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New MHSAA football playoff point system met with skepticism

Brighton tight end Ben Anderson (34) rumbles down the sideline in the Bulldogs’ 7-6 home victory over Hartland on Sept. 10, 2021.
Dawn Lentz-Flowers
Dawn Lentz-Flowers
Brighton tight end Ben Anderson (34) rumbles down the sideline in the Bulldogs’ 7-6 home victory over Hartland on Sept. 10, 2021.

The way Michigan high school football teams qualify for the post-season has changed, and school officials wonder if moving from wins to points will work fairly.

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Greg Dolsen, the head football coach and assistant principal of Tecumseh High, is not a fan of the new MHSAA playoff point system for football. The change, modeled on the NCAA tournament seeding system by emphasizing strength of schedule and enrollment size, could hurt smaller teams with a history of poor performance.

Dolson would like to see more opportunities for all prep football teams.

“I am beside myself as to why the powers that be can’t (allow everyone to automatically make the playoffs) for football,” Dolson said. “I’m still not a fan of it because I don’t think it helps the lower-end teams at all.”

Tecumseh, a Division 4 high school in Lenawee County, has just over 700 students and is one of a myriad of smaller Michigan schools concerned about the potential ramifications of the new system.

The goal of reaching the playoffs may be further out of reach.

The new playoff point system, which was unveiled in 2019 but shelved in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, altered the old one that granted playoff eligibility to teams winning six or more games over a nine-game slate. Teams that could only schedule eight games could get in with five wins. The old system was implemented before the 1999 season.

The current system dictates that the top 32 teams (256 overall) with the most playoff points in each of the eight divisions qualify for the postseason. Unlike in years past, schools are grouped into divisions before the season begins based on enrollment size instead of on Selection Sunday.

Although the response to the system’s implementation has been criticized by some, the MHSAA is asking coaches and athletic directors to give the new system a chance.

Geoff Kimmerly, the MHSAA’s communications director, dismissed the notion that an oversight committee would be created by the organization to ensure that scheduling remained fair.

“Schools are in charge of scheduling all of their games in all of their sports,” he said. “We can’t go make anybody play anybody during the regular season...unless our schools as a whole ask us to take over football scheduling and do all of the scheduling, I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”

MHSAA Football Format

MSHAA football uses a different playoff qualification system than any other member girls and boys varsity sport.

Instead of chasing wins, schools are now engaging in a mad dash to schedule programs with long-standing historical success, since the new system rewards strength of schedule and beating teams with larger enrollment sizes.

The rewards go to teams who play up and win.

Brighton linebacker Cade Riddle (9) drags down Salem quarterback Robert Ahlgren (9) in its 44-7 road win on Sept. 2, 2021.
Dawn Lentz-Flowers
Dawn Lentz-Flowers
Brighton linebacker Cade Riddle (9) drags down Salem quarterback Robert Ahlgren (9) in its 44-7 road win on Sept. 2, 2021.

The MHSAA is cautioning member schools to be patient since the effects of the new system haven’t existed for a full season.

“I’m not sure how much of a difference it has made in scheduling, to be honest,” said Kimmerly. “It’s only been a year and three weeks.”

This system may prove to be problematic for a school like Tecumseh, which lacks in both enrollment and overall success (7-22 record since 2018). There is simply no incentive for Division 3 or 4 schools to schedule the Indians.

In 2020, the MHSAA decided to scrap the new system for a year and granted postseason eligibility to every participating school, a format that has been used for years in every other major varsity team sport.

Why not let everyone qualify?

For John Thompson, the athletic director for Brighton High School, the way forward is to allow everyone to qualify for the postseason.

“I think it's doable to have all people in football just like we do for other sports,” Thompson said. “Last year was a great example of that; if we were able to make it work last year, I’m not sure why we couldn’t make it work in the upcoming years too.”

Dolson agreed.

“Under the system, we had last year, everyone was playing with house money,” he said. “You could play whoever you wanted wherever you wanted because it didn’t matter, you were getting into the playoffs. Hell, I would’ve played Saline (a “marquee” program with 1,800 kids) 10 times.”

Both Tecumseh and Saline belong to the SEC (Southeastern Conference), a league consisting of two divisions based on enrollment size.

One crossover game a season is played between the larger Red division schools, who often have enrollments of over 1,500 students (Saline), and the smaller white schools, including Tecumseh.

Saline has made the playoffs in nine consecutive years and has not lost a conference game since 2013, a stretch of over 45 contests.

Tecumseh Athletic Director Jon Zajac has talked to other athletic directors around the state and said most of them were receptive to allowing all football programs to qualify for the playoffs.

“I know for me, and the ones I’ve talked to, most of them do like it,” he said. “I really can’t give an answer for other people, but I know for us, we would love it.”

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