High School Football

High school playoffs littered with bad teams. Here’s why so many get in.

Lexington Catholic's Keith Brinkman (20) carried the ball as Lexington Catholic hosted Lafayette on Friday Sept. 1, 2017 in Lexington, Ky.
Lexington Catholic's Keith Brinkman (20) carried the ball as Lexington Catholic hosted Lafayette on Friday Sept. 1, 2017 in Lexington, Ky.

The first week of Kentucky’s high school football playoffs historically isn’t all that exciting, and for good reason: many of the teams that make it simply aren’t qualified from a win-loss standpoint.

Fifty-six teams with losing records will enter the first round of the Russell Athletic/KHSAA Commonwealth Gridiron Bowl playoffs this year. Nine of them — Bethlehem, Breathitt County, Campbellsville, Cooper, Murray, North Hardin, Paducah Tilghman, Pulaski County and Waggener — will even get to host first-round games by virtue of how the district standings shook out. If you include teams that finished .500, the number of teams without winning records in this year’s postseason grows to 83 — or 44 percent of the field.

Ninety-three first-round games were played in 2016 (some teams, as is the case this year because of unique alignment circumstances, received byes to the second round). Of those games, 77 were decided by 21 or more points (83 percent) and 63 were decided by 28 or more points (68 percent). Only eight first-round contests ended in single-digit decisions.

KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett said in a podcast with the Herald-Leader last week that first-round blowouts aren’t exclusive to Kentucky’s playoffs.

“Indiana brings everybody in,” Tackett said. “Watch those first-round scores; they’re not pretty, but everybody got to play.”

Tackett said that there’s no desire to reduce the number of classes in football from six to four, which some believe would help improve the competitive landscape of football’s postseason. Tackett described the KHSAA’s purpose as being more about creating “participation opportunities and being a good companion to the academic part of school” than enabling the most competitive events possible within its sports.

That doesn’t mean exciting events aren’t desired. Tackett acknowledged that football playoff bracketing needs improvement, and that it’s a subject of continuing conversation. This year Classes 2A, 3A and 4A began experimenting with different district pairing rotations to determine playoff matchups, as Class 5A and Class 6A have been doing. That’s why Lexington Catholic hosts Bath County in the first round this year instead of a Louisville-area team like Bardstown or Waggener.

“Our own coaches and ADs came to us and said, ‘Playing the same people every year’s not helping us. Let’s try something different,’” Tackett said. “So they’re trying it. They may not stick with it. Football’s obviously always been a moving target but the division of numbers of students has created more participation and has created more parity than anything we’ve probably ever done. ...

“Number of classes has not even been discussed. How you do in the postseason once you qualify? That gets a lot of discussion.”

Football’s postseason admittance policy draws inspiration from postseason events in other team sports like basketball and soccer, wherein every team gets to participate in at least the district tournament, even if they didn’t win a single game

The first two rounds of football’s postseason are effectively the equivalent of a district tournament.

“Why would you say that a one win out of 36 (games) baseball team gets to start over in the district but somehow we should omit a football team that didn’t win X number of games?,” Tackett said. “That doesn’t make any sense. It’s still the same kids, it’s still the same students.”

Sitting at home

Twenty-nine teams will not participate in Kentucky’s postseason because of their finish in the district standings. Most of them were winless or won only once in 2017, but some won multiple games, including East Carter and Fairdale, who won’t be suiting up for the postseason despite winning four games each (Both teams are part of six-team districts, guaranteeing that two teams from those districts would miss the playoffs this season regardless of record).

By class the absent teams are ...

Class 6A: Paul Laurence Dunbar

Class 5A: Grayson County, Fairdale, Iroquois, Letcher County Central, Marshall County, Nelson County, North Bullitt

Class 4A: Boyd County, Breckinridge County, Calloway County, East Carter, Harrison County, Marion County, Russell County, Spencer County

Class 3A: Adair County, Bardstown, Estill County, Fort Campbell, Lewis County, Magoffin County, McCreary Central, Pendleton County, Sheldon Clark

Class 2A: Betsy Layne, Butler County, Trimble County

Class A: Berea

Dunbar had appeared in 10 straight postseasons before this year. The Bulldogs during that stretch were guaranteed a playoff spot regardless of district standing because Class 6A only had 32 teams to fill 32 playoff spots. The addition of first-year program Frederick Douglass, which is in Dunbar’s district along with Bryan Station, Henry Clay and Scott County, ended that guarantee.

Four other programs fielded football teams but chose not to participate in the class alignment for this season, therefore forfeiting their chance to play in the postseason: Clinton County, Eminence, Grant County and Jenkins.

Josh Moore: 859-231-1307, @HLpreps

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