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From the Hip: Reduce the playoff field? Here's what would happen, and it isn't pretty

09/16/2016, 7:30am CDT
By Travis Wilson

The current and future start date for high school football practices in Wisconsin are not ideal, let's get that out in the open right away. For this year, equipment was handed out on August 1st, with practice starting on August 2nd. Next year, those dates get one day earlier, and in 2018 the equipment hand out would be July 30th and the first practice on July 31st.

Ideally, the first day of practice would be more around August 10th or somewhere in that vicinity. There are some who claim that participation numbers are down as a result of the early start date based on anecdotal evidence. That may be the case in some areas, but statewide, participation was up in 2015, the last year that data is available. It will be interesting to see the data that is available after the 2016 season to see if there is any sizable decrease. However, as I've said before, there is also no information or data that equates participation rates going up or down based on season start date.

The reasons the current start date can't change, while still maintaining 9 regular season games, 224 playoff teams, and the state finals at Camp Randall Stadium are for another article (though it has very little to do with deer hunting as some believe), but there has been some talk of reducing the playoff field to allow the start date to move back.

I have heard very little support amongst coaches for reducing the playoff field. However, at a recent WIAA Area Meeting in Antigo, Jeremy Mayo of RiverNewsOnline.com estimated that 40% of athletic directors in attendance showed support for the idea of reducing the playoffs.

Quite honestly, even this amount of support, which would not be enough to make such a change anyways, is very surprising. With very little coach support and no overwhelming administrative support, I don't see reducing the playoff field being introduced and certainly not passed. 

However, what would happen if the field was reduced from 224 to 112? Let's take a look at some of the data, shall we?

Rate of upsets and low-seeded teams advancing in playoffs

One of the comments you often hear when it comes to the possibility of reducing the field is that there are few upsets and the #7 or #8 seeds rarely win first round games, so what difference would it make?

The WIAA began seeding regional groupings 1-8 by coach vote in 2012. It is difficult to reverse engineer the full playoff field for the 2012-2014 seasons due to the extensive tiebreaking procedures involved in determining qualifying teams. However, we can identify first round upsets based on seeding much easier.

In 2012, 26 of the 112 lower-seeded teams won on the road over higher-seeded teams. That included six #7 seeds and a pair of #8 seeds.

For 2013, there were a total of 23 lower-seeded teams winning on the road, including a pair of #7 seeds.

The 2014 data shows 19 lower-seeded teams winning, with one #8 seed. 

In 2015, 25 lower-seeded teams claimed victory on the road in Level 1, including seven #7 seeds.

To be clear, there are some of those lower-seeded teams that would still have qualified for the playoffs even if the field had been reduced to 112, as the qualifying procedures do not impact the seeding procedures. Still, it gives us an idea of just how common it is for lower-seeded teams, who likely would not have made the playoffs in a 112-team field, to get a victory.

Another way to look at the possibility of reducing the playoff field is to review the records of teams in the state title game. In the last four years, 13 teams advanced to a championship game with two or more losses, meaning they would have been in danger of missing the playoffs in a 112-team field. In 2013, both Division 4 champion Winneconne and D4 runner-up Platteville would have missed the playoffs entirely if the field had been limited to 112 teams.

2015 Playoffs with Reduced Field

While reverse-engineering the full playoff field across multiple seasons would be very difficult, I did review the 2015 season to identify the impact of a reduced number of qualifiers. 

Using the current WIAA qualification criteria, any teams that finished with the following conference records would have been excluded from the playoffs in a 112-team field:

  • Under .500
  • .500
  • 5-4
  • 4-3
  • 3-2
  • 5-3
  • 4-2*
  • 6-3

You'll notice the asterisk above, as the Brodhead/Juda Cardinals finished 4-2 but were considered the Rock Valley-South Conference champion and thus were guaranteed a spot. Please note that for WIAA playoff qualification purposes, in the event of a tie at the top of league standings, each league must have a tie-breaking procedure to identify one official conference champion for playoffs.

There were 104 teams that finished with conference winning percentages of .750 or higher. Brodhead/Juda joins the field as the 105th team, while Hurley is in by virtue of its overall record as an Independent.

That leaves just six spots left. Those teams would come from a group of 28 clubs that finished 5-2 in conference play. To determine which six of the 28 get in, the first tiebreaking procedure is "combined won-lost percentage (conference games only) of conference opponents they have defeated". In essence, this rewards teams for beating better conference foes.

Peshtigo had the highest tiebreaker number, as the teams they beat in conference play, which included crossovers against the Northern Lakes, had 17 league victories. Wilmot (14), Bloomer (13), and Menomonie (13) secure spots as well, bringing our total to 110. 

For the final two spots, Cochrane-Fountain City, Germantown, and Waukesha West are tied with a number of 12. We have to go all the way to the tiebreaker that takes a look at win/loss percentage against the playoff field, as determined in previous steps. Waukesha West went 2-1 against the new field, getting in. Germantown was 1-1, while CFC was just 1-2, so the final spot goes to Germantown in our hypothetical 112-team field.

So where does that leave us?

If a reduced 112-team field had been used in 2015, 34 teams (30%) that actually did make the playoffs in the 224-member field and won at least one playoff game would have been left home.

The list includes five teams that advanced to the state semi-finals: Marquette, New Richmond, Shoreland Lutheran, Reedsburg, and Catholic Memorial (the D3 state runner-up). Five of 28 state semi-finalists (17.9%) would not have even made the playoffs if the field had been reduced to 112. The full list of playoff teams that would have been left out in a 112-team field is at the bottom of this article.

Summary

As I mentioned previously, I don't foresee any scenario where in the current postseason structure the playoff field would be reduced, but if someone does suggest it, please show them this data. Too often we hear suggestions or changes proposed without relevant supporting data or the full impact on what would occur. There are a large number of excellent teams that would not have a shot to compete in the playoffs if the field was reduced, and in 2015 that even included a state runner-up. Smaller teams in conferences with larger opponents would be especially hurt by such changes. A reduction of the playoff qualifying field would far-reaching impacts on high school football, and I don't see a one-week adjustment in the start date justifying the significant negatives that would come out of it.


Impact of Adjusting 2015 Playoff Field to 112 Qualifiers

Team Enroll Conf W Conf L Adjusted Status
Abbotsford 204 9 0 In
Almond-Bancroft 120 5 0 In
Amherst 303 7 0 In
Antigo 812 5 1 In
Appleton North 1800 7 1 In
Arcadia 329 5 0 In
Arrowhead 2257 6 1 In
Athens 197 7 2 In
Badger 1433 6 1 In
Bangor 170 6 0 In
Bay Port 1812 7 2 In
Berlin 544 6 1 In
Bloomer 364 5 2 In
Brodhead/Juda 440 4 2 In
Brookfield Central 1324 7 0 In
Brookfield East 1285 6 1 In
Cambria-Friesland 103 6 0 In
Cassville 78 6 2 In
Catholic Central 181 7 0 In
Cedar Grove-Belgium 350 7 1 In
Chippewa Falls 1391 6 1 In
Clayton 126 6 1 In
Coleman 198 7 0 In
Columbus 400 4 1 In
Darlington 209 7 0 In
De Pere 1346 9 0 In
De Soto 167 5 1 In
Dodgeland 255 5 1 In
East Troy 535 5 1 In
Edgar 211 6 1 In
Eleva-Strum 170 6 1 In
Evansville/Albany 661 6 0 In
Fond du Lac 2100 7 1 In
Franklin 1453 7 0 In
Freedom 559 8 0 In
Germantown 1399 5 2 In
Grantsburg 258 6 0 In
Greendale 937 5 1 In
Greenfield 1308 5 1 In
Hayward 626 6 1 In
Hilbert/Stockbridge 194 8 0 In
Holmen 1152 6 1 In
Homestead 1282 6 1 In
Hurley 197 2 1 In
Iola-Scandinavia 239 6 1 In
Ithaca 112 6 0 In
Kenosha St. Joseph 317 6 1 In
Kewaskum 611 7 0 In
Kewaunee 312 5 1 In
Kiel 459 6 1 In
Kimberly 1494 8 0 In
Kohler/Sheb. Luth./Christian 481 6 2 In
La Crosse Logan 832 6 1 In
Lake Country Lutheran 244 7 0 In
Little Chute 489 6 2 In
Lodi 515 5 0 In
Luxemburg-Casco 641 6 2 In
Madison La Follette 1453 7 2 In
Madison Memorial 1924 7 2 In
Marathon 241 7 0 In
Markesan 235 6 0 In
Marshall 359 4 1 In
Medford 648 5 1 In
Melrose-Mindoro 216 6 1 In
Menasha 992 7 1 In
Menomonie 984 5 2 In
Middleton 2112 8 1 In
Milton 1016 5 1 In
Milwaukee Hamilton 1735 6 0 In
Milwaukee King 1481 6 0 In
Milwaukee Morse.Marshall co-op 2041 5 1 In
Milwaukee Riverside 2079 5 1 In
Monona Grove 925 5 1 In
Muskego 1618 6 1 In
New Berlin Eisenhower 848 5 1 In
Northern Elite 245 7 0 In
Northwestern 453 6 1 In
Notre Dame 786 7 2 In
Oconomowoc 1546 7 0 In
Omro 409 6 0 In
Osceola 534 7 0 In
Ozaukee 215 7 1 In
Pecatonica/Argyle 222 8 0 In
Pepin/Alma 137 7 0 In
Peshtigo 380 5 2 In
Potosi 113 6 2 In
Prairie du Chien 331 4 1 In
Randolph 176 5 1 In
Regis 238 6 2 In
Rice Lake 724 6 1 In
River Valley 451 4 1 In
Saint Croix Central 393 6 1 In
Saint Francis 561 6 1 In
Saint Mary's Springs 229 5 1 In
Seymour 710 6 2 In
Sheboygan Falls 540 7 0 In
Slinger 968 6 1 In
Southern Door 363 6 0 In
Spencer/Columbus Catholic 369 8 0 In
Spring Valley 202 6 0 In
Stanley-Boyd 298 7 1 In
Stevens Point 2139 6 2 In
Waterford 1090 6 1 In
Waterloo 279 4 1 In
Waukesha West 1178 5 2 In
Waunakee 1163 6 0 In
Wautoma 404 5 0 In
Whitefish Bay 995 6 1 In
Wild Rose 163 4 1 In
Wilmot 1124 5 2 In
Wrightstown 446 6 2 In
Xavier 594 8 0 In
Adams-Friendship 487 3 2 Out
Altoona 424 4 4 Out
Appleton West 1465 5 3 Out
Ashwaubenon 1048 6 3 Out
Assumption 155 6 3 Out
Beloit Turner 457 4 2 Out
Big Foot 520 4 2 Out
Black Hawk 102 5 3 Out
Black River Falls 524 3 2 Out
Bonduel 326 5 2 Out
Brookfield Academy 332 5 2 Out
Brookwood 213 4 2 Out
Cambridge 261 3 2 Out
Cameron 296 3 3 Out
Cashton 155 3 3 Out
Catholic Memorial 664 5 2 Out
Cedarburg 1160 5 2 Out
Chetek-Weyerhaeuser 278 4 3 Out
Clinton 377 4 2 Out
Cochrane-Fountain City 208 5 2 Out
Colby 289 4 4 Out
Crandon 238 4 3 Out
Crivitz 202 4 3 Out
Cuba City 246 5 2 Out
Cudahy 733 3 3 Out
D.C. Everest 1660 5 3 Out
DeForest 1043 4 2 Out
Delavan-Darien 784 3 4 Out
Durand 306 4 2 Out
Eau Claire Memorial 1756 4 3 Out
Elk Mound 328 4 2 Out
Elmwood/Plum City 204 5 2 Out
Fall Creek 250 4 4 Out
Flambeau 167 3 3 Out
Fox Valley Lutheran 555 4 4 Out
Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau 424 3 2 Out
Gillett 174 4 3 Out
Green Bay Preble 2184 5 4 Out
Green Bay Southwest 1194 5 4 Out
Highland 73 4 4 Out
Hillsboro 148 4 2 Out
Hortonville 1098 4 4 Out
Iowa-Grant 214 4 3 Out
Janesville Parker 1571 4 5 Out
Jefferson 636 3 3 Out
Johnson Creek 152 4 2 Out
Kenosha Indian Trail 2510 5 2 Out
Kickapoo/La Farge 213 3 3 Out
Ladysmith 300 3 4 Out
Lancaster 296 3 2 Out
Loyal 169 5 4 Out
Madison East 1610 4 5 Out
Madison Edgewood 585 3 3 Out
Marquette University 2166 5 2 Out
Mauston 510 3 2 Out
McDonell Central 166 6 3 Out
Merrill 881 4 2 Out
Milwaukee Bay View 1094 3 2 Out
Milwaukee Bradley Tech 1648 3 3 Out
Milwaukee Vincent 1703 3 3 Out
Milwaukee Washington/Science/Collegiate 1445 4 2 Out
Mineral Point 218 5 2 Out
Mondovi 261 4 2 Out
Mont/Princeton/Green Lake 455 4 2 Out
Mosinee 650 4 2 Out
Mount Horeb/Barneveld 882 4 2 Out
Neenah 1900 4 4 Out
Nekoosa 434 3 2 Out
New Glarus/Monticello 355 3 2 Out
New Holstein 338 4 3 Out
New Richmond 916 5 2 Out
Oak Creek 2087 5 2 Out
Onalaska 868 3 4 Out
Oostburg 324 5 3 Out
Oregon 1094 4 2 Out
Oshkosh North 1220 5 3 Out
Owen-Withee 149 6 3 Out
Pardeeville 258 3 3 Out
Pewaukee 812 3 3 Out
Platteville 431 3 2 Out
Plymouth 813 5 2 Out
Port Edwards 117 3 2 Out
Racine Horlick 2132 5 2 Out
Racine St. Catherine's 320 4 3 Out
Reedsburg 820 4 2 Out
Rio 140 3 3 Out
Saint Croix Falls 317 4 2 Out
Shiocton 244 4 3 Out
Shoreland Lutheran 311 5 2 Out
Somerset 495 3 4 Out
Stratford 300 5 2 Out
Sun Prairie 2204 5 4 Out
Superior 1341 4 3 Out
Tomah 938 5 2 Out
Tomahawk 452 4 3 Out
Two Rivers 509 5 2 Out
Union Grove 1016 4 3 Out
Unity 258 4 2 Out
University School 387 4 3 Out
Verona 1582 6 3 Out
Watertown 1303 5 2 Out
Waupaca 689 4 4 Out
Wauwatosa West 1056 4 2 Out
West De Pere 845 4 3 Out
West Salem 567 4 3 Out
Westby 326 3 2 Out
Weston 89 3 3 Out
Whitehall 215 5 2 Out
Whitnall 793 4 2 Out
Winnebago Lutheran 329 4 2 Out
Winneconne 473 4 3 Out
Wisconsin Lutheran 727 4 3 Out

For the latest and most up to date football news and recruiting information, follow Travis on Twitter @travisWSN. Email story ideas, recruiting info, etc. to Travis at travis(at)wissports.net.

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