The FHSAA football playoffs — now coined “The Drive to December” after a recent fan-vote competition — may never be the same.
It’s not definite yet, but a new proposal by the FHSAA would eliminate district play in the four lowest classifications (Classes 1A to 4A) and thus gaining automatic playoff berths as district champion or runner-up.
Instead, first-round games would be assembled from the top eight teams from a region, using a point system which accounts for strength of schedule. The FHSAA would continue to operate football in eight classifications with four geographic regions in each class. The top four classifications (Classes 5A to 7A) would continue to operate under a district format under the proposal, but only the district champion would have an automatic bid. The remaining four playoff teams would be selected as wildcards based on power points.
Programs must compete in at least eight games for a chance to qualify for the playoffs, with a 10-contest limitation in an 11-week regular season.
While the proposal — which could start as early as 2017 — may seem wildly different than the current system, last season’s playoff scenario would not have been extremely different under the hypothetical system.
In Class 6A — which holds the highest representation of area teams (8-of-13) — seven of the eight teams that qualified for the postseason through district play would have still qualified under the proposed format.
The one exception from the region would be Escambia reaching the playoffs as opposed to Gulf Breeze, based on Escambia’s tough strength of schedule and record.
Gulf Breeze earned a spot after topping Pace and Milton in a three-team shootout for runner-up in 2-6A.
Escambia earned tough wins over Niceville and Lake City Columbia, but failed to top District 1-6A foes Tate and Pine Forest and was eliminated from playoff contention.
Many area coaches are fond of the current system, but will be ready to adapt for change.
“I like the way it is now … cut and dry, if you win your district games you are going to the playoffs,” said Pensacola High coach Mike Mincy, whose Tigers compete in Class 5A. “Sure, there are benefits with the proposed way and I’m sure the FHSAA would tweak things if they have to to make it work.”
Mincy said his biggest concern with the system is how it would affect classic rivalries in Pensacola.
Traditional match-ups with Pine Forest, Escambia and other 6A teams could be looked at differently, as the 5A Tigers would gain one bonus point for each game against a 6A team, one of the perks of playing teams in higher classification. On the flip side, teams are not penalized for playing down in classification, so PHS would not be deducted points for playing Class 3A Catholic High.
“Maybe it turns out that it doesn’t help them (6A teams) to play us, I’d hate to see those games go away,” Mincy said. “Those games are big-money gates for us and it’s also great football. Playing those guys helps strengthen us.
“You’ve also got to think about travel too. As long as travel costs don’t jump too much and we can keep our rivalry games, it (the proposed system) doesn’t bother me too much.”
In Class 1A, the Northview Chiefs and head coach Sid Wheatley have a different scenario to take on.
The Chiefs are no stranger to playing higher-classed competition, as the strong 1A program (2012 state champs) already has trouble with filling a 10-game schedule under the current system.
Last year, the Chiefs competed against three 6A teams and one 4A team.
Those four games alone would have generated a combined 15 qualifying points for the Chiefs, as the FHSAA awards one point for each class a team jumps with a cap of four points.
But the flip side for the Chiefs is not having the structure of a district, which means a lot of Class 1A teams in the region might shy away from playing the traditionally-tough Chiefs.
“The first thing that jumps out to me is no districts, that’s uncharted waters for us,” Wheatley said. “There’s pros and cons to our situation. Scheduling has always been difficult, but there is a benefit to playing higher classes. At the same time, you can’t overload yourself with that (higher-class competition). It comes down to roster depth. When your playing 5A and 6A schools, depth and injury is a concern. It’s a tricky situation.”
Like Mincy and the Tigers, Wheatley hopes to keep close rivalries with Baker and Jay on the schedule.
“Those rival games are things that have really developed over the years,” Wheatley said. “All the kids and coaches really look forward to those. I’d like to keep the tradition, that would help us wipe out some of the open spaces on our schedule.”
The FHSAA will reconvene in September to address the new format and could vote to approve the changes for the 2017 football season.
Breaking down the proposal
The FHSAA’s new proposal for high school football playoffs has a ton of moving parts. Here are the bullet points:
New format would eliminate districts, meaning no more district champion or runnerups
New format would feature four regions in eight classifications (Classes 8A-1A)
Regions will be broken up based on geographical location of teams in each class
Playoff qualifiers will be selected from each region based on point percentage after Week 11
Power rating system explained
Teams will earn points based on opponents’ record and if you win or lose
System will reward winning and strength of schedule
Must play a minimum of 8 games to be eligible for playoffs
Bonus points for playing teams in higher classifications (1 point for one class above; 2 points for two classes above and so on, capped at 4 bonus points)
Opponents will fit in one of four categories and your team will gain points based on those categories:
Category 1 — Opponent wins more than 80 percent of their games, you receive 50 points for a win over them; 35 points for a loss to them.
Category 2 — Opponent wins at least 60 percent of games but not more than 79 percent, you receive 45 points for a win; 30 points for a loss
Category 3 — Opponent wins at least 40 percent of their games but not more than 59 percent, you receive 40 points for a win; 25 points for a loss
Category 4 — Opponent wins less than 39% of their games, you receive 35 points for a win, 20 points for a loss.
How it would have looked
Here’s a breakdown of how the playoffs in Region 1-6A would have looked under the new playoff proposal:
Top eight seeds would have been: Niceville, Navarre, Tate, St. Augustine, Pine Forest, Nease, Escambia and Choctaw
First round matchups — 1. Niceville vs. 8. Choctaw; 2. Navarre vs. 7. Escambia; 3. Tate vs. 6. Nease; 4. St. Augustine vs. 5. Pine Forest