Guggisberg: Kansas high school football playoff system needs work

By Grant Guggisberg

When it comes to KSHSAA’s district and playoff system for football, there’s a lot to dislike.

Each team is placed in a four-team district dictated mostly by geography, making some teams travel great distances while others play teams in their own backyard. But travel is part of the game, and teams that do it the most are often fairly good at it.

That’s not my gripe.

My issue centers around Class 6A District 7.

The grouping includes Wichita Northwest, typically a decent team, combined with Wichita North, Wichita South and Campus, three teams that finished with a combined 3-24 record this season and were all three winless before they began playing each other at the start of Week 7.

Not only does this scenario serve up back-to-back District 7 championships for Northwest, but it admits at least one undeserving team into the playoffs by default. For each of the past two years, that team has been a one-win Wichita North squad. Last year’s version was promptly routed by Derby 70-7. This year’s version will likely fall by a similar margin to the same team.

In the case of Northwest, the district assignments for the next two seasons provide a small amount of justice. The Grizzlies join District 8 and take Maize’s spot, which includes games against Hutchinson, Dodge City and Garden City.

Though next year’s districts are not without their flaws. Junction City joins District 6 and will play Wichita East, Wichita North and Wichita South. I’d be willing to bet all the money I have that Junction City is the champion of that district the next two years. Meanwhile, District 5 loses Junction but adds Lawrence Free State, currently the No. 2 ranked team in Class 6A. The road to the playoffs gets that much tougher for Manhattan, and why? Because Manhattan High is 30 miles east of Junction City High? Explain how that’s fair.

As egregious as it is to admit a one-win team to the playoffs, the way the 16 playoff teams are seeded is even worse, with KSHSAA’s seeding criteria clearly out of whack.

The first bullet on the list, before considering overall record or schedule, is the team’s record in district play. That means Wichita Northwest, which finished 5-4 in the regular season but 3-0 in district play against lousy competition, was seeded ahead of both Topeka High (8-1) and Maize (7-2).

Seeding the bracket this way is wrong on a variety of levels.

The team it rewards most is seventh-seeded Garden City (6-3), which ends up playing an especially soft No. 2 seed in Northwest instead of the team with the second-best record, Topeka High, which lost a district game and was bumped because of it.

In the case of Manhattan, the system didn’t let them down too much, though among the top four seeds in the bracket, there’s no doubt Indian coaches would have liked to see a matchup with the Grizzlies.

The real issue here, is what system would work better?

I won’t pretend like I understand the nuances of scheduling football games. Travel budgets, among other things, complicate everything because it’s not equal for each team and league in Kansas. In the case of Manhattan, all of its road games are at least an hour away with the exception of Junction City. But for teams in the Wichita, Topeka and Kansas City areas, travel becomes a real concern.

A playoff system that focused less on geographical concerns and more on competitive balance would at least be fair for all teams. Sending a one-win team to the playoffs while Junction City (6-3), Washburn Rural (5-4) and Hutchinson (5-4) all stay home is wrong.

One fix to the system would be to eliminate district play altogether. If you adopted the model soccer came up with this year, all teams would be seeded 1-16 and get their chance to upset a top team and advance, but the teams with the most wins would have the advantage from the start, regardless of which teams in close proximity happen to be good at that time.

Of course, this system would add two regular-season games to the schedule with the elimination of district play, and would alienate some schools like Dodge City and Garden City, which have trouble scheduling games in the first place. But there is no perfect system.

Another idea thrown around would be to expand the districts. If you had six or eight-team districts, you’d have more games that count toward the playoffs and you’d be less likely to send a terrible team to the playoffs. Eight-man football in Kansas operates this way, and its playoffs always have good teams that advance

In the end, if there was a perfect system, it would probably already be in place. But that doesn’t mean the officials at KSHSAA and anyone else with the power to bring about change shouldn’t be searching for a new answer.

Fans at Wichita North might not be excited, but everyone else certainly will.

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