AURORA — Changes look to be in the cards for the 2016-18 Class 5A football playoffs.
On Wednesday, an ad-hoc committee made up of one representative from each current 5A conference recommended multiple changes to the postseason format. This committee was put together as a continuation of the extensive efforts of the football committee to garner input from schools and conferences around the state as they plan for the future of football.
Included in Wednesday's recommendation:
- The use of an RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) system to set the playoff field.
- The move from a 32-team to a 16-team playoff field.
- Balancing out the conference alignment structure via a waterfall system.
- Champions of those conferences automatically qualify for the playoffs.
The committee voted 5-2 in favor of the recommendation. It marks a major shift in philosophy for the sport.
For one, 5A has had a 32-team playoff field since 2006, and that 32-team field had a number of vocal supporters. But the waterfall system, which would place teams into conferences based upon their RPI performance over the previous two years, would completely change conference structure.
"Making these adjustments will be a big paradigm shift," said Mike Krueger, the chair of the football committee, who didn't vote on Wednesday.
The representatives on the committee provided a substantial amount of insight from discussions that have taken place over many months with coaches, athletic directors and schools. They also recognized the importance of balancing the conferences if a 16-team postseason format is ultimately where the sport heads.
"Our main goal is to make sure we do what is right for all football teams in the 5A classification," Krueger said. "Schools and programs will need time as well as information to adjust to this new concept."
That said, this is only a recommendation. It will be forwarded to the football committee to vote on at its next meeting in December.
The meeting was called for a number of reasons, but the biggest spark was the recent change made by the Classification and League Organizing Committee in April. That change sought to evenly divide the number of teams in each classification, and, as a result, it shifted the enrollment cutoff numbers.
"We started to look at what we were doing, and why we were doing it," Krueger said. "We knew last fall that there was some good probability of the numbers changing."
The result, as it pertains to 5A football, will be 42 teams in the 2016-18 two-year cycle — down from 49 this cycle. The conference structure was going to have to change anyway.
And so the football committee has been hard at work in preparation. In addition to its annual meeting last December, they met in February, and then again in April. Along with this ad-hoc meeting on Wednesday, the other classifications will have similar breakout gatherings.
Krueger called the amount of work the group was doing ahead of the 2016-18 cycle "unprecedented."
And one big reason why is because so much remains unanswered.
At the top of the list: How to qualify for the playoffs?
The Wild Card system which is currently used to set the playoff field has drawn justified criticism of late.
"It was the best option at the time," Krueger said. "But we've realized we can do better. We have a better system available to us now."
This is where the RPI comes into play. It's used by a number of organizations, most notably the NCAA and NAIA, for its postseason fields. The formula takes into account a team's winning percentage, their opponents' winning percentages, and the winning percentages of their opponents' opponents.
CHSAA would use a modified version of the RPI, including a multiplier to account for the differences in classification. Other factors may be introduced, as well.
The Association tested data in 5A, 4A, 3A and 2A over the past three seasons. It consistently showed that the top-rated teams according to the RPI were performing well in the postseason.
Next on the list: How many teams should make the playoffs?
Heading into Wednesday's meeting, a number of conferences voiced support for sticking with the 32-team format, but they were operating under the assumption that the current conference alignment would remain the same.
When it became clear that the alignment would change — "If we go with 32 (teams in the playoffs), we're going to have to recreate conferences anyway," Krueger told the group — the conversation shifted to a 16-team format. And the waterfall concept soon became intertwined with that.
"To me," said Eric Gustafson, the athletic director at Horizon who was representing the Front Range League, "if you go to 16, you've got to balance the conferences."
Added Doherty athletic director Chris Noll, who was there representing the Continental South: "There's no choice in that."
First proposed by the Centennial League at the football committee meeting in November 2013, the waterfall alignment places the 42 teams into seven six-team conferences. Teams would be rated based upon their average rating in the RPI system over the previous two seasons. So, for the 2016-18 cycle, the conferences would be based on performance in the 2014 and 2015 seasons.
The top seven teams based on that ranking would be place into separate conferences. Then, other teams would follow on a snaked order. So, No. 8 would be placed with No. 7, No. 9 with No. 6, No. 10 with No. 5, and so on.
Coupled with the waterfall alignment, the 16-team playoff field was soon the favorite in the room.
"If we're going to go to 16, balance makes all the sense in the world — especially if conference champs are going to be automatic qualifiers," said Larry Bull, the district athletic director at Cherry Creek Schools, who made the proposal on behalf of the Centennial League that ultimately became the recommendation.
The move to a 16-team playoff field would also mean a return to a 10-game regular season. It would bring 5A more in line with what the other six classifications of football are doing.
In addition, a 10-game regular season allows for five non-conference games. This will allow for rivalry and traditional matchups to continue, as well as for scheduling against nearby opponents.
With the Grand Junction schools, and likely Fountain-Fort Carson, moving to 4A in 2016-18, 5A will have the closest geographic proximity of any classification.
"The only classification where this could work is 5A because you're all in the I-25 corridor," said Harry Waterman, the CHSAA assistant commissioner who oversees football.
Key points of the 5A football playoff proposal
- RPI system: A team's winning percentage (WP) + their opponents' winning percentage (OWP) + their opponents' opponents' winning percentage (OOWP). The formula will be RPI = (1/4 * WP) + (1/2 * OWP) + (1/4 * OOWP). In effect, this means strength of schedule is 3/4 of the formula. Those looking for more detail on RPI should visit its page on Wikipedia. CHSAA will have a classification modifier in the formula, which will be a 15 percent increase per class.
- CHSAA has tested data for the RPI over the past three seasons in 5A, 4A, 3A and 2A. It consistently shows that the ranking of the RPI system closely matches playoff results.
- The RPI system encourages teams to have a good strength-of-schedule. This should help the top-end teams who have struggled in the past to find opponents.
- The move to a 16-team playoff field also means the return to a 10-game regular season.
- This brings 5A more in line with 6-man through 4A, both in terms of playoff field and regular season length.
- The 10-game regular season helps 4A teams as 5A Week 10 games would count toward their RPI.
- Conference champions are honored. Conference games mean something.
- The best 16 teams qualify for the postseason under this system.
- This allows for five non-conference games. Traditional rivalries and games within close proximity can continue.
- With 42 teams in 5A, it doesn't make sense to have 32 make the postseason field.
- The Grand Junction schools, and potentially Fountain-Fort Carson, will be 4A. This eliminates significant travel. The longest trip would be around two hours as all schools are along the I-25 corridor.
- 5A is the only class that's able to consider this as an option due to its close geographic proximity.