Just two more weeks of play – this week and next – remain for public schools in New Jersey before the football playoffs are seeded, and the games take on extra importance this weekend.
In reality, Game One means as much as Game Eight or Nine, of course, but they just seem bigger now. A win or loss could be the difference between a playoff spot, or a consolation game (or whatever they call them these days). It could be the difference between a top-seed or a four-seed. Between hosting a first round game, or starting out on the road.
Here’s a look at the weekend in a nutshell:
Phillipsburg and Summit have the best chances at getting No. 1 seeds in the playoffs, and anyone else close is a bit of a longshot at this point. We’ll know much more after this weekend’s play.
Suffice it to say, the Stateliners have a huge game at Union Friday night, and the Farmers are going to be pretty ticked after getting upset last week by Elizabeth, 28-26, for the Minutemen’s first win. Summit has a big one on Colonia’s senior night, and the Patriots also need a win to stay in playoff contention, currently sitting in 18th in North Group 4 despite a 4-3 record. So, both have some stiff competition and underlying storylines besides just their matchups tonight. Both teams need to keep on winning.
Last year, 30 public schools made the playoffs, with 31 qualifying in the Big Central’s first postseason year in 2021. (There were no playoffs in 2020, the league’s flagship season.)
This season, we project 22 teams in with two weeks to go before the seeding, another that’s likely in (Sayreville) but probably not assured yet, and 12 bubble teams.
In North Group 5, we project Phillipsburg, Watchung Hills, Union, Plainfield and Westfield in, with Hillsborough, North Brunswick, Hunterdon Central and South Brunswick solid in South 5. Bubble teams in the North include Piscataway on the inside, and Bridgewater-Raritan in 17th, while Old Bridge and Edison are on the outside looking in over in the South.
In Group 4, Ridge, Montgomery, Linden and Woodbridge should be in the North, with Rahway on the bubble and Colonia on the wrong side of it at the moment, in dire need of some wins. Sayreville should be in, but we’re not sure if it’s mathematically a lock just yet.
In North Group 3, we project Somerville, Cranford and Hillside are in, along with Somerville and Carteret in South 3. Governor Livingston – in 15th in North 3 – is on the bubble.
Group 2 should find Bernards qualified in the North, and New Providence and Delaware Valley good to go in the South. But Spotswood – despite being in 12th and undefeated – is still a bubble team in South 2, while Johnson is looking to play its way in; they meet Saturday at 1:00 in Spotswood. Follow Marcus Borden on Twitter for videos and updates.
And in Group 1, South Hunterdon and Middlesex look good for playoff berths in the South, with Dunellen on the right side of the bubble and Manville not. Brearley is a bubble team looking in right now in North 1.
So what are the intriguing games?
In the top ten, No. 2 Ridge has a big game at Westfield in a battle of differently-colored devils. The Red Devils are fourth in their supersection, North 4, but still may have an outside shot at a top-seed if they can win out and things break just right.
No. 3 Hillsborough wants to hold on to a two-seed and needs a big home win over Somerville, which needs wins to open up the playoffs at home.
Seventh-ranked Watchung Hills also has a long-shot top-seed chance, but they’ll need to beat St. Joseph-Metuchen up in the hills tonight to have a crack at it.
Eighth-ranked Bernards could win out and still not finish in the top four, but to even have a crack, they’ll need a win at New Providence this evening.
While we think No. 9 Summit is a good bet at a top-seed, they don’t want to mess around and find out with a loss at Colonia. It’s the Patriots Senior Night, though, and they’re in desperate need of wins to make the playoffs, despite a 4-3 mark; they’re in 18th place. Statement win, too, if they can get it.
And there’s a ton on the line tonight at Kenny Armwood Stadium in a game you can hear on Central Jersey Sports Radio when No. 10 Sayreville travels to Piscataway. The Bombers probably have a playoff berth locked up, but Piscataway doesn’t. They’re on the right side of the proverbial bubbble, but likely need a win to keep it that way.
Elsewhere, Bridgewater-Raritan hosts Elizabeth as a pair of 1-6 teams go at it. Both have a shot at the playoffs, and with two being the minimum number of wins for eligibility, both are in critical need of a win in this one, particularly the Minutemen, who have Watchung Hills on the horizon next week.
Dunellen is hanging on for dear life in South 1, sitting in 16th place, the last playoff position, and has a big one tonight at Roselle Park.
Defending Central Jersey Group 5 champion Edison is on the outside of the bubble, and in need of a win at South Brunswick, and Old Bridge is in need of the same when they play at New Brunswick. Both are seeking to get in the playoffs in the South 5 supersection, and are on the outside looking in with two games left.
Spotswood has the longest active win streak among Big Central Conference teams at nine games, but if they can beat AL Johnson at home in the rain Saturday afternoon, they could very well have the longest in the state by the time the final horn sounds at Charger Stadium.
Caldwell is tops in New Jersey with 34 straight victories. This is so much more difficult now since the state moved to group championships. Consider that in 2017, before the playoffs expanded to include “bowl games” that eventually became “regional championships,” 20 public schools champions could potentially end their seasons undefeated. That number was halved in 2018 with regional championships, and now, only five can end their season with a win.
But Caldwell has one of its toughest games all year Friday night, when they play 7-0 Cedar Grove. Next week, they have 5-1 Mountain Lakes, the defending North 1, Group 1 champ.
Next on the list is Old Tappan, which has won 12 straight and is 5-0 this year. But they also have an undefeated opponent this Friday night – Ramapo at 6-0.
And then there’s Spotswood, winners of nine straight: 7-0 this year, and they won their last two last year after not making the playoffs with six wins. It’s a good chance the Chargers won’t make the playoffs unless they’re 9-0 this year, at which point they will have won eleven straight games.
The only other team that’s won nine in a row coming into this week is Weehawken, but they’re not playoff eligible, playing in the NJIC’s Union Division, an “NJSIAA Ivy” division that accepts not making the playoffs in exchange for a more suitable schedule of lower-echelon teams.