The new format essentially punishes better teams and rewards lesser teams.
The Oregon high school state football playoffs are set to open tonight.
I have thoughts.
Particularly about the rearranged Class 6A playoff format, which ditched the longstanding 32-team bracket in favor of two 16-team brackets.
Regarding that “longstanding” 32-team bracket for Oregon’s largest classification, it had been in use — with many tweaks along the way to control first-round matchups — for 42 years. To give you some idea of just how long ago it was when that format first went into use, the 32-team big-school bracket was first instituted in the fall of 1979 when I was a senior in high school.
Over the past nine years — since the fall of 2013 — that big-team bracket has been seeded 1-32, with first-round matchups featuring the top-seeded team vs. the 32nd-seeded team, the second-seeded team vs. the 31st-seeded team and so on.
That format employed a combination of Rating Percentage Index (RPI) system and Colley Bias Free Rating Method (Colley) to generate a list of ranks that are averaged to create a team’s overall OSAA ranking.
That set-up — 1 vs. 32 all the way down to 16 vs. 17 in the first round — ensured that the best regular-season teams had the best first-round matchups and that the state’s top two teams had the best chances to reach the 6A state championship game.
Friday, Nov. 4 games
Beyond that, it also gave the top four teams the best chances to reach the semifinals, the top eight teams the best chances to reach the quarterfinals etc.
One of the unintended consequences of this format, however, was that a lot of the first-round games turned into horrible blowouts — a thing that was bound to happen when you matched the state’s top-ranked team against its 32nd-ranked team. Here are the scores of those 1 vs. 32 matchups from 2013 through 2021 (with no score for the COVID-shortened 2020 season) — 56-21, 70-19, 52-12, 55-7, 54-13, 42-6, 56-20 and 49-40.
Ironically, the closest game in that nine-year span was last fall’s 49-40 win by top-ranked Lake Oswego over No. 32 Newberg.
But now — 42 years later, 15,341 days later, eight presidents later — the Oregon School Activities Association (the governing body for Oregon high school sports) and its member schools have decided to fix it.
In its place, the OSAA has shifted to a two-tiered playoff system for Class 6A football, with the state’s top 32 teams split into two seeded 16-team brackets. The top bracket will, in general, include the state’s top 16 ranked teams, while the second bracket will include teams ranked 17-32.
The one exception to the 1-16 and 17-32 alignment is this — league champions ranked outside the top 16 will be moved into the 1-16 bracket and will bump the lowest seed possible from the upper bracket to the 17-32 bracket.
The new playoff format will be in place for at least the next four-year block, the 2022-23 school year through the 2025-26 school year.
The OSAA’s Executive Committee — following up on work by its state championship committee and football ad hoc committee — said that creating more competitive first-round matchups was a major reason for the change.
Here’s the reality, though. The big-school football playoff format that preceded the 32-team seeded bracket produced — wait for it — lots of first-round blowouts. And so did the format before that.
And here’s why “fixing” the football playoffs has been so hard — there are competing values at work. One of the values the OSAA is trying to uphold is this — not wanting lesser teams to get crushed by better teams in the early rounds. A second value is this — wanting to reward the better teams for their strong regular seasons and giving them the best chances of reaching the later rounds.
Those two values can’t be honored at the same time. The only way to prevent early-round blowouts is to have lower-ranked teams play other lower-ranked teams in those early rounds, and higher-ranked teams to play other higher-ranked teams in those early rounds.
You can’t do that in a single bracket without rewarding lesser teams and punishing better teams. So instead, the OSAA and its member schools chose to split the big-school football playoffs into two brackets.
As I mentioned in a column last summer, however, the new format will come with its own set of unintended consequences. First, employing two 16-team playoff brackets means that the 2022 season will be one week (and therefore one game) shorter than in years past. For teams in the upper bracket, it’s like they just skipped the first-round game they would have played in years past and instead started the postseason in the second round.
Essentially, the new format means that all teams in the upper (1-16+) bracket are guaranteed to play at least one less playoff game than they would have in a 32-team bracket. Meanwhile, a bunch of teams in the lower (17-32) bracket will get to compete in more playoff games than in years past because they won’t be eliminated as early as they might have been in a seeded 32-team bracket.
There’s also the downside that teams in the lower bracket — known as the Columbia Cup — have no chance at winning the “real” Class 6A title, nor even a shot at upsetting any of the other teams aiming to win a 6A crown.
So let’s bottom-line this thing. Why should we care? Here’s why — the point of the playoffs is to find the best team in the state. It’s not to ensure that the second-best team also reaches the final. It’s not to avoid first-round blowouts. It’s to find out who’s No. 1.
Is it likely that the best team will be one that’s seeded 17th or lower, the teams that will play for the Columbia Cup over the next four years? Nope, but up until this year, those underdogs at least had a chance to prove that they were the best.