By Tom Nader
Publisher and Editor
The Ohio High School Athletic Association announced on April 22, 2021, that its high-school football playoff format was expanding to the top-16 teams in each region.
The announcement doubled the postseason field from 224 teams to 448 and immediately sparked a divided conversation.
The proponents appreciated that the playoff opportunity would be celebrated in more communities, with more players, staffs and fans enjoying the excitement and school spirit that comes with a postseason berth.
The opponents felt the expansion diminished the distinction, lessening what was long-viewed as a major program achievement. Opponents also questioned the lopsided first-round matchups and even went as far as to claim the expansion was influenced by money.
In fairness, both sides can be right to some degree.
For the OHSAA, though, it comes down to a simple thought: “The positive feedback has vastly outweighed the negative feedback,” OHSAA Director of Media Relations Tim Stried said.
The expansion to 16 teams per region came following the pandemic season of 2020 in which all teams were invited to the playoffs. The justification was that COVID could have — and probably did — impact teams across the state in either how many games they could play or what roster availability was from week to week. It was simply too difficult, and unfair, to try to create a measurement of success through records and computer points.
Expanding to 16 teams began last fall in 2021 after the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association surveyed its members and proposed an expansion to 12 teams per region.
According to Stried, the OHSAA’s Board of Directors initially approved the proposal, but then the OHSAA board updated that expansion to 16 schools per region, with the intent for an annual review.
And while some were — and still are — opposed to the expansion, Stried explains that far more teams and fans support the idea.
The feedback covers a variety of angles.
“Before expansion, if a school was 4-4 in Week 8, their season was probably going to be over, and they were just playing out the season,” Stried said. “With expansion, those Week 9 and Week 10 games are still very important for the playoff picture.
3. The playoff expansion fits into part of the OHSAA’s mission statement, which is to create as many participation opportunities as possible for the student-athletes of its member schools.
“Anytime we can give more participation opportunities for kids, that’s a good thing,” Stried said. “Football has been our only sport that not every school qualifies for the postseason, so this brings football closer to all our other sports.”
Of course, Stried has heard some fo the pushback from those that oppose the playoffs expansion as well.
“The people who are pushing back on expansion are those who personally want to keep the number of playoff qualifiers to a small number. That is their opinion, which is fine, but we are trying to spread the word that the vast majority of schools are happy with expansion, which is the most important thing.
“For many years, qualifying for the football playoffs was such an accomplishment that it resulted in banners in the gymnasium or signs at the football stadium,” Stried added. “If some schools decide that now qualifying for the playoffs should not result in a banner or sign, that is certainly fine, but that does not mean that expansion is a bad thing.”
Other perspectives have pointed toward money as a contributor for the expansion.
“Yes, expanding the football playoffs has generated more money for the host schools and the OHSAA, but increased revenue was not a reason for expansion, Stried said. “Remember that in 2020, every school made the playoffs, which was an overwhelmingly positive move in the face of the pandemic that greatly impacted schools. The 2020 playoffs led to the expansion in 2021. And note that the football coaches association proposed expansion to 12 teams per region, so expansion was already going to happen based on that proposal.”
The high school football playoffs began in 1972.
Prior to the playoffs format, state champions were crowned by the final vote of the final Associated Press state poll.
• 1972-1979: Schools were divided into classes instead of divisions. Their were three classes: A (small schools), AA (mid-level) and AAA (large). The top-four teams from each classes qualified for the playoffs, playing for the three state championships.
• 1980-1984: The OHSAA introduced a new division format, introducing five divisions — again based on school size. To qualify for the playoffs, the top-two teams from each of the four regions with the division advanced. This jumped the number of teams playing in the postseason from 12 to 40.
• 1985-1993: The five-division format remained, but the playoffs expanded to include the top-four teams from each region. This doubled the field from 40 to 80 and pushed the playoffs into a three-weekend schedule.
• 1994-97: Ohio introduced a sixth division for football, but kept in place that only the top-four teams qualified for the postseason. The new division, though, jumped the playoff teams from 80 to 96.
• 1999-2012: The six divisions remained, but the OHSAA expanded the teams per region to grow from the top four to the top eight. This jumped the number of playoff berths from 96 to 192.
• 2013-2019: A seventh division was introduced by the OHSAA, but the number of teams per region that qualified remained at the top eight. The new division increased playoff teams from 192 to 224.
• 2020: The OHSAA allowed all member schools to qualify for the postseason because of the pandemic season having a significant impact across the state in both games played and roster availability.
• 2021-present: The seven divisions remain, but expansion has been pushed to the top-16 teams from each region (from the top eight), which has doubled the playoff field from 224 teams to 448.
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