Big change to Michigan high school football playoffs met with mixed reviews

By Evan Petzold
Special to The Detroit News

Six-and-in has been 86’d by the Michigan High School Athletic Association.

Beginning in 2020, the 32 playoff teams from each of football’s eight divisions no longer will be automatically determined by win total. Instead, playoff-bound teams will be chosen by a new point system based on strength of schedule.

Greg Baur

That was one of several significant changes to multiple sports adopted by the MHSAA at its spring meeting, including a change in the boys and girls basketball playoff brackets to a seeding format that will put the top two seeds on opposite sides of the bracket. The basketball change starts for the 2019-20 school year.

Football, though, was the big change. For years, six wins on a nine-game regular season meant an automatic playoff appearance, or five wins on an eight-game schedule. That benchmark led to a fear of scheduling too tough, and even ended long-standing rivalries.

Not anymore.

“The toughest task for an entire school year is scheduling football,” MHSAA spokesperson Geoff Kimmerly said Wednesday. “There were schools that were just playing for wins to qualify for the playoffs. This could ease those scheduling difficulties by giving schools an incentive to schedule tougher competition.”

The eight divisions for the football playoffs now will be predetermined, so each program is aware of how many points it can obtain for the victory. The tougher the opponent, the better the points situation. Teams will now get bonus points for how many wins the opponent ends up with, regardless of winning or losing the actual game.

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Macomb Dakota has made the playoffs for 18 consecutive years, and coach Greg Baur said his team’s dominance often causes those around the area to shy away from scheduling his team.

“Everyone wants to schedule a first game they can win, so we can’t find a game because people are fearful of our size,” Baur said. “We have to go outside of our area even though there are teams within a two-mile radius that need Week 1 opponents.

“Teams can get points for playing bigger teams or a winning record, so it’s welcomed.”

Warren De La Salle, fresh off a 2018 Division 2 state championship, has played a team from out-of-state in 13 of the last 14 years because of scheduling struggles.

In the 2014 campaign alone, De La Salle had an opening three-week schedule of Toledo Catholic Central (Ohio), London Clarke Road (Ontario) and Saint Catharines Canadian Prep (Ontario). It also went to Erie Cathedral Prep in Pennsylvania in 2017.

De La Salle coach Mike Giannone, who also was the previous coach at Dakota for 18 years, said the new points rule will allow his program to stay local.

“Nobody wanted to play us,” Giannone said. “There’s no reason not to play us because you’ll get points no matter what.”

Thomas Wilcher

There are detractors, too.

One is Detroit Cass Tech Thomas Wilcher. He said the MHSAA isn’t doing enough.

“The MHSAA is trying to do things that aren’t progressive for football,” he said. “It’s like you have a strong-arm against you. When you keep reading the rule, it just hurts other schools. If you can’t get a game, what’s going to happen? It’s just terrible.”

Wilcher said big schools should be allowed to showcase their skillset against other states, and the MHSAA should welcome that, while remaining competitive for in-state playoff rankings.

Kimmerly, though, said this new rule does that. When Cass Tech goes out of state to play in the future, it will receive the same amount of playoff and bonus points based on where the foe would land in terms of division if it were in Michigan’s classification.

Jason McIntyre, head coach of Mount Pleasant, said he thinks this change will help bring back old rivalries that have gone to the wayside due to the fear of one opponent being tougher to beat than the other.

One previous game that immediately came to McIntyre’s mind was Mount Pleasant against Alma, a local tilt played for the Little Red Oil Can that ended in 2004.

“Now that (the points) are by division, it’s good,” said McIntyre, who had a 10-1 record in 2018. “I’d like to see us play up in a nonconference game, but I’d also like to see the local rivalry come back. Hopefully, the value of playing us changes to allow some of those games.”

Scott Merchant

Clinton Township Chippewa Valley coach Scott Merchant also likes the change.

Like others, he wants to keep his schedule within the Metropolitan Detroit area.

“I love it,” Merchant said. “It’s hard for us to find a nonconference game because everyone is counting their wins. They can’t afford to have a tough game and lose, but we teach that to be the best, you have to play the best. In the current system, the only thing people are about is getting to six (wins).”

Two other notable changes were made to the football rules, including one that limits the amount of contact teams can have in practice. Starting in 2019, teams are limited to six hours of full-pads collision contact per week in the preseason, and 30 minutes per week once games begin. The MHSAA defines “collision” as “contact at game speed, with the execution of full tackles at a competitive pace, taking players to the ground.”

Also, replay review is coming to the football state finals, for scoring plays and turnovers.

Notable MHSAA changes

► Football will use a playoff points system, starting in 2020, to determine its 32 postseason teams in each division, rather than relying on the previous six-win benchmark.

► Starting in 2019, football teams will be limited to six hours of full-pads collision contact per week in the preseason, and 30 minutes per week during the season.

► The football finals will allow limited review of scoring players or potential scoring players, or of turnovers or of potential turnovers.

► In boys basketball, girls basketball, boys soccer and girls soccer, a seeding will be used in the postseason so that the top two seeds are on opposite sides of the bracket.

► In boys and girls golf, competitors can use cell phones for distancing-measuring. Also in golf, the maximum score per hole will be 12, in an effort to speed up play.

►* In the hopes of boosting its dwindling official pool, the Student Officials Legacy Program is expanded to include freshmen and sophomores at least 14 years old.

Evan Petzold is a freelance writer.