Commentary: Parity proves it's time to expand football playoffs
The idea initially seemed highly questionable. What would be the point of having four additional teams from each region qualify for the football playoffs beginning in 2021?
Eight teams from each region is plenty. Twelve seems excessive. More teams will cheapen the playoff experience. This must be about money.
All of the above seem to have some semblance of truth at face value, but a deeper dive shows that perhaps this is the perfect time to expand the postseason.
After the Ohio High School Athletic Association announced May 20 that its board of directors had voted 9-0 to approve the playoff expansion proposal from the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association, the reactions started flowing -- on Twitter, via text messages and into the email inboxes of ThisWeek sports writers.
"I'd prefer it to stay at eight," Pickerington North coach Nate Hillerich said. "I think eight teams makes qualifying for the playoffs a special season."
While the expansion will increase the number of playoff qualifiers from 224 to 336 -- 48 from each of the seven divisions -- that is not a bad thing. Neither is that the top four teams in each region will receive a first-round bye for their regular-season success and to mend weary bodies.
Sure, there will be some .500 teams in the playoffs, and even some with a losing record. However, examining the last decade, parity in the sport is apparent and perhaps these teams won't be one-and-done as naysayers predict.
Looking at the 2019 season, there would have been 39 teams entering the playoffs with a 5-5 record under the 2021 changes. Four finished in the top eight and made the postseason last fall -- Hamilton and Mason in Division I, Region 4 and Creston Norwayne and Carey in Division VI, Region 22. These teams finished seventh and eighth in their regions, respectively.
Only 11 of the 336 possible playoff teams had losing records. Eight were 4-6 and another team -- Bowerston Conotton Valley (Division VII, Region 25) -- was 4-5-1. Gahanna (Division I, Region 3) and Cincinnati McNicholas (Division IV, Region 16) both finished 3-7. Gahanna would have been the No. 12 seed in Region 3.
Turn back the calendar 10 years and there was much less parity in the sport. The major difference in the playoffs in 2010 was there were six divisions -- the OHSAA added a seventh division in 2013 -- and 192 playoff qualifiers.
Using the 2021 formula for that season, there would have been only 15 playoff teams that went 5-5 in the regular season -- DeSales (Division III, Region 10) and Minster (Division VI, Region 24) both finished eighth with that record to qualify -- and there were only six teams with losing records that would have played in Week 11.
Another interesting fact if the 2021 format applied in 2010: Only four teams total in Divisions I and II would have made the playoffs at 5-5 or below. Brunswick (Division I, Region 2), Lexington (Division II, Region 6) and Piqua (Division II, Region 8) were 5-5 and Cincinnati Elder (Division I, Region 4) was 4-5.
Compare that to 2019 under the 2021 format: 22 teams were .500 or below in the top two divisions but only six had losing records.
Let's look at 2016 through the eyes of the 2021 playoff format. In that season, there were 37 teams at .500 or below and only seven teams with losing records. There were 19 teams in Divisions I and II that did not have a winning record and five were sub-.500.
Also derived from the numbers, it looks as though there isn't as much dominance as in the past. Under the 2021 format, there would have been 39 unbeaten teams heading into the 2010 postseason but only 29 in 2019. One of the unbeaten from 2019 -- Northwood -- went 10-0 but was ninth in Division V, Region 18. The new format would remedy such oversights.
Another such occurrence happened in 2018 when Canal Winchester finished 9-1 but was ninth in Division II, Region 7. In 2021, that issue will be solved.
"It's good for us because if we can win five or six games, we'll have a good chance to be in," said Grandview coach Jason Peters, whose team made the Division VI, Region 24 playoffs last season. "We're in a league (the MSL-Ohio Division) where everyone is bigger than us, including a couple of Division II teams and a big Division IV team. It works well for us."
The state championship games will remain in the same week because the season will start a week earlier. That means there will be one fewer week of preseason practice, cutting from 25 days to 18. Teams will have seven fewer two-a-day sessions -- or 14 fewer practices -- with their players.
Despite that, maybe now is the perfect time to add more teams to the playoff structure. Sure, detractors might say the postseason would be watered down, but that didn't happen in 1999 when the OHSAA increased the playoff format to eight teams per region after previously having four. That didn't dilute the pool; it made it better.
In fact, maybe 12 playoff teams from each region will be the line in the sand that can make everyone happy. Beginning in 2021, there shouldn't be any more griping about just missing the playoffs.
Bexley coach Mike Golden has been leading football programs since the 1980s and believes no one will have a beef if a team does not reach the playoffs in the new format.
"I think it's a good idea because if you are in a tough geographic region you could end up being ninth when you could have maybe been fifth in another region," he said. "Now if you can't make it into the top 12, you probably shouldn't be in it. It's also nice that more kids and more communities will be involved. That's what it's all about anyway."
And in the end, that is what it's all about: Giving kids a better chance to succeed.