Column: Understanding the new playoff system

Published 6:39 am Wednesday, October 27, 2021

I have already had a lot of conversations about the new playoff system that the Michigan High School Athletic Association adopted for the 2020 season.

We could not use that system last season as the MHSAA allowed everyone to advance to the playoffs due to COVID-19 and a shortened regular season.

The effects of the new format became a reality this year, and there are plenty of people who are not very happy with how it played out.

I will admit, I do not fully understand it, but I will attempt to explain it so that those unhappy with the new system at least have an idea of how it works. It should also explain why teams with losing records advanced to the postseason, while teams, including those as good as 6-3, were left out.

The original idea was to stop schools from ducking good teams and seeking out lesser opponents to make sure they won at least six games, which was the standard before 2020. If a team only played eight games, it only needed five wins to be an automatic qualifier.

I completely understand that concept, but when 22 teams with winning records of 5-4 or 6-3 are left out of the playoffs, the system has a flaw.

The modern playoffs began in 1975, with the top 32 teams advancing to the postseason based on playoff points, not their records. The MHSAA doubled the size of the field in 1999 and switched to the six or more wins and a team qualified. That system was fine with me to a point, but I have always wanted the state to figure out how to get everyone in the postseason just like they do in Indiana.

Before I go any further, I have no issue with those 17 teams that qualified despite a losing record. They did exactly what the system called for by playing tougher schedules. I do feel for those schools that did not get in despite having a winning record. My advice to them, for the time being, is to try to beef up your 2022 schedule so you can avoid the same thing happening next year.

So, here is what you need to know about how those teams made the playoffs.

Before the 2021 season, the MHSAA announced which divisions the 516 schools that sponsor 11-player football would be in. It divided them into equal divisions of 64 or 65 teams. The state did away with automatic qualifiers.

Now we get to the strength of schedule point system. Here are the points you receive for wins against an opponent based on what division they are in:

  • Division 1 – 60 points
  • Division 2 – 55 points
  • Division 3 – 50 points
  • Division 4 – 45 points
  • Division 5 – 40 points
  • Division 6 – 35 points
  • Division 7 – 30 points
  • Division 8 – 25 points

Here is where teams that were smart enough to schedule up or already had a tough schedule, to begin with really made their points add up. Each team received a point for every win their opponent had, whether or not they beat that team. Then there is the bonus point multiplier, which changes depending on the division of your opponent. Here is that breakdown:

  • Division 1 – 6 points
  • Division 2 – 6 points
  • Division 3 – 5 points
  • Division 4 – 5 points
  • Division 5 – 4 points
  • Division 6 – 4 points
  • Division 7 – 3 points
  • Division 8 – 3 points

If a school played an opponent from a different state, that team would be placed into a division based on its enrollment, just like Michigan schools are.

I guess my biggest problem with the new format is that some schools cannot change their football schedules. Locally, Brandywine was able to schedule additional tougher opponents like Lawton, Saugatuck and Sand Creek because it only had three BCS Red Division contests. At the same time, Niles was locked into an eight-game Wolverine Conference schedule with only one opening for a non-league contest.

I am not sure how many leagues, like the Wolverine, are open to allowing teams to opt-out of playing a few conference games to beef up their schedules in an attempt to qualify for the postseason. I know Allegan was allowed to play a non-Wolverine Conference schedule this year.

My other concern is that this new format will increase conference shifting more than we already have. Teams might start shopping around for another league that either has tougher schools in them or allows them the flexibility to have more than one non-conference date.

I understand the sample size is small — just one year — but I believe the MHSAA and the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association need to take a serious look at how the playoff format worked and if it needs to make some tweaks.

According to MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl, one of those tweaks could be that the state switches from the format of 256 teams qualifying to an all-in format, which it used on 2020. The MHSAA’s football committee will make that decision at its annual representative council meeting in March.

I cannot wait to see what will happen. I will be leaning toward the all-in format instead of 256 qualifiers, but that is just me. I have been advocating for that for decades.


Scott Novak is sports editor for Leader Publications. He can be reached at