Football coaches continue to weigh the merits of a potential overhaul of the 6A playoffs after the OSAA football ad hoc committee recommended changes to the format last month.
The committee has proposed that the 6A playoffs split from one 32-team bracket into two brackets – an eight-team Division I and a 24-team Division II – with separate championships.
The thinking behind the plan is it would create more equitable matchups.. And considering no team outside the top seven seeds has ever made the 6A final since the power rankings were instituted in 2010, it wouldn't keep worthy teams from competing for the top prize.
Steve Pyne, coach of two-time reigning 6A champion Central Catholic, said an eight-team bracket for the Division I title “makes sense.”
“Those are the teams that are going to be there at the end,” Pyne said. “I think you eliminate a lot of the lopsided contests early in the playoffs, which is probably good for both sides.”
In the proposal, league champions ranked in the top 12 would receive berths in the eight-team Division I bracket. Any unfilled spots would go to the highest-ranked remaining teams.
The 24-team Division II bracket would be composed of league champions not ranked in the top 12, automatic qualifiers and the 10 highest-ranked available teams. The eight highest seeds would receive first-round byes.
Much of the impetus for the change came from a desire to avoid first-round mismatches when the No. 1 seed plays No. 32, No. 2 plays No. 31, etc. The top eight seeds have won first-round games by an average margin of 35 points since 2010.
“There are games when it's 50-0 at halftime,” West Salem coach Shawn Stanley said. “The other team doesn't feel good about finishing the season that way. That for me was the biggest thing that needs to change, more so than who has a chance to win a championship.”
Sunset coach Damien Merrick, who spearheaded the push, compiled data from the 11 postseasons since the OSAA began using power rankings to seed brackets in 2010.
The data showed that the top five seeds accounted for 21 of the 22 finals berths in 6A, the only outlier being No. 7 Central Catholic in 2016. The top eight seeds earned 39 of the 44 semifinal berths.
“It was really glaring,” Merrick said. “What it showed is that the rankings are working. The teams that should be there when the dust settles, they're the ones that are there.
“It just reinforced my opinion. Take the top eight out of the equation and let them play for a championship, since that's ultimately what happens anyway, and let everybody else have a competitive tournament.”
Many of the same programs have dominated the playoffs for the past decade. Seven schools combined for 54 of the 88 quarterfinal berths in the last 11 years: Jesuit (11), Central Catholic (nine), Sheldon (eight), Lake Oswego (seven), West Linn (seven), Tigard (seven) and Clackamas (five).
“The disparity between those schools and everybody else, it's a pretty wide berth, in my opinion,” Merrick said. “You can almost pencil it in going into the season.
“The thing the Division I bracket allows … there's still plenty of space and opportunities available when one of those programs that isn't there every single season has a really good run of kids.”
The eight teams in the Division I bracket would have a bye before playing quarterfinal games. The championship game would be Thanksgiving weekend, one week earlier than the traditional 6A final.
“That top eight, you're starting out of the gates hot,” said Pyne, who has coached Central Catholic to four state titles since 2013. “I think what you'll see in that top eight is a lot more upsets. When I have two weeks to prepare for you, I think that's an advantage. It certainly can be an advantage for the top seed, too. There might be some fun quarterfinal matchups.”
The down side for Division I teams is the dramatic reduction in playoff games. Teams eliminated in the quarterfinals will get only one playoff game instead of three. It could create a situation where teams would prefer a No. 9 seed over No. 8.
Also, the power rankings could come under increased scrutiny if a league champion fails to make the top 12 and is relegated to the Division II bracket.
If the plan had been in place last season, Pacific Conference champion Sherwood (No. 21) and Portland Interscholastic League co-champions Grant (No. 23) and Roosevelt (No. 26) would not have qualified for the Division I bracket. Sherwood made the quarterfinals by defeating No. 5 West Salem in the second round.
“There are going to be some teams that maybe do have a chance that are left out, but it's something that needed to be done,” Stanley said.
In the Division II bracket, seeds No. 9-16 would get a bye while teams No. 17-32 meet in first-round games. That means that the No. 32-ranked team – instead of facing the No. 1 seed, like in the current format – would play against No. 17.
“That's a competitive game,” Merrick said.
The Division II championship game would be in the first week of December, the same as the traditional 6A final. How would the champion regard a Division II title?
“It would mean the world to us,” Merrick said. “Just to have three or four more weeks of practice and time together would be invaluable. It would mean everything.”
Stanley had a slightly different perspective.
“If we were fortunate enough to go through that and win one, I know it would be a great time, but I'm also kind of a little old school that not everybody should get a gold star,” Stanley said. “We seem to be creating more and more ways for people to be champions. That's not really how I think it should be.”
Still, Stanley is in favor of the plan.
“I see how this change needs to happen because there are certain schools, just out of the starting blocks, that have so many things against them to ever win one,” Stanley said.
Pyne believes that the plan can help rejuvenate some programs.
“It's an amazing opportunity for some of those communities that maybe have been down for a while, or they've been close, to create that energy and have that extra two or three or four weeks of practice,” Pyne said. “That really makes a difference in terms of setting a tone for your kids that are returning the next year.”
The committee has considered other plans, such as two 16-team brackets – an idea that was tossed around four years ago but did not gain traction – and a 24-team Division I and eight-team Division II. Having two 16-team brackets has appeal in that it would create uniformity among brackets for all classifications.
Regardless, change appears imminent.
“There's nobody supporting the status quo that I'm aware of,” OSAA assistant executive director Brad Garrett said.
The football ad hoc committee has forwarded its recommendation to the state championship committee, which could make changes before submitting its final recommendation to the executive board April 18. The executive board will adopt a plan at its next meeting May 2.
In the meantime, the OSAA is hoping to generate more dialogue from schools. The topic has been added to the agenda for the Oregon Athletic Directors Association conference April 9-12.
“We've had almost zero feedback from the 6A schools,” Garrett said. “It's been disappointing that there hasn't been more discussion. They need to be able to debate that big-time.”