How I'd modify the playoffs
Open has been a smashing success, but could be improved
WEEKLY BLOG: 12/1/19
Nobody asked me, but. . .
It was almost one year ago, just days after the 2018 state championships, that the idea was first hatched by the Arizona Interscholastic Association. An Open Division tournament pulling eight of the big schools out of their conference tournaments and into a super bracket. The intent was to make the playoffs more exciting and avoid blowout championship games featuring the same schools year after year.
A month later, it was approved by the AIA Executive Board. As we descend upon this Championship Weekend, at first glance, we got the most attractive matchup to determine the ultimate state champion - Saguaro vs. Chandler. No offense to any of the other schools that were in the field, but we just saw Chandler-Hamilton on the last Friday of the regular season and Saguaro-Salpointe has played out each of the past three years (one semifinal, two 4A title games).
What do we get with Saguaro and Chandler? We get two schools that haven't lost to an in-state school for quite a while. Saguaro is 57-0 against Arizona competition since a loss to Pinnacle in 2015. Chandler is 32-0 within the state since a defeat to Mountain Pointe in 2017. One of the 0's has got to go.
We'll start by taking a look at what we've seen in the past four weeks and then some tweaks to make the event even bigger and better.
Blowouts have decreased
The lingering memory of the 2018 season were the dominating victories by Chandler (65-28 over Perry), Centennial (60-7 over Notre Dame), and Saguaro (42-16 over Salpointe) in the championship games. By taking those top teams out, the aim was not only to avoid a predetermined champion, but have more competitive games in both the Open and the conference tournaments.
And to no surprise, they have.
How do the numbers compare from last year?— Gridiron Arizona (@gridironarizona) November 23, 2019
2018 Average Margins thru 3 rounds:
6A - 24.0
5A - 25.6
4A - 32.2
Total = 27.3
2019 Average Margin thru 3 rounds + Open Quarters:
6A - 19.0
5A - 24.9
4A - 12.7
Open - 33.8
Total = 20.2
Biggest difference is with the 4A w/out Salp & Sag https://t.co/wsNes4IpdR
The above tweet was sent out prior to the Open semifinals, which were decided by four and eight points. Those results lower the average margin of the Open to 24.5 and the overall total to 19.6, or more than a touchdown lower than 2018.
It remains to be seen how close this week's championship games will be, but it's a safe bet to say they'll be closer than the 38.7-point average we saw in the 4A, 5A, and 6A games from a year ago (all of which were rematches from the '17 title games).
Conference tournaments haven't been devalued
One of the fears in this new Open playoff structure was with the big-school conference tournaments having an NIT-type feel to them and being less important from previous years. In going to a couple of them, I haven't seen that to be the case.
There was certainly some disappointment in the top seeds in the 6A and 5A tournaments in not being selected (teams were chosen based on a computer formula). However, Red Mountain and Williams Field didn't let it affect them and both of the top seeds have cruised into this weekend's finals.
In looking at the brackets back on Selection Saturday, perhaps the most interesting (and best) thing was being able to say that several teams had a shot at winning the gold balls. That has played out with No. 7 Liberty advancing to the 6A, No. 6 Campo Verde making it to the 5A, and No. 6 Mesquite squaring off against No. 4 Desert Edge in the 4A. Last year, you would have been hard pressed to find seven schools that had a realistic chance in any of the three tournaments.
So the games are tighter, more teams have a shot at conference championships. What could I possibly want to change? Let's start with this one.
Expand the Open to 12 teams
You have to be careful with expansion in anything, and I think 16 would be too many, but 12 feels right. We at Arizona Varsity could go from predicting The Ocho all season long to The Dirty Dozen. Twelve is also the same number of teams in the AIA 1A Conference tournament.
The top four teams would be rewarded with byes, which you can argue is actually more valuable than getting the home game. How would this year's Open have looked with 12?
(9) Williams Field at (8) Chaparral - winner goes to (1) Chandler
(12) Red Mountain at (5) Pinnacle - winner goes to (4) Salpointe
(11) Higley at (6) Horizon - winner goes to (3) Saguaro
(10) Notre Dame at (7) Hamilton - winner goes to (2) Centennial
I have no doubt that teams 9-12 would have been competitive and it wouldn't surprise me if the road teams went 2-2 in those matchups. Plus, of course, more games mean more dollars.
Bring back the automatic bid for region champions
By increasing the amount of Open teams, you most likely solve this problem. Metro Region champ South Mountain (7-3) would have been the No. 15 seed in the 5A playoffs with three more transferring to the Open. Making this change ensures that when a team clinches their region in Week 10, they know heading into Week 11 that they still have more football to play. Plus, region champs deserve to hear their names called in the brackets and get that extra week of practice.
NOTE: In the next realignment, I wouldn't have the two Yuma schools (Cibola and Kofa) as the only ones in their respective region (6A Desert Southwest). The AIA (and the YUHSD, who had the final say) should have done the same thing it did in the 4A and placed them with Southwest Valley schools.
Lowering the qualifying bar in the conference tournaments also catches teams with winning records, like Goldwater (6-4). The Bulldogs, who had an incredible run game (351.7 yards per game) would have been the No. 16 seed in the 5A with a 12-team Open.
Scheduling the games
We have a good amount of media here in the state, but each only have so many reporters that can cover games. By scheduling the quarterfinals of the Open at the same time as the conference tournaments, it led to a reduction of coverage for the 6A, 5A, and 4A.
The postseason schedule can be simple for the first two rounds (remember, we added four more Open games up above) - Conference tournaments on Friday nights; Open tournament on Saturday nights.
When you get to the semifinals and you have neutral site games, I think the Open should be played at one venue with start times of 2 pm and 6 pm on a Saturday. You had blockbuster matchups this year with Saguaro-Hamilton and Chandler-Salpointe. And people had to choose. Why not let them see both? It's an opportunity to showcase the four best teams in the state. If you're going to hold this at a high school venue, you just have to make sure you have enough seating. The core fans of each school will likely just attend their own game, but some may opt for both.
Make Open for 6A and 5A only
This isn't hating on the 4A, and I know that we almost had a final of Salpointe and Saguaro. But, those are two special teams. Salpointe has perhaps the top running back in the country along with a two-way player headed for Ohio State while Saguaro has close to 20 college recruits.
Plus, if you haven't heard, the next round of realignment (which will be annual) is no longer based on enrollment, but by team's performances over the 2017, 2018, and 2019 seasons. So, Saguaro and Salpointe will be 5A schools next season. Stay tuned for an article on the full list of initial conference placements on Dec. 11.
Looking beyond them this year, you have a Mesquite team that lost to Campo Verde (64-6) and Saguaro (53-0). The Wildcats' opponent in the 4A title game is Desert Edge, which was defeated by Salpointe (68-34), Millennium (48-14), and Saguaro (63-14). That's how big the chasm was between Saguaro/Salpointe and the rest of the 4A.
It remains to be seen how radical the first realignment under this system will be. However, I think you can expect at least half of this year's playoff field in 4A to be moved up to 5A and replaced by 5A teams that went 3-7 or worse this year. You will also get a bump up from the top teams in 3A moving up. Can 3A finalists ALA-Queen Creek and Benjamin Franklin be prospective playoff teams next season in 4A. Probably. Would they be able to match up with Open powerhouses like Chandler, Hamilton, Centennial, and Saguaro? I don't think so.
With realignment being annual (instead of two-year blocks), if you have a 4A coach that believes his team for the upcoming season could compete for the Open for that year, all he would need to do is petition up to 5A (and it would be granted).
If the formula remains unchanged, and we keep the teams at eight, we are guaranteed to have two or three teams from the new 4A in next year's Open. The existing formula doesn't have enough data points to properly compare 4A to 6A teams as their schedules rarely have any matching teams.
Let schools pick their own freedom schedules
In the two-year block that we have just completed, AIA conference scheduling committees selected the opponents for the non-region games. I believe there was very little input from the schools, unless they had a particular opponent they wanted to continue playing, or if they had an out-of-state game scheduled.
Anyone think Alhambra deliberately chose Highland, Westview, and Brophy for its freedom games? Didn't think so.
Now that the Open is a thing (it wasn't when the 2018 and 2019 schedules were drafted), coaches can gauge the strength of their new regions, combine it with the team's goals (not every team in the state has Open goals for 2020), and schedule those first five games accordingly. If they are in a light region, the emphasis will be to find tougher games to boost that SOS. If they are in a tougher one, getting some wins to build confidence may be more important.
Once regions are finalized (mid-February), I would give all of the schools one month to fill their non-region games. There is already an existing computer program used by the schools to fill dates and locations once both approve. If there are still holes after one month, then I would utilize the conference scheduling committees. One thing I hate hearing when there is a criticism of a team's schedule is when the coaches say "We just play who is in front of us.". Let's give them more of a say of who is in front of them.
Play the championships in big stadiums
We regard the 4A as a big-school conference. The top teams were transferred into the Open. Yet, when it came time to unveil the brackets, it was announced the final would be at Arizona Stadium in Tucson - IF there was a Tucson team. Sahuaro (No. 1 seed) and Canyon del Oro (No. 3) were carrying the banner for Southern Arizona, but were both knocked out in the first two rounds. That left the AIA to locate a high school to host the championship game. Willow Canyon (in Surprise) was selected.
Taking a look at the championship rosters for the 12 teams from 2A through the Open, I count 279 seniors. Of that number, 52 currently hold at least one four-year college offer (19 percent). For 81 percent of them, this either was (3A has been played) or will be their final football game ever. Let's give them the experience of playing in a big college or professional stadium. It's a memory they'll take with them for the rest of their lives.
I hear you, Cam! The way to make this happen begins with the local professional football team.
NFL teams can ask the league to not be home on certain weekends. Those with baseball stadiums that share a parking lot do this to avoid a conflict with already-scheduled September dates or possible postseason games.
State Farm Stadium (previously University of Phoenix Stadium) hosted the biggest school championship from the first year it was open (2006) through the 2016 season. Scheduling problems arose as the team did not want high schoolers tromping on the stadium grass causing the '17 game to be played at University of Arizona and the '18 and '19 games at Arizona State University.
This year, the Cardinals play the second of three consecutive home games on Sunday, Dec. 8. This effect of not being able to use the stadium for high school games had the trickle-down effect of placing the 4A game at a high school. Some communication with the Cardinals and the Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority (which owns the stadium) would help in having this venue available. The Cardinals are still going to play their eight home games, one just doesn't need to be on that weekend in December. We're all one big football community in the state, from the professionals to the high schools.
We're going to leave the 1A out of this since its championship was played back on Nov. 16. Personally, I'd like to see that one held on campus at the higher seed as most of the schools are from small communities that would embrace it more rather than send everybody to Coronado HS on a Saturday night.
For the 2A and 3A, those games could remain on Thanksgiving weekend (the 2A was postponed this year due to Round Valley being located where last week's snowstorm was). The site for that could rotate between Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe and Arizona Stadium in Tucson depending on which one is hosting the Territorial Cup (games would go in the other one). Also, I'd go back to the doubleheader method of playing the games on either Thanksgiving Friday or Saturday at 2 pm and 6 pm. This year, both games were going to be going on simultaneously prior to the postponement.
For the 4A, 5A, 6A, and Open, doubleheaders could be staged for two of them on Friday with times of 4 pm and 8 pm. The other two could go off on Saturday (at a different stadium) with times of noon and 5 pm. No games against one another. Each conference gets its own time (and attention) in the limelight.
Let's get the title games on live television again
It wasn't as long ago as I thought, but back in 2015, people could watch Arizona state championship football live on their couches.
This was particularly noteworthy because the Saturday games were played in Tucson with four teams from the Valley. Students or fans that weren't able to make the trip were able to tune in and watch live.
It's also noteworthy because it's the last time the state's games were shown on live television. Yes, I know they are streamed (for $10 a pop), but that's not the same as watching it on that new big television you just picked up at Best Buy on Black Friday.
I don't know about you, but sporting events that I already know the result to aren't appearing on my DVR. Other than team watch parties (for the winners), I'm not sure who's tuning into these. Yet, since 2016, we've been greeted with tweets like this.
The way I see it, the AIA holds a property in the championship games. Why not bid it out like college and professionals do?
There's a market out there that's more than Fox Sports Arizona. You have KTVK (Channel 3, independent), KAZT (Channel 7, independent), KUTP (Channel 45, owned by Fox Television Stations), KASW (Channel 61, CW owned by Scripps) and Fox Sports Arizona (which can also move games to Fox Sports Plus). The networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX) may have other obligations, but if they can bid on one of them, go for it!
You don't have to bid out the whole package. There are 6 title games, they can be split up among the channels. On NFL Wild Card weekend, games are shown on four different networks, yet we manage to find all of them.
What are those channels showing at 4 pm this Saturday? I've checked the guide for you. We have a 1996 episode of Friends, a 2015 episode of The Goldbergs, the movie Terms of Endearment (1983), and an infomercial for the Medicare one card. Think one of them wouldn't like to be the sole carrier of the Chandler-Saguaro tilt?
The games are already being "broadcast", they're just held a few days (for five replays). This is reminiscent of my childhood when NBA Finals games were shown on tape delay (kids, ask your parents or grandparents, this really happened from 1979-1981).
We're in an era where three of my colleagues at Arizona Varsity (Ralph Amsden, Cody Cameron, and Chilly) will have video highlights of key plays from the championship games on Twitter within moments of when they occur on the field. Not televising the games live is going backwards.
We've got a good thing started up here with the Open. Let's make it a little bigger, a little more restrictive, in larger stadiums, and available to all in real time.
Give your opinion! Check out the free Gridiron Arizona forum and let us know what you think of the way the playoffs are currently conducted. Responses could be included in a future article next month. Either drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or let us know what you think in the forums: