Football: Latest playoff expansion fuels debate around central Ohio
Following a regular season unlike any other, the Hilliard Bradley football team kept the surprises coming during the 2020 postseason.
The Jaguars had been to the Division I playoffs each season from 2016-18 before slipping to 4-6 in 2019 and then won only one game during a shortened regular season last fall.
Despite being seeded 13th of 16 teams in Region 3, Bradley upset two higher-seeded opponents before losing to eventual state runner-up Pickerington Central 34-7 in a regional semifinal to finish 3-6.
“Everybody thought we were coming out there as the worst team in the tournament,” senior linebacker Caden VanVorhis said. “I feel like we kind of broke a barrier. We showed that teams can come alive during the playoffs and that there’s still something to work for even if you have a bad season. Playoffs is totally a different atmosphere than the regular season.”
With the regular season shortened because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the OHSAA permitted every team to compete in the 2020 playoffs. In 2019, the top eight in each region qualified.
Beginning this season, 16 teams in each of the OHSAA’s 28 regions will advance to the playoffs. In Division I, that means 64 of 72 teams will qualify.
The increase, which was announced by the OHSAA on April 22, has sparked a debate: Will adding playoff teams bring more excitement to the postseason or water down the achievement?
Bradley coach Mike LoParo won’t soon forget how invigorating of an experience it was last year when his team beat fourth-seeded Groveport 28-7 and fifth-seeded Reynoldsburg 31-30 following a difficult regular season.
It marked the first time the Jaguars had won two playoff games in the same year.
This year’s season starts Aug. 20 for most programs, with the postseason to begin the last weekend of October.
The teams that make the state finals potentially will play 16 games.
“We had an injury-riddled early part of (last) season,” LoParo said. “Our goal last year, and I know it sounds cliché, was just to get better each week because we all knew we were going to the playoffs. Once you hit that playoff, you want to be playing your best football, and that’s how it’s going to be now. You want to be peaking toward the end of the year.”
The road to expansion
In its April announcement about the latest playoff expansion, the OHSAA gushed about the “overwhelmingly positive feedback” it received after all of the state’s 709 teams were given the option of competing in the postseason last fall.
From a championship perspective, it’s a much different landscape compared to the beginning of the playoffs nearly 50 years ago. From 1972-79, only 12 teams made the playoffs from among three classifications.
There were 40 total playoff teams among five divisions from 1980-93, and when a sixth division was added, the number of qualifiers swelled to 96 from 1994-98.
The OHSAA then doubled the number of qualifiers to 192, with eight advancing in each of 24 regions from 1999-2012.
A seventh division was added for 2013, with 72 teams competing in Division I and 224 total teams advancing to the playoffs through 2019 before the pandemic forced the OHSAA to get creative.
After the season was in question throughout last summer, the OHSAA elected to give every team the opportunity to compete in the playoffs following a six-game regular season.
“The quality of Ohio high school football continues to improve,” said Brad Burchfield, who is in his 14th season as Hartley’s coach. “Football is a much, much better game now. You can’t even reasonably compare the quality of football now to that of even 20 years ago. Teams have better players and are better-coached. There are so many good teams, and I think that the expansion of playoffs has mirrored an improved game.”
Of the 72 teams in Division I, 64 opted to compete in the 2020 postseason. That includes Central Crossing, which was then forced to forfeit its playoff opener because of COVID-19 protocols.
Teams such as Delaware, Newark, Thomas Worthington and Westland decided not to compete in the postseason.
The OHSAA announced May 20, 2020, that it was expanding to 12 playoff teams per region beginning this fall, with the top four teams receiving a first-round bye, before later switching it to 16 and again doubling the number of qualifiers to 448.
Considering every team is eligible for the postseason in every other OHSAA sport, football is cutting down on the distinction that it has had from other sports in terms of inclusion.
“The bottom line is that things constantly change and evolve,” Burchfield said. “I love the history of our game and we tend to always think things look better in black and white, but that’s just not the case. Times change and the playoff system has been forced to evolve, like anything else.”
Pros and cons
The Ohio High School Football Coaches Association initially applauded the OHSAA’s decision to expand each playoff region from eight to 12 teams but didn’t respond as favorably to the decision to increase the number to 16.
“We were asking the OHSAA to revert back to the original 12-team playoff proposal,” the OHSFCA said in a statement June 15. “The 12-team playoff model was reflective of nearly 70 percent of our member coaches. Despite this attempt, the OHSAA has voted to continue with the 16-team playoff system. We are all disappointed with this outcome.”
That statement came two months after the OHSFCA said the decision of further playoff expansion was “financially motivated” considering the revenue the OHSAA could gain from postseason ticket sales.
Gahanna made the playoffs in four of coach Bruce Ward’s first five seasons before slipping to 3-7 in 2019 and finishing 12th in Region 3.
Although the Lions would have made the playoffs that season as well as in 2016 when they were 5-5 and finished 12th in Region 3, Ward is not a fan of the expansion.
“I’d rather earn it,” he said. “As football coaches, we’ve always prided ourselves in earning the playoffs. No other sport in the state of Ohio has to earn their way into the postseason, so to belittle that and expand it just for whatever reason, financial or whatever it is, it takes away from the honor of us earning it. A couple years ago we were 3-7 and we would have been in. We didn’t deserve to be in, and that’s being honest.”
Columbus City League teams are one group that expects to benefit from playoff expansion.
Before every team was given the opportunity to compete in the postseason last fall, Africentric, Linden-McKinley, South and Whetstone never had qualified and Briggs, Centennial and East each had qualified once.
South, which received the 14th seed of 23 teams and a home playoff game in Division III, Region 11, beat 19th-seeded Bellefontaine 44-18 in the first postseason game in program history.
There are expected to be 23 teams in Region 11 again this fall, meaning that nearly 70 percent of those teams will advance to the postseason.
“I want to qualify,” South coach George Yates said. “We opted in last year and that was cool, but I want to earn the right with the numbers and the (computer) points, so I’m really excited about that. The fact that we opted in and ‘didn’t qualify’ (last year) made us feel like now we’ve got to win a game, and we did. … That was our rubber stamp, winning a playoff game.”
Embracing the opportunity
In all but one season of their respective tenures, Burchfield and Pickerington Central coach Jay Sharrett have led their programs to the postseason, with Hartley earning three state titles in 13 seasons under Burchfield and Central capturing two championships in 18 seasons under Sharrett.
For programs like theirs that always have an eye on a state title, the expansion means an extra playoff round; they’ll have to win one more postseason game than in the past.
On the positive side, according to Burchfield, teams should have fewer difficulties building a regular-season schedule because the pressure to earn playoff computer points will be eased.
“Football is awesome for everyone (and) more football is better,” he said. “If you have a top-four team, it allows two home games (in the postseason) and it’s always awesome to play at home. I’d like to think as more people have opportunities to make the playoffs (that) there will be more good games in the regular season. Who wouldn’t want to see a (game like) Hartley versus Pickerington North? … The margin for error in the regular season is no longer as great.”
Since Africentric held its first season in 2003, it posted its only non-losing record before 2020 when it went 5-5 in 2008. It also has endured five winless seasons.
During the Nubians’ first opportunity to play in the postseason last fall, however, they proved they belonged, winning twice in Division VI, Region 23 as the eighth seed on their way to a 4-2 finish.
“I feel like if we make the playoffs (this season), we’re going to go far,” senior defensive back and wide receiver Dan Wagner said. “It was a good feeling (winning two playoff games) last year, knowing this program hasn’t won that many games.”
While some coaches remain skeptical about the long-term implications of adding an additional playoff round, LoParo is among those taking a wait-and-see approach.
“It’s hard to say because we don’t know what that’s going to look like yet,” he said. “The one thing you can do is schedule however you want because you don’t have to fear losses and (losing) computer points and things like that. If we’re not going to stay at eight (playoff qualifiers per region), you might as well go to 16 and let (almost) everybody in.”