High School Football

As season begins, new high school football playoff format and rankings loom

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2019 Kentucky high school football preview

The 2019 high school football season kicks off Friday, Aug. 23. New high school sports beat writer Jared Peck is rolling out several stories over the next two weeks in the Herald-Leader and on Kentucky.com previewing the season around the city, region and state and highlighting the top players and games. Click below to read all of his previous stories.

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A new season of Kentucky high school football brings with it a new playoff format, a first-ever state ranking system and, as one might expect, a fair amount of controversy.

Here’s some of what’s different for 2019 with the season set to begin Friday, Aug. 23.

The new playoffs

Usually, a class realignment would be a big enough shakeup of its own, but this year, the Kentucky High School Athletic Association also reformatted the playoffs and will introduce for the first time ever, an RPI rating system that will be used to seed the state quarterfinals and semifinals.

In addition, the first and second rounds have been returned to intra-district play, a format not used since 2007. That idea was met with considerable pushback from coaches when it was put forth earlier this year.

The Kentucky Football Coaches Association opposed it back in February saying 90 percent of 106 coaches returning its survey were not in favor of abandoning “sister-district” play in the first two rounds.

“I don’t have anything against the ranking system, but I hate the idea of playing your district opponents the first two rounds of the playoffs,” Elizabethtown Coach Mark Brown said in response to a Herald-Leader preseason survey question on the issue. “We did this before and everyone hated it.”

To be clear, in the past several years, district champions were crowned based on their regular-season results against district opponents. The top four teams in each district would then be matched up against teams in an adjacent or “sister” district in the first two rounds of the playoffs. The home teams in that format alternated between the districts.

Under the new format, teams must play their regular-season district games in order to seed the first two rounds of the playoffs which will be played against those same district foes as the official “district championships.” This is the norm in most other sports.

“Honestly, I liked it,” Tates Creek Coach Jonathan Smith said. “I know a lot of the coaches around the state weren’t really excited about it, but you know every other sport in the state plays it the same way — you play your district. It honestly helps us out with traveling time. I like that we’re not going to be going all the way up to Ryle for a two-hour bus ride in the first round of the playoffs. If you take care of business (during the regular season) and you get the home-field advantage, to me, I like the opportunity.”

Criticisms of the old format included that even when playing “sister district” foes in the first round, it sometimes meant significant travel for games that often were gross mismatches.

In a Herald-Leader preseason survey question about the new playoff format, 49 coaches offered favorable opinions, while 28 said they did not like it for various reasons. Twenty-five coaches expressed a “wait-and-see” attitude. Thirty-seven of the 139 surveys returned had no comment on it. The survey went out to all 222 head coaches.

Across all three “comment areas” for, against or neutral, 23 coaches disliked having to face in-district opponents again in the playoffs, especially since those games could come as little as a week or two after having played them in the regular season

While there will doubtless continue to be early-round mismatches, there also will be highly ranked teams knocked out of the playoffs early. Class A contenders Hazard and Pikeville, both past state champions, occupy the same district. That conflict also exists for teams like Paintsville and Raceland; Mayfield and Murray; Danville, Somerset, Washington County and Lexington Christian; Boyle County and Lexington Catholic; and Scott County and Frederick Douglass.

But in the end, to win a state title you have to win the next game, whatever it holds, many coaches said.

“We know that if you want to get to Week 5 in the playoffs, you’ve got to beat a good team in Week 1, Week 2, 3, 4 and 5,” said Lexington Catholic’s Nigel Smith. “It’s just a matter of, ‘oh we get to play that team in Week 2 (of the playoffs) instead of Week 4 or 5.’ It really doesn’t matter. We’ve done it before (replayed regular-season opponents like Boyle County). It’s nothing outside anything normal or crazy.”

What does RPI mean?

The RPI, an acronym for “Ratings Percentage Index” is the name for a formula to rate teams based on their performance. It’s most commonly used in reference to college basketball, but it has come into use in other sports and by other high school athletics associations.

The KHSAA has announced its formula will take into account win-loss records plus opponents’ win-loss records, and opponents’ opponents’ win-loss records. In the formula teams get 1 point for a win, 0.5 points for a tie and 0 points for a loss as the “game result.”

The actual formula is game result x (0.35 × winning percentage) + (0.35 × opponents’ winning percentage) + (0.30 × opponents’ opponents’ winning percentage). Do that for every regular-season game and then add them all up and you have a team’s RPI. Got that?

Running up the score doesn’t benefit teams in this formula. Playing a lot of easy games doesn’t either. And there are variables that pertain to teams who play out-of-state opponents, as Trinity does each year.

The KHSAA has previously said it would begin releasing its RPI rankings by Week 6 of the season and they will be frozen as the “playoff RPI” after Week 11, but final details have not been announced. The RPI will be used to seed the third and fourth rounds on each side of the state so that the highest seed among Districts 1-4 will host the lowest seeds and the same, respectively, for Districts 5-8 in each class.

“I love it,” said Monroe County Coach Billy Joe Murphy. “The favorite (most impressive team during the regular season) should be rewarded by having the easiest road and host the most games.”

While that’s true, some coaches express dismay at home-field advantage going strictly to seeding rather than being rotated as in past years.

“I think it is a disadvantage to small schools like us to never be able to host a semi-state game again,” said Campbellsville’s Dale Estes. “At least every two years if we made it to the final four one of those years we were hosting the game in the old format.”

High school football 2019

The 2019 high school football season kicks off Friday, Aug. 23. New high school sports beat writer Jared Peck will be rolling out several stories over the next two weeks in the Herald-Leader and on Kentucky.com previewing the season around the city, region and state and highlighting the top players and games.

Jared Peck, the Herald-Leader’s Digital Sports Writer, covers high school athletics and has been with the company as a writer and editor for more than 19 years.
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