H.S. Football Head to Head: Size of playoff field matters

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Oakes: Well, sport, the high school football playoffs are upon us. There will be quarterfinal games breaking out all over the state Friday evening and Saturday afternoon, and yes, by golly, some of them will be breakouts, as in more ugly and painful than a shingles flare-up. And unless you have been hiding under a rock, heavily occupied with feeding twin infants, or carrying a torch for the Kansas City Royals, you might have heard the news that one of those first-round playoff games isn’t happening in our backyard.

Telstar has decided to forfeit its chance against Lisbon, the top-seeded team in Class D West. We’ve broken this news and broken it down like Jon Gruden analyzing how a quarterbacks slurps his soup. I’m not here to do that today. The Rebels say it’s a matter of numbers, safety, and the simple fact that they didn’t “earn” a playoff bid on the field. For the purposes of this discussion, we will let that defense stand.

It does lead into a larger and perhaps equally important discussion, however: How big should the football playoffs be? For a variety of reasons, a majority of the leagues in the state choose to invite eight teams to the party, even though they all house between nine and 11 teams. That isn’t much of a cutoff. Even taking a regular-season forfeit such as Traip’s out of the equation, it means there’s a strong chance that one win is enough to make the cut. I know it’s a different sport, but all I can think of is Bob Uecker in “Major League”: “One win? That’s all we got? One (doggone) win?”

Eight teams in a football playoff are too many. It renders the regular season meaningless and subjects a bad team that already suffered a 52-0 loss in September a chance to absorb a worse one on Halloween weekend. The Class A divisions only have eight teams, so they take six. But that creates a dreaded bye week for the top two seeds, and I do mean dreaded. That arrangement is where your team’s momentum goes to die. Getting a bye at this time of year is worse than getting a rock in your trick-or-treat bag.

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Four teams, man. One, two, three, four. If you don’t get it done on fourth down in football, then you’re too late. If you don’t get it done and squeeze into the top four after having a chance to settle it on the field with most of the teams in your conference during the season, you don’t belong. Go ahead, though. I’m eager to hear you strum the opening notes of Kumbayah and tell me why I’m wrong.

Pelletier: But you’re not wrong. Entirely. (Did I really just say that?)

That eight teams of nine, or eight of 10, get into the playoffs is ridiculous. So for that point I applaud you. But to suggest that only four of 10 make it, now you’re cutting it a bit too far.

You may dread a bye week. Some coaches may dread a bye week. But it is a necessity if we are going to sort things out properly.

You can count on one hand the number of recent 7-2 or 8-1 upsets we’ve had in all of high school football. But 6-3 and 5-4 “upsets,” (which really aren’t always really upsets, TV people) are more commonplace and those players deserve that chance.

Not all matchups of that ilk are worthy, but enough are to make them worth playing. Coaches love to focus on the negative impacts of a two-week layoff, but there are many who look at it as a chance to get completely healthy and to scout opponents and tweak the playbook a bit to be better prepared for the next game. You don’t think Lisbon’s coaching staff will swarm Old Orchard Beach for its game against Winthrop/Monmouth on Friday? Or in a class where they are already at six, don’t you think Cheverus and Windham coaches will be out en masse?

The other culprit in all of this is something even we have trumpeted for years: reclassification. By spreading teams into four classes, each class now has fewer teams. What used to be 8 of 12 or 14 teams making the playoffs (a reasonable proportion, I would argue) is now 8 of 9 or 10, which as you so subtly stated earlier is egregious.

So, @oaksie72, how do we fix it?

Oakes: We fix it, @JPell915, by putting some of these teams in a league in which they can actually compete. This isn’t going to make the PTC people happy, now that they’ve been spared the indignity of being destroyed by a Greater Portland team in the state final at long last, but the next two-year cycle should be A, B, C, and D for “developmental.”

The first three classes in my proposal would be sorted by enrollment. The fourth will be determined by level of readiness for varsity football. All programs 10 years or younger (unless they choose to “petition up”) and all programs who are getting their proverbial hineys handed to them (they know who they are … we all know who they are) will go into this league. Any honest assessment tells us that would include roughly one-quarter of the teams in the state. Then they could actually go into the playoffs with a level playing field. Imagine that.

Yes, this will take some swallowing of pride. Yes, it will take a committee to sort through appeals from established programs who want to be in this new division, to ensure that they aren’t sandbagging. But for the first time, the Maine Principals’ Association would be acknowledging that sheer number of students doesn’t mean a whole lot when pads and helmets are on, and that would be long overdue. You dig?

Pelletier: I dig, but I caution: This will open up a can of worms with which I am not sure the MPA is ready to deal. Is the brain trust then willing to apply this same logic to other sports (cough, hockey, cough) where competitive imbalance within classes exists? If it (finally) is, then by all means, get ‘er done.

Also, I realize I haven’t taken a swing at your age yet in our rambling today. I must be getting old. You know, catching up to you … 

See you next week, when everyone who made it to that round of the playoffs will actually play.

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