Starting next season, eight teams will be pulled from the best of the big-school conferences to play in the first Open Division for the Arizona high school football playoffs.
The Arizona Interscholastic Association Executive Board during its monthly meeting on Tuesday unanimously passed the motion to start a landmark playoff format next season. Enacting it didn’t require having to go before Legislative Council.
It will be in the middle of the two-year scheduling block, but, based on criteria such as strength of schedule, at the end of the 2019 regular season, there will be eight teams chosen for the Open Division while each of the big-school conferences (6A, 5A, 4A) will still play a 16-team playoff.
The Open Division tournament champion will be considered the state champion to help cultivate a culture in which schools strive to be part of the Open Division playoffs, AIA Executive Director David Hines said.
“This would end the premise that we don’t want to know who wins the state championship before we play Week 1,” Hines said.
As it has always been, the teams that win the conference playoffs will be named conference champions.
Mesa Desert Ridge coach Jeremy Hathcock, whose 2015 team was the last 6A team to beat Chandler in the state playoffs since 2014, said he believes the conference champs should still be called state champs.
“We’re going to strive to be in the Open,” Hathcock said. “But if we’re not in the Open, we’re not going to cry. We’re going to win whatever we’re put in.”
Hathcock feels this is a great move by the AIA.
“I think it’s a good day for football in Arizona,” Hathcock said. “I’m proud of Arizona for addressing it.
“I think because of the way football is in sports now, it’s a different animal. We’re working on an old playoff system. Arizona is on the cusp of the way it might be done all over the country.”
Teams would still play in their respective 6A, 5A and 4A conferences during the regular season, before the best eight move onto the Open Division.
The eight teams will pulled out of the best from 6A, 5A and 4A through a computer rankings system. About 10-15 teams would be posted as part of the Open Division by the AIA each week starting Week 5.
Criteria for the computer rankings have not been determined. The board decided to table a motion to adapt an Arizona computer system that would put a 14-point cap as a point differential on game and factor in out-of-state games with strength of schedule for the February board meeting.
There is a chance that the 2018 6A, 5A and 4A champions – Chandler, Peoria Centennial and Scottsdale Saguaro – could all be playing for the same gold ball in the 2019 football season.
If the Arizona computer rating system that the AIA is promoting to use to determine the eight teams last year, a quarterfinal matchup would have pitted No. 7 Saguaro at No. 2 Centennial.
“There is going to be an interesting, competitive game every week,” Hines said. “When play down (in the 6A tournament), those games become more competitive.”
There would be a bye following the regular season for Open Division teams. Then after the semifinals, there would be another bye week. The AIA wants to have the Open Division, 6A, 5A and 4A championships played on the same week.
“I think it’s exciting,” Saguaro coach Jason Mohns said. “That’s our goal. We want to get to the Open Division. I think it’s important that they differentiate the Open with the divisions and call it the state championship.”
Tempe McClintock coach Corbin Smith says he is not a fan of the Open Division system.
“Someone will be left out and it takes away from the importance of the current playoff system that we have and being state champion of each division,” Smith said. “You can’t claim the division championship if another school in your division plays in the Open Division.
“We should be placing more importance on fixing the current divisions and come up with a method of placing other than just enrollment. Worry about that first before you worry about an Open Division.”