by Samuel Houseworth
(5-22-20) This Wednesday, the OHSAA voted to expand the football players from 32 teams per division to a whopping 48 teams per division, growing the tournament field by 50% and extending the season by an extra week. The unanimous vote would lead spectators to believe that this was an excellent move; that everybody would love to see the expansion of the tournament field.
But even the quickest glance at social media exposes an all-too-different reality.
To the credit of the OHSAA, there are benefits to growing the football playoff field. The most obvious benefit is that 50% more kids get to experience the thrill of playoff football. Anyone who played high school football can tell you about the thrill of playing under the lights on Friday night, representing your school, your family, and your hometown.
But when it is Week 11, those butterflies get turned up to max.
There is no arguing that is a bad thing. I am sure Greenville would have loved to have had that opportunity for the first time in over 20 years this past season. Under the new expanded format, they would have gotten it.
With the first two rounds now being played at home sites, that means that twice as many student-athletes will get one last hurrah in front of their hometown crowd. I am sure the kids at St. Mary’s would have enjoyed that this past season. That also means more officials getting to work in the postseason, more ticket sales, and more revenue for the schools.
But most importantly, these expanded playoffs will make it nearly impossible for a team to get Gibsonburged beginning in 2021.
For those unfamiliar, the Gibsonburg Golden Bears went a perfect 10-0 this past season, winning all their contests by 3+ possessions. But because they were saddled in the same D-VI region as 5 MAC schools and 7 teams with 9-win seasons, they finished 9th in the final computer ranking and were left out of the OHSAA football playoffs. The same thing happened to the Northwood Rangers in D-V this past season, while 5 teams made the postseason with only 5 wins, including one in D-VI.
On the flip side, this expansion cheapens the accomplishment of being a playoff team. If you look at the College Football Playoff, you used to need to go undefeated with a strong strength of schedule to guarantee yourself a spot in the National Championship Game. But now, one or two losses will do, so long as you win the ACC or Pac-12.
And the same thing will happen in high school football, as we enter a world where 3-7 Gahanna Lincoln or 3-7 Cincinnati McNicholas would have made the postseason last year.
Keep in mind, when you add more teams, you run the risk of more blowouts. Yeah, it would have been great for Gahanna Lincoln or Cincinnati McNicholas to make the playoffs, but any genius would have seen blowouts at the hands of Hilliard Davidson or Roger Bacon coming from a mile away. We already have blowouts through the first two rounds of the playoffs anyway, why are we adding a third week of uncompetitive contests?
But one issue that I sense the OHSAA did not take into consideration, given the unanimous vote, is the health and safety of the players. Ohio’s potential of a 15-game schedule is already an outlier in the world of high school football. In most states, you see 13- and 14- game schedules as the maximum for state champions. But now, Ohio is looking at making teams play 16 games, the same as professional football players, to win the state championship?
And yes, this is not only feasible, it is a guarantee. In 2019, 3 of the 7 state champions (Trotwood-Madison, Clyde, and Anna) were seeded outside of the top 4 in their regions, meaning that under the new format, they would have had to play an extra game to get to the top of the mountain.
This all goes back to how woefully inadequate the Harbin computer rankings are for selecting the playoff participants.
While I understand why margin of victory is not used, there are still other factors that would make for a more accurate rating while not encouraging blowouts and running up the score. First is to take losses into account. Two teams could finish with the same record, playing the exact same schedule, but if one team hands a 9-1 team their only loss, while losing to a 1-9 team, they get rated higher.
Another shortcoming, as those in west central Ohio are aware of, is taking school size into account in the rankings. The current Harbin ratings will look more favorably of a win over Shawnee than they do a win over Fort Recovery, primarily because Shawnee is a D-III school while Fort Recovery is a D-VI school. In fact, a win over Shawnee will earn the winning team about twice as many Harbin points as a win over Fort Recovery.
As anybody in west central Ohio knows, a game between the two schools would be highly competitive.
Finally, the best thing the OHSAA could have done, if they did not want to mess with their antiquated computer ranking, is to simply get rid of preseason regions. If Gibsonburg had been in any other D-VI region, they would have made the postseason. If Northwood had been in any other D-V region, they would have made the postseason.
So, why have regions at all? To reduce travel? It didn’t help in 2018 when St. Mary’s hosted Pepper Pike Orange, who had to take a 3-1/2 hour bus ride from east of Cleveland to play in the first round.
The simplest solution to the regional issue is to just wait until the end of the season, then make the regions. The OHSAA would not snub deserving teams like Gibsonburg and Northwood. They could reduce travel by keeping St. Mary’s and Pepper Pike Orange out of the same region. And they wouldn’t have to add an extra week of football.
I am not going to sit here and tell you that there are no benefits to the changes the OHSAA made: that would just be dishonest. But there were many, many better ways to go about solving all the issues they wanted to address without bloating the field of teams like Uncle Clay at Thanksgiving dinner, which more student-athletes will miss as they get ready for the final rounds of the football postseason.