October 19, 2010

Dallas Jackson is the Senior Analyst for RivalsHigh. Email him your question, comment or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.

The state of Indiana will begin its postseason tournament this weekend with the first round of the sectional playoffs.

And so will begin the most unique - or is it the most ridiculous? - playoff format in the country.

Every school - yes, all 314 teams playing 11-man football - qualify for the playoffs, meaning schools will have to win six games to claim one of the state's five class titles.

But that's just one of the issues.

The format itself renders the nine-game regular season completely meaningless. Not just because every team gets in (we can live with that), but because their records have no impact on their playoff schedule.

Indiana, you see, doesn't seed its teams and doesn't use records to determine home sites. Once teams are broken into one of eight geographical sections, their positions are based solely on the luck of the draw.

Two 0-9 teams could be paired against each other in one game while two 9-0 teams meet in another. A 9-0 team may have to travel to play a school that went 0-9. Seriously.

IHSAA Assistant Commissioner Bobby Cox likes the system. And he says if people have a problem with it, he's not hearing it.

"Every one of our sports is an 'all-in' playoff format," Cox said. "We are proud of our system and its uniqueness.

"Whether a team is 0-9 or 9-0 after the regular season a coach can tell his kids they just need to win six games to be state champions."

Really?

"It is just like it sounds," Cox said. "We have a bingo-style hopper and each team has its name on a ping-pong ball."

The format is rooted in basketball - for some, the only sport that really matters in Indiana.

The Indiana state basketball tournament is famously based on the blind-draw format. That tourney, in fact, didn't even divide the schools by size until recently.

In football, there is a little more sense of order. The schools, after all, are divided into five group sizes. And each group has eight sections based on geography.

Because of it, the state's three best teams in its highest class - RivalsHigh No. 29 Indianapolis (Ind.) Warren Central, No. 89 Carmel (Ind.) High and No. 93 Greenwood (Ind.) Center Grove, are placed in three different sections that can not meet until the semifinal round of the state tournament.

But the format doesn't prevent the two top teams in a section from meeting in the first round.

While this may seem odd to those outside the state (raise your hand if you agree), Cox said it isn't an issue within it.

"We have been doing this since 1985," Cox said. "We have discussed numerous times switching to seeding but our coaches can not get a significant majority. Half want seeding and half do not.

"Usually the coaches of good teams want seeding so they can beat up on a bad team almost like a bye week. The bad coaches like the random draw. If they would be the No. 8 team, they could get lucky, draw the No. 7 team and maybe get a playoff win."

Here's how it works:

The first-round games in the section level are determined by the blind draw. The team pulled out second of the blind draw gets the home field for the game - regardless of whether they had met previously in the season. The two schools can agree to switch the site.

The winners of the first-round games advance and whichever team was a road team in round one will be the home team in the second-round game. If both were home (or both away), then whichever team is listed second on the bracket becomes the home team.

To determine where the sectional championship is to be played, naturally, the team which played more away games gets to host.

The setup has led to some unusual matchups in Class 5A.

In section 5, Warren Central, the defending Class 5A champ and the top-ranked team in the state, plays 8-1 Indianapolis (Ind.) Lawrence Central in the opening round. Either 3-6 Indianapolis (Ind.) Perry Meridian or 2-7 Richmond (Ind.) High awaits the winner.

In section 4, Carmel, the state's No. 2 team overall, gets 1-8 Lafayette (Ind.) McCucheon in the opening round but likely will face 8-1 Fishers (Ind.) High in the second round and then 8-1 Fishers (Ind.) Hamilton Southeastern to leave the sectionals.

In section 7, Center Grove, which has only lost to Carmel and Warren Central this season, opens against the team with the best record in the section, 8-1 Columbus (Ind.) Columbus East.

Because of the way the regional and state tournament is set up, these three top teams won't face each other until the state semis. As it should be.

And some will say any tournament where three of the four best teams meet in the Final Four is just fine.

"There is no strong push from anyone in the state to change it," Cox said. "I don't think we will switch to even seeding the No. 1 and No. 2 teams on opposite sides and the drawing from there."

The only potential change, it seems, would come if Indiana has seven more schools play football. That would necessitate a change to six class sizes.

"If we had to do that, it could get messy," Cox said.

Like it already isn't.

MORE: IHSAA Sectional Brackets | HickoryHusker.com coverage of Indiana high school sports



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