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Football playoffs will reward tougher schedules

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By Jason Wesseldyk

Sports Editor

The times, they are a changin.’ When it comes to high school football in Michigan, that is.

Starting this season, teams will be limited to six hours of full-pads collision contact per week in practice, with that time being reduced to 30 minutes per week once the season starts. The Michigan High School Athletic Association will also institute the use of replay review in the state finals on scoring play and turnovers.

But the change that is likely to have the biggest impact on the sport will make its debut in 2020. No longer will teams automatically earn a playoff berth by virtue of securing six victories, as has been the case since 1999. Rather, strength of schedule will be the overriding factor in determining which teams are among the 256 to qualify for the postseason.

Under the six-win-and-you’re-in playoff system, teams would often try to schedule weaker opponents in order to get to that magic six-win level. That often made it difficult for traditionally-stronger teams to find opponents out of conference, as other teams didn’t want to play them.

With the new system, teams will be rewarded for playing tougher teams — even in a losing effort — as bonus points will be awarded for each win your opponents collect, with the exception of the head-to-head match-up.

It’s a change longtime Saugatuck football coach Bill Dunn supports.

“I’m a proponent of the strength-of-schedule model,” he said. “A school should be rewarded for playing bigger schools or better programs as opposed to schools that play a weaker schedule or develop a conference of weaker schools in order to get the minimum six wins to qualify in the current system.

“I like the value of gaining playoff points whether you win or lose to a school. It encourages schools to find better competition outside their conference schedule if they so choose to do so.”

As part of the new system, teams will know which of the eight divisions they are in before the start of the season and the top 32 in each division will qualify for the playoffs. That differs from the current system, where the 256 teams that qualify for the playoffs are divided into eight 32-team divisions following the regular season.

Teams will earn 60 points for beating Division 1 schools, with that point total dropping by five points per division, ending at Division 8 with 25 points.

“For Saugatuck, we are in a competitive football conference and one of the smaller schools who play bigger schools on a week-to-week basis,” Dunn said. “So it’s not a big change for us.

“There is an argument that schools control their destiny by winning on the field by getting to the magic number of six, where now schools are dependent on other schools and their record outside of the game they play. But I overall, I like it.”

Not all coaches like the new system. “I’m not in favor of changing our playoff system to further accommodate the teams who recruit,” said Plainwell coach Darren Conklin. “That is essentially what this is all about. Elite teams can’t find opponents, and most of such teams recruit heavily.

“This proposal was designed to encourage teams to schedule games against elite teams. In exchange for the beating, they would get playoff points,” Conklin said.

Plainwell and the other nine schools in the Wolverine Conference are in a unique situation as they play all nine of their regular-season games against league foes. That means they don’t have the freedom to schedule non-conference opponents who could boost the playoff-point total.

“The potential is there to negatively impact a larger school who wins six games, as the automatic qualification will be gone,” Conklin said. “I thought the playoff arrangement worked well and didn’t need to be changed.

“I don’t see a need to add teams who can’t win six — or in some cases five games — in the regular season to the playoffs.”

Were the new system in place last season, 17 teams that qualified for the playoffs would have been on the outside looking in. That includes a 7-2 team in Ludington and three 6-3 squads in Kalamazoo Central, Detroit Western and Merrill. By contrast, 11 teams with a losing record of 4-5 would have made it.

“I was told in the association meeting that there are three-win teams in metro Detroit that would win the state championship in their division,” Conklin said. “If you are a 3-6 team, you don’t belong in the playoffs.”