PREVIEW: MSHSAA tests math skills with its new district format for football

Thursday, August 23, 2012

There will be more than crunching tackles on Missouri's high school football fields this year.

Number crunching has been added to the sport as well in a continued attempt to make sure the best teams get the opportunity to advance deeper into the playoffs.

Missouri is in the first year of a new district format that will be anchored in mathematics.

The simple equation of two teams from each four-team district advancing to the playoffs has been scrapped in favor of an eight-team bracket.

The overall picture is fairly simple. Bring your game face Week 10 or go home.

"I like it because everyone makes the playoffs," Central junior lineman Scottie Thomas said. "You win or go home, and that's what football should be about, putting everything on the line your last game."

An eight-team, single-elimination tournament begins the 10th week of the season and churns out a district champion in Week 12. The eight district champions then will compete in the traditional playoff format and determine a state champion in Week 15.

The new system won't be a stranger to the newest face on the local high school football scene.

First-year Jackson coach Brent Eckley served on the football advisory committee that recommended the system to the Missouri State High School Activities Association's board of directors.

"I think it's going to be good for football," Eckley said. "I think MSHSAA was looking for consistency throughout their sports, and that's why we went to this type of district format."

Every team in the state will have a meaningful game in Week 10, unlike the old system where teams sometimes were playing for pride and trying to send seniors out on a winning note in an otherwise meaningless game.

The mathematical challenge of the new system comes in the seeding of the district tournaments.

A point system has been adopted that assigns a value to the first nine games of the season based on a team's wins and losses, the school size of the opponent, the strength of schedule and point differential in games.

Addition, multiplication, subtraction and division are used throughout the process, with the sums in each of the four categories ultimately added for a seeding score.

It's simple math that can get complicated at various stages.

Like when St. Vincent coach Paul Sauer faced the possibility of an open date in the first week of the season but located a game.

He wasn't keen on the idea of leaving his team one game short to begin with, but he wasn't sure how an open date might affect his team's seeding score when point totals were awarded for wins and losses and then divided by number of games.

"That's the thing, if you divide it by eight instead of nine, would it be ... I don't know. I'm not a big math person," Sauer said with a laugh. "But I what look at is our kids work hard. Not to play a game would be cutting out 10 percent of their season. I think it would be only fair to them to play all 10 games."

Not to worry. The Missouri State High School Activities Association will keep track of the data on a weekly basis so teams know where they stand.

"We'll play our games and then they'll tell us where we're at, and then we'll go from there," Scott City coach Jim May said.

In the event the math doesn't add up -- for example, where two teams are seeded one-two and the two seed already has beaten the one seed -- MSHSAA has empowered the district coaches with a vote to overrule the seeding.

"It's not perfect. None is," Eckley said.

Teams will be assigned 10 points for a loss -- 15 points for an overtime loss -- and 20 points for a win. The points accumulated will be divided by the number of games. If a team goes 9-0 during the regular season, it would have accumulated 180 points, which would go as 20 points when divided by nine. Likewise, a team with an 0-9 record would accumulate 90 points and have a score of 10.

Playing larger schools also is a way to pick up points, regardless of the outcome. Ten points are awarded for each step up in class, while there is no deduction for playing down in class.

Class 1 St. Vincent will receive 40 points just for playing both Class 3 schools Sumner and Lift for Life. The play-up points are accumulated and divided by the number of games played. St. Vincent also will play five Class 2 schools and will accumulate 90 play-up points overall. Those points will be divided by the nine games on its schedule for a total of 10 points.

"I guess I will have a better understanding of it after this year," Sauer said. "Definitely in two years. But that's what our thinking was to play biggers schools where you get more points."

The Indians are used to playing larger schools over the years. They previously played Class 3 Park Hills, so Lift for Life is no stretch.

"To us it's just another team," St. Vincent junior tailback Alex Winkler said. "Like last year we played Park Hills and we showed we could play with them. We can play with bigger schools."

The strength of schedule will be determined with the scale that applies points for wins and losses. The data will omit the outcome from the game of the two schools in question. Therefore, if an opponent has played nine games, its strength of schedule will be based on its other eight games. A score for each opponent will be derived in this fashion and then averaged for the team in question's overall strength-of-schedule score. It will be the most fluid of the categories, with the figure affected by the results from all nine weeks.

The final point category is point differential in a game, and it will use the previous scale of plus- or minus-13 points used in the former district format. If a team were to win a game by 30 points, it would receive only the 13-point maximum. The point differential accumulates, or is reduced by as many as 13 points each week. The team's overall differential score is the total points divided by the number of games.

"I think as far as what they're looking at, I think it will be an adequate representation, but the only question I have is when we get to that Week 9, how fast will we know who our opponent is going to be in Week 10," Sauer said. "Obviously, you kind of maybe see Week 8 of who potentially you will be playing, but how much can that Week 9 influence?"

Eckley said the playoff format is based loosely on the system used in Indiana, which like Missouri has six classes of school enrollment.

Virtually every state has a different playoff system in football, and most, like the BCS in college football, are under constant scrutiny and are a work in progress. States grapple with disparities in school sizes, public and private issues and overall fairness while mindful of the restrictions on length of season.

Points, wins, conference champions, district round-robins and district brackets are among the ways states determine playoff teams across the nation. States also vary in number of classes, while some hold separate playoffs for the private and public schools.

A look at Illinois' system is a good example of the unique nature of some of the systems.

In Illinois, teams qualify on the basis of their regular-season records. According to the IHSA website, 256 of the eligible 549 schools qualified for the playoffs in 2011. Playoff berths went to all conference champions with at least six league members. If two teams were tied, the conference determined which team was the representative. In practice, two-team conference ties have been decided by head-to-head play, while more complicated ties were broken by various formulas. The remaining schools were first sorted by total wins, second by combined wins by opponents and last by combined wins of all defeated opponents. In the past, teams with five wins usually were on the bubble. The schools then were divided into eight classes of 32 teams apiece and were seeded in two 16-team brackets.

Such a system makes the old four-team districts in Missouri look simple.

"I wish it would have went back to just the one person from each district came out and kept the four-team district, but they didn't," Scott City coach Jim May said. "So now everyone makes the playoffs in Week 10. It's just a matter of whether or not you get to be at home. Getting in the top four is going to be important to get the extra home game."

MSHSAA has addressed one of the dislikes about the new system. There only will be eight district champions in each class instead of 16.

"I get that," Eckley said. "I've taken over some positions, including this one, where they've been down a little bit, and it's been important for us to pop back and get a plaque and to start talking about tradition. It's nice to have that visual cue there for kids to be able to see, ‘Hey, we've turned the corner.'"

A district runner-up plaque will have to serve as reinforcement for some teams.

"On paper it looks like a legitimate way to do it," Sauer said. "I guess the truth will be as we see this first year or two with how it all really pans out."

Some questions will rise, but one thing is clear about the system.

"The bottom line is, when it gets to be November, you've got to win if you want to be a champion," Eckley said. "It's the same way with either system."

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