions.
Since each team now has a strength rating not just based on wins and losses or group size, and that number is used in the Opponent Strength Index that’s 60% of the state’s UPR playoff formula, we can now figure out a team’s Strength of Schedule based on each opponent’s preseason rankings.
How do we figure Strength of Schedule. It’s pretty easy.
We simply take the Strength Index of every opponent and average them out. A team with four opponents ranked 80 and three opponents ranked 50 would average out to a 65.
We’ve already showed you the preseason Strength Index numbers for the Big Central Conference, per Gridiron New Jersey, the NJSIAA’s official calculator of the playoff formula – you can find the numbers here – and a full list can be found here in PDF format.
Knowing that, we can now find the Strength of Schedule for all the teams in the Big Central. Note that we left out any games against out-of-state opponents, since those will no longer be considered for playoff qualification, both in terms of Strength Index and power points.
Here are the Strength of Schedule rankings for the BCC:
According to this chart, Phillipsburg has the toughest schedule this season in the Big Central Conference, followed by Westfield and Union. Teams of similar colors are in the same division. So, you can tell that the division including P’burg, Hillsborough, Bridgewater-Raritan, Ridge and Hunterdon Central is one of the toughest. (The league, now heading into its third – and second full – season, still has not named its divisions.)
The division with Elizabeth, Union, Westfield, Somerville and St. Joseph-Metuchen also is one of the toughest.
The bottom five teams for strength of schedule, from the bottom up, are Spotswood, Brearley, Dayton, Roselle Park and Highland Park.
But just having a tough Strength of Schedule doesn’t mean a team is being challenged. We compare a team’s Strength of Schedule to its own Strength Index to see if it is playing “Up or Down.” If the strength of a team’s opponents are higher than their own, they’re being challenged. If they’re lower, they’re playing weaker teams, and it could hurt them come playoff time.
Here are the Up or Down rankings in the Big Central:
Note that many weak teams are playing “up” – that’s because often there aren’t enough teams ranked below them to play, if any. The lowest two Strength Index teams – Highland Park and JP Stevens – play up the most. The same can be said for the best teams. If Hillsborough is No. 1, they can do nothing but play down, since every team is ranked lower than them.
And in that “gold” division – again, no names, just the random colors we used in our chart to show teams in the same division – note that all the teams are ranked highly in Strength of Schedule, but Hillsborough plays way down and Hunterdon Central plays way up. That’s because the Raiders are the “strongest” team in that division – as well as the BCC – so they would naturally play down; no one is ranked stronger than they are. Hunterdon Central has the lowest rating of the five, so all the teams in their division are above them; they are playing “up.”
What’s interesting here is some of the middle of the pack or smaller teams that are at the bottom. Brearley – a Group 1 school – is in a division with teams ranked quite a bit lower than they are, and “plays down” by 18.86 points. That means, on average, their opponents are almost 19 points below them. Highland Park, meanwhile, is playing “up” almost 19 points.
That may make sense, because the Owls are a weaker program than the Bears, but Highland Park isn’t likely a playoff team; Brearley hopes to be. How will those weaker opponents affect them?
Then there’s Colonia, one of the top teams in the Big Central in terms of Strength Index, but they’re playing down significantly as well.
Again, this is only based on Strength Index, just one factor used in playoff qualification. This doesn’t take into account group size, or even the size of a program. JP Stevens may be a Group 5 school, but has a lower turnout for football than some other Group 5s.
Which takes us back to those new divisions created by the league. Since they still haven’t been named, we just numbered them 1 through 12, starting with the first division on the league’s schedule, and continuing in that order. Division “1,” for example, features three Group 5 public schools – Elizabeth, Union and Westfield – plus a Group 3 in Somerville, and non-public St. Joseph-Metuchen.
Somerville is an interesting study here. Last year they were in “Division 3,” featuring similar sized schools: Carteret, South Plainfield, Rahway and Summit. In 2020, their division also had Warren Hills (no longer in the Big Central). One might wonder if they should be in with three Group 5 schools and a non-public like St. Joe’s?
But as one of the most successful schools in Middlesex and Somerset Counties over the past several years – 57-8 in the last 6 seasons, including 21-2 with a state championship in two years under Jeff Vanderbeek and 36-6 with two finals appearances under Dallas Whitaker – the Pioneers seemingly were always in a losing battle to earn a top seed in the playoffs.
Why? Strength of schedule. It’s better this year, and while depth could be an issue against those large Union County schools in their division, even a loss to one of them may be better than a win against some of those weaker teams they’d faced in years past.
That said, here are the new, still-unnamed Big Central Conference Divisions:
- Elizabeth, Somerville, St. Jospeh-Metuchen, Union, Westfield
- Bridgewater-Raritan, Hillsborough, Hunterdon Central, Phillipsburg, Ridge
- East Brunswick, Monroe, Old Bridge, Piscataway, South Brunswick
- Edison, Franklin, New Brunswick, North Brunswick, Sayreville
- Colonia, JFK, Linden, Perth Amboy, Woodbridge
- Montgomery, North Hunterdon, Plainfield, Watchung Hills
- Cranford, Rahway, Scotch Plains-Fanwood, Summit, St. Thomas Aquinas
- Carteret, Governor Livingston, JP Stevens, North Plainfield, South Plainfield
- Bernards, Bound Brook, Delaware Valley, South River, Voorhees
- Hillside, Johnson, Metuchen, New Providence, Roselle
- Brearley, Dayton, Highland Park, Roselle Park, Spotswood
- Belvidere, Dunellen, Manville, Middlesex, South Hunterdon
How did the reshuffling go?
Overall, we think pretty good, in terms of finding a balance. There are two factors we can look at. Remember the “Up or Down?” If we took the average “Up or Down” for each division, we can see what kind of balance there is in a team’s schedule, including its BCC non-divisional opponents, which round out each team’s slates.
On average, no division plays up more than 4 points (essentially half a touchdown) or down by more than two-and-a-half. And it’s an improvement upon last year. In 2021, three divisions played up or down more than 3.5 points. This year, only one does. That – hypothetically – means more parity.
The second factor to consider is what we’ll call “range.” This is the difference between the team with the lowest and highest Strength Index in the division. For example, in Division 3, no more than 13.14 points separate the teams…. i.e., in a perfect world, the average game would be decided by about two touchdowns. The same for Division 6. But some, like Division 11 – remember we noted tiny Brearley playing “down?” – have a range of 35. It will be interesting to watch this season’s scores, and whether the Bears’ playoff chances are affected.
Overall, it appears the Big Central improved parity in its divisions. Whether that parlays into success during the season, and helps its teams secure better playoff positions, only time will tell. We’ll review at the end of the season and see how it played out.