OPINION: As Big Central works on divisions for new scheduling cycle, Strength Index – and some conversation – will be key

PIscataway head coach Dan Higgins talks to his team after a 54-14 win over East Brunswick at Kenny Armwood Stadium on October 6, 2023. The Chiefs unthinkably missed the playoffs despite being 5-4 at the cutoff. (Photo: Alec Crouthamel)

Now at the end of a two-year scheduling and classification cycle statewide in high school football, the NJSIAA will release new Group classifications for the next two years, and the Big Central Conference – and other leagues – will be adjusting their divisions as needed.

It’s all part of the routine process of assessing programs’ success, strength and future prospects and placing them with their opponents.

But it needs to be done with some thought and foresight. And it should include a real consideration of the Strength Index.

That’s the NJSIAA’s system of rating teams, and it’s used in the OSI – Opponent Strength Index – which is sixty percent of the state’s playoff formula.

Like it, hate it, love it or leave it, it’s clearly here to stay. And just like teachers “teach to the test” when it comes to standardized testing, those in charge at the BCC, SFC, NJIC, WJFL and Shore Conference need to take it into consideration when parsing out divisions, and crafting crossover matchups.

While larger schools typically have a harder time missing the playoffs – because most naturally tend to have higher SI numbers – leaving the top four divisions in the BCC alone would be a mistake, regardless of crossovers.

The American Gold Division, for example, made of all Group 5 schools, has Hillsborough, Phillipsburg, Hunterdon Central, Ridge and Bridgewater-Raritan. The Panthers were the only team not ranked in the Central Jersey Sports Radio Top Ten this year. All four others were, and all five made the playoffs. The Panthers got in with three wins because of their tough schedule. They won a combined 34 games.

Yet, Piscataway was in the national gold with Monroe, South Brunswick, East Brunswick and Old Bridge, had five wins at the cutoff, and failed to make the playoffs. Did Piscataway not win enough games? Or were they given a horrible schedule?

They won more games than Bridgewater, so it’s hard to say the Chiefs should have done more and won six or seven by the cutoff when the Panthers made it with three, because they had losses to strong teams.

Smaller schools have it worse, since the ones that don’t win a lot tend to have much lower SI values. But the number you generally need to reach to get in the playoffs isn’t lower. So, you need to play good opponents. Manville and Spotswood learned that the hard way the last few years. The Chargers only made the playoffs this year because they were 8-1 at the cutoff, dropped weak Bishop Esutace from Week Zero to add Bordentown, and got some good luck the last couple weeks of the season with everyone else around them losing, helping their cause.

Overall, more balance is needed. Use the Strength Index. Divide the teams evenly. Come up with the 20 teams in those top four divisions, then put the four strongest in separate divisions. The next four go in separate divisions. And so on, and so on.

You can do the same in the divisions on down the list. The ones that are mostly Group 4s and 3s, and the ones with mostly 2s and 1s.

We’re sympathetic to the fact that divisions in as far-flung a conference as the BCC – which covers everything from Monroe and South Brunswick up to Hillside and Summit out to Phillipsburg and Belvidere – sometimes have to be about geography. And there are also rivalries that need to be maintained. JP Stevens and Edison won’t stop playing anytime soon.

But the process needs to involve some relation to Strength Index and the numbers. This is a tool leagues have never had before. Now they do, and they need to take advantage.

The Super Football Conference, essentially everything north of the BCC except for the NJIC – schedules in thirds: three teams you should beat, three toss-ups, and three teams you should lose to. It doesn’t always go chalk, but it gives teams a fighting chance, and can help them earn more home games.

The Shore Conference takes advantage of the ridiculous double multiplier allowed by the state, giving them to several teams who play tough schedules to inflate their playoff standing. That’s the rule and they take advantage. So does the West Jersey Football League. Lenape had no business hosting last year’s Central Group 5 final against Edison. The Eagles won on the road because they were the better team. Yet, they were seeded lower, thanks to the double multiplier.

So, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

And the schedule can’t be created in a vacuum. It’s tempting at scheduling time to not want to hear from every coach, who’s campaigning for an easier or more difficult schedule. Having 59 coaches in your ear isn’t easy. Too many cooks spoil the broth, and so on.

But break the work down. Have committees of ADs and coaches help. It’s hard work, but it should be. It’s a process.

Talk to the coaches and administrators, see what the prospects are for their programs the next two years. Feel it out.

But by all means, use the Strength Index. It’s how the state measures the strength of teams. It’s how teams will make or miss the playoffs at the end of the year. We all know how it works, now it’s time to make it work, or else what’s the point?

Two more ideas for the Big Central…

We think there are a few more things the Big Central can do to remedy the issue of teams with enough wins missing the playoffs, or not getting home games – which aren’t just a sense of pride, but a real revenue boost for schools with concessions.

First, open up an “Ivy” Division. The NJSIAA allows these – there are two in the SFC and one in the NJIC – to give relief schedules to struggling schools, in exchange for them giving up their playoff eligibility for that two year cycle. Highland Park, JP Stevens, Belvidere, Bound Brook are all viable candidates, and there could be more.

It’s a win-win proposition. Those schools don’t have to play much more talented ones and get blown out with a running clock. They can play schools more similar to themselves. Student-athletes can gain their confidence, and know what it feels like to win. Out of 59 teams in the BCC, four were winless and another four had just one win in 2023. Eight teams combined for four wins.

They also aren’t allowed to play playoff-eligible teams in the regular season. Which means they won’t hurt the playoff chances of schools like Piscataway or Spotswood or Manville, as they have over each of the last three seasons.

The second idea actually takes some pressure off of schedulers. That is, to create a playoff like the NJIC does. It would be the last two weeks of the regular season, and pit similar teams against each other. For example, in the top four divisions, have the top team in one face the second team in the other, and vice versa. Then do it with the other two.

Winners face off the next week, losers the next week. This way, all teams get opponents who are similar to them in quality. The non-playoff contenders will wind up playing non-playoff contenders. Those on the bubble will end up in “play-in” type games for two weeks, which generates a lot of excitement. And the top teams will square off against the top teams.

It’s exciting, it’ll help teams that need it, and won’t anyone else. And it’s two fewer weeks the league needs to schedule. It’s simply whoever ends up here in the standings plays whoever ends up there. The teams slot themselves in.

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