Just three weeks of football remain before the state playoffs are seeded, and teams all across the state are jockeying for position.
Over the next few weeks here at Central Jersey Sports Radio, we’ll break down every Big Central Conference team’s playoff scenario like no one else. And our playoff coverage is sponsored by May Family Appliances, Route One South in the Wick Plaza in Edison.
While the nature of the NJSIAA’s UPR system – which uses Opponent Strength Index for 60 percent of the formula and traditional power points for the other 40 percent – is very fluid from week to week, things will come into much clearer focus on Cutoff Weekend, when Strength Index numbers are locked in.
Until then, it’s not just wins and losses that determine playoff seeding, but how much – or in some cases how little, which often is better – a team wins or loses by. A loss to a strong opponent can help, while a win over a weak one can hurt.
Here’s our team-by-team look at Group 5. Official standings on Gridiron New Jersey can be found by clicking the links below.
2. Phillipsburg (4-1): The top two teams here are Passaic Tech (6-0) and the Stateliners, with PCTI having a UPR of 1, and P’burg a UPR of 2. That means Passaic Tech is ranked first in both power points and OSI, while Phillipsburg is ranked second in both. If the playoffs were seeded today, the Stateliners would be the top seed in the North 2, Group 5 section. The schedule is never easy for them, but they’ve gotten through some very good teams already – like Ridge, Hunterdon Central and Sayreville – and have two more toughies coming up. This week at Bridgewater-Raritan (yes, they’re 1-5, but have traditionally played P’burg tough) and next week at Union (4-2), before a bit of a breather on Cutoff Weekend when they host currently winless East Brunswick. Assuming P’burg keeps winning, could their schedule hurt them down the stretch? Bridgewater may be 1-4, but they have an SI in the 70s, which would very much help P’burg’s current 61.29 OSI.
3. Watchung Hills (5-1): The Warriors are coming off their first loss of the season – to Montgomery at home Saturday night – but are in a good line for a two-seed. Currently, they’d be in Phillipsburg’s section. Their schedule is strong SI-wise. Even a win over 0-fer Elizabeth on the final weekend would help, as their Strength Index is around 60, still a few points higher than Watchung’s OSI. They have some tough ones the next two weeks, at Plainfield this Saturday, then home to St. Joseph-Metuchen. Keep winning, and a two-seed is likely.
5. Union (4-2): The Farmers are having a nice rebound year, and are in line for a third-seed if they can keep winning. They could even move higher – Union City in fourth is just one UPR point ahead of them – due to their challenging schedule: Elizabeth on the road this week, home to Phillipsburg next week, then at Ridge. A sweep would be a mighty feat, and it’s likely Union would be rewarded handsomely for it.
7. Plainfield (4-1): Boy, has James Williams got it going on with the Cardinals, who are looking to surpass their last two 5-5 seasons in a big way here in 2023. How much they can improve their standing, though, remains to be seen. The goal is a top eight finish to get one of the top four seeds in whatever section they land. A win against Watchung Hills at home this Saturday would be enormous, but wins over Monroe and Franklin – both 2-4 – may not move the needle, or worse. The Cards might need a sweep to play a playoff game at Hub Stine Field.
14. Piscataway (3-3): In 2011, the Chiefs started 1-2, and head coach Dan Higgins said from that point on, every game was a playoff game, just to get in. This year’s squad started 0-2, and is in much the same boat. Their biggest obstacle will be Sayreville next week at home, sandwiched between a home game against East Brunswick this Friday night (CJSR, 6 pm) and a road game at New Brunswick Friday night of Cutoff Weekend; the Bears and Zebras are a combined 0-2. For now, we’re calling them a bubble team on the right side of said bubble.
15. Westfield (2-3): Tough loss on a last-second field goal to St. Joseph this past weekend, but the Blue Devils are still in contention for a playoff spot. They’re also a bubble team, and on the right side of it, but they only lead Bayonne by 0.8 UPR points, and Bridgewater by a full UPR point. This could easily go either way for Westfield, too, with three very solid opponents coming up: Somerville (4-2) and Ridge (4-1) at home this week and next, followed by a road game at Hillsborough (5-1) on Cutoff Weekend. They might be able to get in with just one win against that slate; two seems like they’d sew it up.
17. Bridgewater-Raritan (1-5): Yes, even four games below .500 with three to play, the Panthers are still in contention. Such is life in Group 5 and a tough division like they play in, the American Silver. Consider the fact that it’s the only division in the Big Central with three ranked teams: No. 2 Ridge, No. 3 Hillsborough and No. 4 Phillipsburg. And they lost to all three by just a touchdown each; their five losses have come by an average 7.4 points. (Meanwhile, Spotswood is hanging on to a playoff berth at 6-0, but we’ll get to that when we get down to Group 2. In any event…) Bridgewater has a good schedule the rest of the way, and they may need to win all three. They start with Phillipsburg at home, then host Elizabeth next week before ending at Old Bridge.
4. Hillsborough (5-1): The Raiders come after Cherokee, Toms River North and Marlboro, and expect 15th place Lenape to make a massive jump when they play – after Cherokee this weekend – multipliers St. Joe’s-Hammonton next week and St. Augustine on Cutoff Weekend. Yes, the nasty NJSIAA double multiplier will wreak some havoc on behalf of this 2-4 Burlington County team, which lost in last year’s Central 5 sectional final to Edison. Be that as it may, Hillsborough maintained its position at No. 4 this week with another big win, this time over Union. They have a good schedule the rest of the way, with Hunterdon Central in Flemington this weekend, then home games with Somerville and Westfield for the last two. And there’s some distance behind them., so they’re not too bunched together here.
5. North Brunswick (5-0): Despite being unbeaten, the Raiders – who are just 0.8 UPR points behind Hillsborough – dropped from third place last week to fifth, after a 50-0 victory over 2-win Franklin. Their problem is things don’t get better with the schedule, with a pair of 0-6 and low-SI teams the next couple of weeks: New Brunswick home Friday and East Brunswick away next weekend, before coming back home to finish out with a good Cranford team that’s 3-2 and has a 68 SI. We say the Raiders could go 8-0 and still not reach the top four, especially if the teams above them continue to win. They may need one of them to slip and fall in order to climb the ladder.
9. Hunterdon Central (4-2): The Red Devils started 4-0, but have since lost two straight. Can they get back to their winning ways? If so, a home first-round playoff game at Stewart Field could be in the cards. They’re just one UPR point out of the top eight. But the top half – and then some – in this supersection is very good. There are two undefeated teams and five one-loss teams in the top 12, and none of those teams has more than two losses. The good news for Central is that two of the teams directly behind them – Kingsway and South Brunswick – are well behind by 1.6 UPR points, and West Windsor-Plainsboro in 12th is three full UPR points in arrears. Keep winning, and they’ll stave off the teams behind them. This weekend is a tough one against Hillsborough, but it’s at home. The next two weeks are not as challenging: at Franklin and home to Perth Amboy; both are 2-4.
11. South Brunswick (4-2): The Vikings are tied with Kingsway for 10th, but the Dragons would get the tiebreaker by virtue of having a higher OSI (50.18 to 47.25). Their last three weeks are a pretty good schedule, starting with a trip to Basking Ridge to take on Will Deady, Ryan Olivo and the Red Devils this Friday night. Next week, they get Edison at home, and finish at Brooks Field against Somerville. We don’t think they make the top eight even with a sweep, but a win or two should lock up a playoff berth.
16. Edison (3-3): The Eagles are the quintessential bubble team, and have three huge games left. We think two wins gives them a very good shot to be in the field, and if things go the way they are now, they might be better off squeaking in at 16 to avoid Toms River North in the opening round. Edison lost to the Mariners in last year’s Group 5 semifinal. The next three opponents are St. Joe’s this week at home, South Brunswick away next week, and St. Thomas Aquinas at home on Cutoff Weekend. One win, however, might not cut it.
18. Franklin (2-4): Yes, the Warriors may have a mathematical shot, and teams like Edison may have a lot to do with it, but the schedule isn’t kind to the Warriors. They have No. 9 Sayreville this week at home, followed by 4-2, but reeling, Hunterdon Central, then a Saturday Cutoff Weekend game at Plainfield. Considering Franklin needs to make up big ground, they probably need two wins to have a shot at getting in, maybe even all three. Against that slate, it’s a big ask.