Idaho overhauls its high school football playoffs for 2020. Here's how it will work

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After two seasons of live experiments, Idaho will use computer rankings to seed four of its six high school football playoffs this fall.

The state athletic association finalized a plan Wednesday to use MaxPreps.com rankings to draw the 4A, 3A, 2A and 1A Division I playoff brackets. The rankings also will determine who makes the 4A, 2A and 1A Division I postseason.

“I’m hoping when we do this, it will be a little more equitable for the best team to have the best seed,” Bishop Kelly coach Tim Brennan said. “That you don’t have the best team and the third-place team playing in the quarterfinals.”

The plan does not extend to any other sports. And Idaho’s largest (5A) and smallest (1A Division II) classifications will continue to use the traditional predetermined brackets for their football playoffs in 2020.

Here’s a quick rundown of how the postseason will work in each classification.

5A FOOTBALL PLAYOFFS

Idaho’s largest classification will make minor tweaks to its 12-team bracket.

The 5A Southern Idaho Conference will return to its two-division format as the league adds Kuna. The winner of each division gets an automatic bye into the quarterfinals. The division winners play a conference championship game the final week of the regular season to determine which team gets the league’s No. 1 seed into the playoffs.

Six of the SIC’s 11 teams will receive automatic playoff spots in 2020. Cross-division games will determine the league’s third through sixth seeds to state.

Two at-large berths remain for teams with the best record against Idaho 5As or out-of-state teams large enough to play in the classification.

Boise Activities Director Jon Ruzicka said the 5As considered using the MaxPreps rankings for the at-large berths, but held off for now.

4A FOOTBALL PLAYOFFS

The 4A classification will keep a 16-team bracket but revamp the rest of its playoffs with MaxPreps rankings.

The state’s five conference champions receive the top five seeds in the playoffs. Automatic qualifiers from each conference and four at-large berths fill the final 11 teams in the bracket.

The 4A SIC has four automatic berths, down from five a year ago.

The MaxPreps rankings seed the conference champions No. 1 through No. 5. The final 11 teams then get placed on the bracket via their ranking, regardless if they nabbed an automatic or at-large berth.

“We wanted to honor the conference champs,” Brennan said. “Then after that, we wanted the next best teams in the state in the playoffs, where we don’t necessarily think that has happened in the past.”

The bracket follows a traditional formula with No. 1 vs. No. 16, No. 2 vs. No. 15, etc.

Higher seeds would host. The only exception would come in the second round to reduce travel costs. For example, if the No. 9 seed beat the No. 8 team on the road, it would host the No. 1 team in the quarterfinals because that team hasn’t traveled yet.

Using the computer rankings would help avoid early matchups of state title favorites, a complaint in previous years. And in the past two seasons, the SIC’s fourth-place team has drawn arguably the easiest road to the semifinals, another issue a tournament seeded No. 1 through No. 16 aims to fix.

“There’s some flexibility there year in and year out,” Wood River Athletic Director Kevin Stilling said. “If a conference is really strong, it’s going to be protected. But every district is going to be represented.”

3A FOOTBALL PLAYOFFS

Eleven teams will continue to make the playoffs. Everyone qualifies via their conference finish. And representation from each league remains the same.

But the 3A classification will ditch the RPI rankings it used last season in favor of MaxPreps.

All five conference champions receive a bye into the quarterfinals. The remaining six teams face off in the first round. Those first-round matchups are now determined by the computer rankings instead of set before the season.

2A FOOTBALL PLAYOFFS

The 2A playoffs will shrink from 16 teams to 11 to mirror the 3A format. All five conference champions receive a bye into the quarterfinals. But instead of relying on automatic qualifiers, the next six teams in the MaxPreps rankings make the postseason — a major departure from Idaho’s past.

Those six teams meet in the first round, where a committee will set matchups. It will use the MaxPreps rankings as a guide but try to reduce travel and avoid conference rematches.

1A DIVISION I FOOTBALL PLAYOFFS

Like 4A, the top 8-man classification abandoned its pre-drawn brackets in favor of one set by computer rankings. It will also expand from eight teams to 12.

The five conference champions automatically receive playoff berths. The top four conference champs by MaxPreps rankings get a bye into the quarterfinals. The remaining champ falls into the first round, where it could end up seeded as low as 12th.

The final seven teams must qualify via their MaxPreps ranking. Only conference champions automatically qualify.

1A DIVISION II FOOTBALL PLAYOFFS

Idaho’s smallest classification will shrink its playoffs from 14 teams to 13. But it has not joined the MaxPreps bandwagon.

The smaller bracket awards another first-round bye to a conference champ. The winners from District 1, District 2 and District 3 advance straight to the quarterfinals.

HOW DO THESE MAXPREPS RANKINGS WORK?

MaxPreps guards its rankings as proprietary information, declining to reveal its exact calculations. But it does provide a guideline for how they work.

A team’s record, its strength of schedule and its dominance on the scoreboard factor into the rankings. But MaxPreps cautions that running up the score has “diminishing returns.”

The formula does not weigh previous success. All teams start the season at zero.

And classification is not considered in the MaxPreps formula, a company representative confirmed to the Idaho Statesman. So playing up a classification doesn’t come with an automatic boost, and playing down doesn’t come with a penalty.

That marks a departure from the Idaho RPI formula the state has used for the 3A and 2A playoffs the past two years.

ARE THERE ARE ANY DRAWBACKS?

While fans may applaud the death of brackets drawn months before the season, computer rankings have a way of spitting out funny results. No one knows that better than Snake River.

The Panthers missed the 3A playoffs in 2018 in favor of Teton. Both teams had the same record (2-6). Snake River beat Teton 38-10 earlier that fall and didn’t play any 2A programs. But Teton, which lost three games to lower-classification teams, made the playoffs as the final at-large team.

Then in 2019, Snake River’s fortunes reversed as it entered the playoffs as the No. 2 overall seed at 7-2. That put the Panthers ahead of No. 6 Gooding (8-1 regular season), which beat Snake River in September and only lost to Weiser (8-1 regular season).

Snake River coach Jeb Harrison admits his team shouldn’t have finished any higher than fifth. But after getting burned by the RPI rankings, he set out to protect his team in 2019.

He dropped defending state champ Sugar-Salem from his schedule, reneging on the traditional home-and-home, two-year scheduling agreement. And he picked up a pair of 2A programs (West Side and Firth) that he bet would finish with strong records, thus boosting his team in the eyes of the computer.

“It was totally a strategic move on our part,” Harrison said. “... It’s not something that we took lightly because typically you don’t drop teams mid-cycle. But we said, ‘Look, if this is the system that’s going to play out, we’re going to play the system.’ ”

Harrison warns the MaxPreps rankings could produce counterintuitive results.

“That very easily could happen again,” he said. “Head to head is not a component because there is this super-secret illuminati somewhere that runs it, and nobody knows what’s in it.”

Travel remains another concern. Last fall, Weiser drove to Marsh Valley for a first-round game in the southeast corner of the state only to win and get rewarded with a trip to Timberlake north of Coeur d’Alene.

And New Plymouth opened the 2A playoffs in St. Maries in North Idaho, then had to get back on a bus to North Fremont in Ashton outside of Yellowstone National Park the next week.

Dallan Rupp, the athletic director and football coach at New Plymouth, said he originally opposed using computer rankings. But after seeing its results on the field the past two seasons, he now views it as better than the pre-drawn brackets Idaho previously used.

“When it came down to it and we used it, it seemed to work,” Rupp said. “We got the right four teams in the semifinals and the right two teams in the finals.

“… Let’s not fight over who is the 11th and 12th team in the state. Let’s make sure we get the right teams in the championship game. That’s what the rankings are all about.”

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