The path to Connecticut high school football playoffs—the most exclusive postseason in the state—will get a little wider next fall. The CIAC has unveiled a new playoff format and divisional alignment that will increase from 24 to 32 the total number of teams that participate in the state tournament.
Until now, four teams from each of six male enrollment-tiered divisions qualified for the state playoffs; under the new system, eight teams from four divisions will get in.
CIAC Football Committee Chairman Leroy Williams said expanding the postseason fields was the chief objective of the makeover, which was more than three years in the works. In many other sports, about 60 percent of all teams qualify for state tournaments. In football, that figure was only 17 percent; it will increase to 23 percent, after the changes.
In recent years, one common complaint about the football playoff format has been that it sometimes prevents deserving teams from earning postseason berths. Last season, for instance, four one-loss teams were left out of their respective tourneys: Bridgeport Central (9-1) and Ridgefield (9-1) in Class LL, Masuk (9-1) in Class L and Prince Tech (8-1) in Class S.
“I think that’s wrong,” Woodland Athletic Director Brian Fell said.
Masuk and Bridgeport Central were regulars in the state media poll’s top 10 throughout the season.
The larger playoff fields mean adding a round to each division’s tournament and extending the season by one week. As in the past, the first round of playoff games (previously semifinals, now quarterfinals) will be the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, and the second round (previously finals, now semifinals) will be the following Saturday. The championship games will be played a week later—Dec. 11, in 2010.
Naugatuck football coach Rob Plasky, who has one postseason appearance in nine years, said he believes the revamped system will give his Greyhounds a better chance to make the playoffs.
“It’s nice for us, feeling like we don’t have to go undefeated to get in,” he said. “Hopefully, it will help create more meaningful Thanksgiving games, where we have to win for states.”
While increased postseason participation seems an undeniable benefit of the new format, the CIAC Football Committee anticipates a series of criticisms:
One is that by lengthening the season into the second week of December, the CIAC has increased the chance that inclement weather will disrupt the playoff schedule.
Another is that the extended football season will decrease participation in winter sports. In the old system, members of football teams that reach state championship games would miss the first week of winter sports practice. Now, they will miss the first two weeks of practice and have only four days between their final football games and first winter sports contests.
“I don’t have a problem with adding a week to the football season,” Naugy boys’ basketball coach Kevin Wesche said, while overseeing a hoops practice Monday that included seven football players. “But I’d like football to start earlier—add that week to the beginning of the season, instead of the end.”
Fell points out that only eight of the state’s 141 football-playing schools will experience the two-week overlap, what he calls “a small price to pay” for opening the pigskin playoff fields to more student-athletes.
And Williams argues starting football season earlier is not a simple solution.
“Moving the games up a week doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. Everybody still wants to play on Thanksgiving,” which is traditionally the last day of the regular season, he explained. “So starting earlier doesn’t mean you end earlier.”
In its proposal to the CIAC Board of Control, the Football Committee estimated that among members of football teams that make the finals, winter sports participation will dip by a third.
Plasky, a three-sport athlete at NHS in the 1980s, agrees winter sports numbers will drop because of the longer football season.
“Honestly, I think you’re stepping on basketball’s toes,” he said.
Related critiques of the longer football season center not on the sport’s end date but rather on its number of games. Most years, teams play 10 regular-season games but in years when Labor Day falls on Sept. 1 or 2, they play 11. Some leagues, including the Naugatuck Valley League, hold their own championship games, before the state tournament. And now, the state tourney includes three rounds, instead of two. So an NVL team that advances to a state final could play as many as 15 games in a season—more than Division I college squads play.
“That’s too much football,” Plasky said. “And I love football.”
Fell thinks that’s debatable.
“Is it too much football for the [entire] league or just one team?” he said. “I’m more concerned about playing so many games close together at the end of the season.”
Beginning this year, a team that plays in both the NVL championship and state championship games would play five times in 23 days.
One effective—though likely unpopular—way to alleviate these drawbacks would be to diminish or eliminate Turkey Day rivalry games. Fell remarked that he likes New Jersey’s football format, in which the regular season ends the first week of November, after only eight games. State playoff quarterfinals follow the second week, and semifinals are played the third. Then the tournament takes a break so all schools can play rivalry games on Thanksgiving, and state championships are held one week later. Teams that don’t qualify for the playoffs play one consolation game the second week of November.
The New Jersey setup preserves traditional Thanksgiving contests but makes them worth nothing but bragging rights. The CIAC Football Committee noted in its proposal the importance of ensuring “all games played during the season count for [tournament] qualifying.”
Fell, whose Hawks have met Seymour on Thanksgiving Eve for only seven years, outlined another alternative: Play the first round of state playoffs—instead of rivalry games—on Thanksgiving and let the CIAC create other Thanksgiving matchups by pairing non-playoff teams of similar abilities. This plan would likely yield competitive games and help shorten the season, but Fell acknowledges any proposal that quashes rivalries would be difficult to pass in Connecticut.
In any case, the CIAC has committed to its newly-adopted football format for at least five years, believing that will give all parties enough time to evaluate its advantages and disadvantages.
“It could be good; it could be bad,” Plasky said. “We’ll see.”