Monday, April 23, 2018

Every game matters under new playoff system for high school football

Gibbs High finished 2-6 last season. Five of the Gladiators' six losses were by 20 or more points. Their two wins were against 3-6 Tarpon Springs and winless Dunedin.

That was all Gibbs needed to make the playoffs.

Miami Central won four straight Class 6A state titles from 2012-15, beating area powerhouse Armwood in three of those championships.

Last season, the Rockets went 6-2. Four of those wins were by 42 or more points. One loss was to eventual state champion Miami Carol City. The other was in double overtime to rival Miami Northwestern.

That was all Central needed to miss the playoffs.

The disparate postseason fortunes between an interloper and a perennial title contender were among many reasons why the Florida High School Athletic Association decided to explore — and ultimately adopt — a new playoff format for football.

Instead of having district champions and runners-up determine every postseason berth, the state's high school sports governing body is using a points-based system that rewards teams for playing better competition.

"If you don't win your district you don't belong there anyway," Northeast coach Jeremy Frioud said. "You don't win it, it don't matter. We don't do participation trophies."

Charlie Kaijo | Times

Plant routinely makes the playoffs, reaching the Class 7A title game a year ago. Winning districts and tough schedules have helped the Panthers become a state powerhouse.

Here is how it works.

In Classes 5A-8A, districts will remain with the champion automatically making the playoffs and seeded among the top four teams in each region. The rest of the playoff field in each region will be determined by a points system where strength of schedule and wins are key.

Classes A-4A will have all playoff spots determined by a points system. That means no districts — or built-in opponents.

The goal is to have teams make the playoffs based on merit rather than being the beneficiary of a weak district (such as Gibbs) or the victim of a brutal one (such as Central).

It also helps eliminate mismatches — and the lopsided scores that accompany them — in the postseason.

Gibbs' first-round opponent in last year's playoffs was defending state semifinalist Jesuit. The result: a 64-12 rout by the Tigers.

That blowout was one of 35 first-round games statewide last year that ended with a running clock (a mercy rule used when a team is ahead by 35 or more points in the second half).

RELATED: New playoff system: Four other Tampa Bay teams would have advanced in 2016

Strategy comes into play

Coach Antonio Knox was not around last season when the Gladiators finished with a losing record, one that would have given them no shot at the playoffs under the new system.

To make a quantum leap — and accumulate a significant amount of points — Knox knew he had to strengthen Gibbs' schedule.

Did he ever.

Gibbs plays seven schools that made the playoffs last season, including 6A state finalist Lake Gibson, 6A state semifinalist Punta Gorda Charlotte and 7A region semifinalist Lakeland.

With schools earning three bonus points for each playoff team scheduled, the Gladiators start the season with 21 points, same as last year's playoff foe Jesuit.

"I did my research," Knox said. "Lakeland is Lakeland, they're always good. But they did lose 35 players. Lake Gibson, Charlotte, they're all rebuilding. I wouldn't have taken the game if they weren't rebuilding. And the deal is, if you play a team like Lakeland and lose you get 30 points. If you beat them, you get 50. If you play Seminole, you only get 35 points if you win and if you lose you get 15. So what's the incentive to play those teams?"

Loren Elliott | Times

River Ridge coach Ryan Benjamin says a lot more thought goes into scheduling games now under the new system.

Crunching numbers has become as much of the coaching equation as X's and O's.

So has prognosticating future opponents.

River Ridge coach Ryan Benjamin, whose team has won three straight district titles, painstakingly went through a list of teams in the area and beyond to find winnable non-district games against teams projected to fare well this season.

"It's not just playing any opponent anymore," Benjamin said. "Now we have to find someone that's going to fit our playoff point system. And it happens fast. Games get scheduled very quickly and if you don't get it hashed out in a day or two you're left scrambling. We've got Pinellas Park for the season opener, but we didn't have a lot of options. It was traveling to Miami or going to Cocoa for a game.

"How well does that benefit us? It depends on how well Pinellas Park does in their district."

At least Benjamin has the option of traveling.

No more gimmes

Hillsborough and Pinellas public schools operate under a centralized funding system that tries to create a level playing field by distributing athletic funds evenly and making schedules that force teams to play mostly against in-county opponents.

Pinellas has made some concessions for teams to play in other counties.

Hillsborough has fewer exceptions.

"We stay inside the county," Hillsborough County athletic director Lanness Robinson said. "We have enough good teams inside Hillsborough County that we don't need to go outside. There are teams that go 10-0, 9-1 every year."

Robinson places teams in three tiers of nine based on performance. Those teams play against each other and are allowed one game against a team from another tier. If they want to play an out-of-state team it must be cleared by Robinson.

Filling out a schedule is even more difficult at the small-school level. There are no built-in games that come from playing in a district.

"There's no incentive to play up because you don't get any extra points," said coach Bob Dare, who led Cambridge Christian to the Class 2A title game two seasons ago. "And teams aren't going to play down. So it's an interesting scenario. I'm scratching my head trying to make the schedule and figure out which teams will give us the most points and how many points it's going to take. And then you don't really know how good a team is until the end of the season. We'll just have to see how it plays out."

Willie J. Allen Jr. | Special to the Times

Smaller schools like Cambridge Christian, which reached the state title game two years ago, no longer have built-in district opponents.

The concern of finding enough games has prompted many teams to move up in classification and into a district to have a number of guaranteed opponents.

Four-time defending Class 3A state champion Jacksonville Trinity Christian, which has routinely beat Tampa Bay teams in the postseason, moved up to 5A.

"No one in 3A really wanted to play us anymore and my fear was we wouldn't to get to eight games to qualify for the playoffs," Trinity Christian coach Verlon Dorminey said.

The new system not only significantly altered the playoff structure but also the brackets.

Trinity Christian was not the only team that jumped to 5A. Defending 4A state finalist Jacksonville Bolles did, too. They are joined by defending 5A state finalist Ponte Vedra in one of the toughest districts in the state.

"It's going to be a dog fight," Dorminey said.

Better balance

The disparity between the number of teams in each district was another issue the FHSAA wanted to address in the new system.

For example, nine teams were vying for two playoff spots in Class 7A, District 16 last year. Florida A&M High and North Florida Christian, meanwhile, were the only schools in Class 2A, District 1, giving them guaranteed playoff spots even before the regular season began. FAMU made the playoffs with a 1-8 record.

Now the districts and regions are more even.

That created a more level playing field, enticing independents to join the association once again.

FHSAA director of athletic Frank Beasley, who oversees football, said 37 independents returned to be part of the playoff system.

Two are from the area — Keswick Christian and Zephyrhills Christian.

"I'm a company guy so I've felt like it's better to be in a district or region," Crusaders coach Phil Hayford said. "For us, it'll be an uphill battle to make the playoffs, but I'd rather be in one now and work our way up."

To give everyone an idea of where they stand, Beasley said the FHSAA will post midseason point totals.

Ultimately, the outcomes of games will decide everyone's fate.

"I'm not going to even discuss the playoff system with our players," said Plant coach Robert Weiner, who annually fields playoff teams and just last year guided the Panthers to the Class 7A title game. "We just need to win. That takes care of everything."

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