Saturday, November 11, 2017

OPINION: Can We Fix the High School Playoff Process?

Much has been said about the inclusion of MaxPreps rankings in playoff qualification and seeding this year in North Carolina high school football. From across the state, my inbox was filled with questions about what is in the formula, why the NCHSAA was using MaxPreps, and whether or not I thought it was a good idea. I can answer these three questions easily: (a.) no, (b.) I don't know, and (c.) not in its current form.

We don't know what is in the MaxPreps formula and this has caused much concern for coaches and athletic directors. "Absolute nonsense" and "this isn't right for a public-school league to be using a private company to seed playoffs" is how an athletic director (who spoke on condition of anonymity) explained this year's playoff seeding process this past week. Not knowing what was in the formula led to questions about the validity of the data involved.

According to the MaxPreps website, they "do not poll coaches, sportswriters, or fans. Nor does our staff make any judgments on the merits of any individual team. Prior season history, school size, and comments on message boards are not considered in the MaxPreps Computer Rankings." The prior season history phrase here stands out for multiple reasons. One thing that I noticed when looking at MaxPreps rankings this year is that there were ratings for schools that are not playing football this year (e.g. Davidson Day), or ever (e.g. Fayetteville Academy). Davidson Day, for example, currently has a rating of 36.6, good for 25th in the state. There's one little problem, though. Davidson Day did not play football during the 2017 season, yet they have a rating that is good for 25th in the state. Where did MaxPreps get the data to establish this 36.6 rating? No one is willing to answer this question.

Yes, Davidson Day is not a NCHSAA school, so it did not affect the playoff qualifications or seedings. But, the larger question surrounds the formula and did it contribute to a school like Trask, who finished 8-3 and third in their conference, not making the playoffs. Davidson Day was a great NCISAA school a few years ago and won the private schools state championship and I'm sure if they were playing football this season they would have a high ranking. But, their absence of a team puts a dark cloud over the validity of the MaxPreps formula.

Regarding why the NCHSAA is going with MaxPreps, this is something that was agreed to at a previous meeting under the idea that it was a one year trial. MaxPreps has been used by the NCHSAA before to break ties. With the outcry, it would seem reasonable for the Association to avoid this type of controversy in the future, but it's looking like that may not happen after all.

In my opinion, there are a few options for how to fix the playoff mess we are seeing this year, and yes, it can include MaxPreps or any other ranking system (*cough* FAIR Rankings *cough) that is available.

Option 1 – Keep MaxPreps, but get rid of protected seeding lines for conference finishes
This is the option that I think can be the longest-lasting solution to a few of the issues with the current system. Right now, every conference champion is seeded before any runners-up or wild cards. This leads to a situation like a Heritage or a Marvin Ridge finishing with a record of 10-1, losing only to the top team in their classification during the final week of the season receiving a seed that places them behind teams even though they are ranked higher. Also, due to split conferences, situations like 1-10 South Caldwell not only getting an automatic bid, but a #2 seed and a bye will happen from time to time like this year.

If conferences were used to automatically qualify a berth into the playoffs, but not a section on the seed line, this could help alleviate many of the concerns. Depending on conference size, a certain number of teams would qualify for the playoffs and then be seeded by MaxPreps rankings (or FAIR Rankings). Yes, 1-10 South Caldwell still makes the playoffs, but they are most likely a 16-seed and more deserving team will earn a bye or better draw in the first round. Seeding the entire bracket by MaxPreps rankings (or other systems) will allow a team like Shelby to be higher than the #8 seed they were given this season.

Option 2 – Get rid of MaxPreps rankings altogether.
This is the knee-jerk reaction of many people in the state who are unhappy with the system being used this year. While I agree that it is difficult to stand behind a rating system where the formula is unknown, there can be a place for MaxPreps as long as the entire process is transparent.

Getting rid of MaxPreps leaves two possible options: seeding by total wins (as it was done from the 1990s until recently) or having specific conference matchups (as it was done in the late 80s to early 90s). With the expanded playoffs and A/AA split, the specific conference matchups is not really an option. This goes back to the seeding by overall wins. While I appreciate how this rewards winning, it can lead to some schools with a weak strength-of-schedule getting higher seeds than they really earned. It does ensure that a school like 8-3 Trask makes the playoffs while a 3-7 James Kenan will have to see if there are enough open spots to qualify.

Option 3 – Seed by committee (like the NCAA Tournament)
This is one of the most intriguing options. There's plenty of subjectivity involved, but it's at least open and upfront about it. If seeding all eight brackets is too much for the Association to turn around in the day or so that they use for seeding now, they can turn it over to the schools involved. Teams can qualify by whatever process the NCHSAA determines (conference AQs, overall record, etc.) The A/AA and East/West splits can be done by the Association and then the schools in each region (e.g. 3AA East) can meet and rank the teams. An open discussion can be had about why certain teams are ranked like they are, but by the time the meeting is over seeds 1-16 (or 1-12 if 1A or 4A) can be voted on and agreed upon.

Personally, I like Option 1 because it results in a more accurate seeding of teams. No matter what happens, what we do know is that the current system may not be viable in the long run. Nonconference schedules are arranged ahead of time and often on two-year contracts. Whatever the next step is, transparency needs to be the rule of the game.

I look forward to your comments about this on Facebook, Twitter, or by e-mail.

~Justin Jones, Managing Editor of