NOVAK: Conference shifting will continue

Over the years, I have seen teams come and go when it comes to conferences.

Most of them break up because of football. Some of them realign with leagues that have schools of similar size, but they rarely address the real issue, which remains football. Some schools just do not have enough players coming out to field 11-man squads.

Several years ago, the Michigan High School Athletic Association addressed the situation with the help of the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association by creating eight-man football.

It allows schools with small enrollments to still play football. It has also opened the door for some schools that do not have much participation to continue playing football. Schools that probably could still play the 11-man format are foregoing the ability to play for a state championship under the eight-man format in order to be more competitive.

What is now becoming clear to me is that eight-man football is going to be the next reason conference are going to fall apart. I do not have to look very far to find a conference where this is becoming an issue. In fact, that conference is in our backyard.

The Southwest 10 Conference debuted just a handful of years ago. The 10-team league, which includes Cassopolis, was supposed to be made up of schools of similar size with similar athletic departments. The sports were supposed to line up, meaning that most or all of the schools had the same number of boys and girls.

That worked out for the first two seasons. But now, with eight-man football, it is becoming a big issue for the league’s biggest sport. Eau Claire, which has struggled with numbers for years, was the first to switch. Bangor followed, and now, Bloomingdale and Marcellus have joined the ranks, leaving the league with six teams playing 11-man football.

Scheduling football is already a nightmare for most of the athletic directors. Finding a nine-game schedule that allows a team to be competitive and get at least six wins to qualify for the postseason under the old playoff format was nearly impossible for some schools.

We have had teams play the same school twice to fill the schedule. I understand it is even tougher to find nine games to schedule for those schools going to the eight-man format.

That leaves a school like Cassopolis, which has a tremendous football history, as well as a stunning playoff record in the last decade, searching for teams to schedule. The Rangers will be forced to play several schools this season that are much larger than they are. Throw in the new playoff format, which no one is quite sure how it will all shake out in the end, and it could mean postseason disaster for Cassopolis.

I am not a fan of the new playoff system. I believe it takes a step backward, which means it could become even tougher for smaller schools to find nine games to schedule. The new system seems to reward smaller schools for scheduling “up,” while larger schools are put at a disadvantage by playing smaller schools.

I have to believe, that will mean larger schools will turn down games against those with smaller enrollments.

Nothing is definite, but it looks like we will have a 2020 high school football season. If so, I guess we will see how this all plays out. I cannot predict the future, but I have to believe that conferences will begin shifting at an even faster rate than they have once we all get a look at the playoff field in October.

I hope I am wrong, but something tells me we will see some more changes in 2021.

 

Scott Novak is sports editor for Leader Publications. He can be reached at scott.novak@leaderpub.com.

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