Pennsylvania football is known for two things: Annually producing some solid teams/players and annually using an unbalanced state playoff format.
Simply put, the state playoffs mean different things to different teams. And for some teams, the games aren't necessarily harder - or more meaningful - as the tournament plays out.
Confused? You should be.
Here's the background:
Pennsylvania divides the state into 12 geographical districts (Districts 1-12), each of which is divided into four enrollment-based groups (Class A, Class AA, Class AAA and Class AAAA).
District champions advance to the state playoff.
This seems to make sense - until you learn how the districts are divided.
Take a look at Quad A in Western Pa.:
Pennsylvania schools competing in football, grouped by district and classification (numbers of schools in each district in parentheses):
District 1 (73)
District 2 (36)
District 3 (94)
District 4 (34)
District 5 (13)
District 6 (46)
District 7 (123)
District 8 (9)
District 9 (26)
District 10 (44)
District 11 (47)
District 12 (44)
District 7 - locally known as the WPIAL - is the largest district in the state with 123 total schools, 25 of which compete in Quad A. Of those 25, only the top 16 advance to the postseason. And even though this traditionally is the strongest district in the state - only one of those 16 earns a quarterfinal berth in the state tourney.
District 8 - the nearby Pittsburgh City League - has just nine schools. Total. Of those, five compete in Quad A, with four making the postseason.
Other nearby districts - 6, 9 and 10 - combine to have only six Quad A teams, four of which make the postseason.
The best of the bunch from Districts 6, 8, 9 and 10 also earn a quarterfinal berth - and usually a beating from the District 7 champ.
"Looking at our brackets, they may not reflect where the quality is but they try to take into account quantity," Brad Cashman, the PIAA Executive Director said.
Actually, they reflect geography.
Just take a look at the final four. One always comes from District 1 (which is made up of schools from the schools east of Philadelphia). Another always comes form District 3 (which is the Harrisburg area). Those champions, in fact, are placed straight into the semifinal round.
A third team always is the best of districts, 2, 4, 11, and 12 - and represents the Philadelphia Public League, Catholic League, and Delaware Valley schools.
The fourth is from the West, a distinction that has been earned by the WPIAL champ in every all but four years since 1988.
The setup leads to often odd series of games. For instance, the eventual WPIAL champ usually has easier games in the state quarters and semis than it did to advance to the tournament.
As odd as may seem, there isn't a rush to change it. Even from the WPIAL. For those teams, the biggest game often is the District 7 championship, an event staged at Heinz field and played on local television.
The games that follow are played before much smaller crowds at high-school venues. Because of it, Pennsylania is left with a most unusual distinction:
It's the only state where a district final can have more excitement than a state final.
With that, a look the favorites in the four classes:
BREAKING DOWN THE FIELD
DISTRICT FAVORITES District 1: Folsom Ridley, 10-0
District 2: Williamsport High, 7-3
District 3: Harrisburg High, 8-2
District 4: Does not have Quad A teams
District 5: Does not have Quad A teams
District 6: State College High, 4-6
District 7: Pittsburgh Central Catholic, 10-0
District 8: Pittsburgh Perry Academy, 9-1
District 9: Mill Hall Central Mountain, 5-5
District 10: Erie Strong Vincent, 4-5
District 11: Easton High, 9-1
District 12: Wyndmoor LaSalle, 9-1
Reality check: The state has no fewer than eight teams with a legitimate chance to win the state title. The problem is that many of them will be eliminated much before the state semifinal. However, the potential exists for one of the most balanced final fours in recent memory in the state if some of the favorites from each region make it. Since Pennsylvania uses the "District Champion only" mentality for many of its sports, there is no outcry for change but that has not stopped tinkering from happening in recent years. This year's field, as confusing as it may be, is pretty fair.
Don't be surprised: If a team from the WPIAL is in the final. Since 1988 there has been a District 7 team in the final every year except four ('91, '99, '00, '09). This year it could be Pittsburgh Central Catholic, Wexford North Allegheny, or Pittsburgh Woodland Hills.
The Sleeper: Is it possible to be a defending state champion and still be a sleeper pick? If so, then look out for Philadelphia Catholic League favorite, LaSalle, to make a run back to the title game. There are just a couple of teams that would stand in its way but if the team wins this week, it is just two games from the final so some of those teams will be out of the way already.
X-factor: The Harrisburg region. There are some very good teams creeping up in the region and while many of them have not been able to dethrone the WPIAL teams, it is not out of the realm of possibility for that to start happening. This year, Harrisburg High, Dallastown, Wilson West Lawn and Cumberland Valley could all make noise.
Prediction: Again, it looks like it will be a showdown of the two powers in the state, the WPIAL champ and the Philly Catholic League champ. If the seeds hold and the favorites both make it, look for Pittsburgh Central Catholic and LaSalle to square off in Hershey. If that is the case, the Central Catholic defense will rule the day and the Vikings will hoist the title.
BREAKING DOWN THE FIELD
DISTRICT FAVORITES District 1: Wallingford Strath Haven, 9-1
District 2: Dallas, 10-0
District 3: Harrisburg Bishop McDevitt, 8-2
District 4: Selinsgrove, 6-4
District 5: Does not have AAA teams
District 6: Johnstown High, 9-1
District 7: Jefferson Hills Thomas Jefferson, 9-1
District 8: Does not have AAA teams
District 9: Punxatawny High, 10-0
District 10: Grove City High, 10-0
District 11: Pottsville High, 9-1
District 12: Warminster Archbishop Wood, 10-0
Reality check: The AAA bracket is as wide open as any in the state. There are legitimate teams coming out of every district and that will make for a very entertaining tournament. There are plenty of high profile players in this bracket as well. The final four teams in this bracket could likely compete in Quad A this year and that is not something that is generally accepted in Pennsylvania but with teams like Bishop McDevitt, Archbishop Wood and Thomas Jefferson, it is more fact than fiction.
Don't be surprised: If the Philadelphia Catholic League sends another team to the final. Archbishop Wood is looking like a team that could compete nationally let alone locally. It will be tested in the state quarterfinals, semis and finals if it is to win and that would add a number of good wins. It may not have the toughest road to get there, but the path is far from paved in gold.
The Sleeper: Having one of the best players in the state, junior running back Rushel Shell, makes Hopewell a team to reckon with in the WPIAL. If the team can get by Thomas Jefferson this week it will be gaining confidence at the right time. Shell has been a one-man wrecking crew this year but has been dinged with injuries. At 6-4 Hopewell may not look like much, but this team can keep up with any team out there.
X-factor: District 11 could make its presence felt in AAA. Allentown Central Catholic and Pottsville are both very solid teams and making a run to the state title would not be a shock to anyone. Whichever team wins that game next week will have a relatively easy road as District 2 will likely not present much of a challenge and Districts 4,6,9 will take care of itself. A semifinal game with the District 12 winner will be a slugfest.
Prediction: Eastern Pennsylvania fans may be close to penciling this class title as a win for that side of the state. It looks like the best teams are all on the right side of the bracket. There are dangerous but inconsistent teams from the Western half of the state, but guessing which team will get hot and make a run is tough. The pick here is Archbishop Wood knocking off Bishop McDevitt. The real state title may be the semifinal if Allentown Central Catholic makes it.
BREAKING DOWN THE FIELD
DISTRICT FAVORITES District 1: Teams compete in District 12
District 2: Wilkes-Barre G.A.R, 9-1
District 3: Lancaster Catholic, 10-0
District 4: Bloomsburg, 8-2
District 5: New Paris Chestnut Ridge, 8-2
District 6: Ligonier Valley, 9-1
District 7: Beaver Falls, 9-1
District 8: Pittsburgh Oliver, 4-6
District 9: Brookville, 8-2
District 10: Edinboro General McLane, 9-1
District 11: Slatington Northern Lehigh, 10-0
District 12: Philadelphia West Catholic, 9-2
Reality check: Of the four classes, Double A is by far the worst. It would be no surprise if the Single A state winner would also win Double A this year. The positive way to spin it would be to say that it is wide open or balanced, but that is sugarcoating how bad this class is.
Don't be surprised: To see a WPIAL team win the state title. The simple reason is that it will be the most battle tested and will have seen the "best" this bracket has to offer. The trio of Aliquippa, Beaver Falls and South Fayette may be the three best remaining teams in the bracket and only one will see two more weekends.
The Sleeper: The winner of District 3 could be a potential title stealer. With teams like Lancaster Catholic, Littlestown, Trinity and Delone Catholic all providing enough quality on the field to make a run, it could be the sleeper district in the tournament.
X-factor: How wide open District 4 is. It is one of the hardest to predict in the state with seven of its eight qualifying teams checking in with records of 8-2 or better. Between Danville, Wyalsung Valley, North Penn, Lewisburg, Bloomsburg and Towanda, it may be the deepest district and easily the hardest to predict.
Prediction: A WPIAL title. Book it. Which team it will be is yet to be determined, but the teams coming out of the WPIAL will be the better team in the bracket and without a real challenge from the District 8-9 winner to get to the semifinal and a weak District 5/6, 10 team to beat in the semifinal, the team from Western Pa. should be well rested for the final against a team that will have to slug it out in the Eastern side of the bracket.
BREAKING DOWN THE FIELD
DISTRICT FAVORITES District 1: Morrisville, 7-3
District 2: Taylor Riverside, 9-1
District 3: Reading Holy Name, 9-1
District 4: Catawissa Southern Columbia, 8-2
District 5: Loysburg Northern Bedford, 10-0
District 6: Clymer Penns Manor, 8-0
District 7: Clairton High, 10-0
District 8: Does not have Single A teams
District 9: St. Marys Elk County Catholic, 7-2
District 10: Erie Mercyhurst Prep, 10-0
District 11: Blue Mountain Schuylkill Haven, 8-2
District 12: Teams compete in District 1
Reality check: The state title game could be played either in the semifinal round or in the District 7 final this year. The Eastern side of the state does not seem to be very deep in the Single A, level but the WPIAL and Erie area teams are quite dangerous this year. The best team in the state will come from Clairton, Rochester, Mercyhurst Prep and Farrell. And only two of those teams can even make the state quarterfinals.
Don't be surprised: If the state title game is a runaway win for the Western side of the state. The East just doesn't appear to be well equipped to make a title run. Southern Columbia could make a surprise run to to the semifinal or even the title game, but the winner of District 3/6 will not win the state.
The Sleeper: There isn't really a sleeper to point to. The best four teams are fairly clear and each has a clear collision course with the other. If there were to be an upset it may come from the District 9 winner, likely Elk County Catholic, knocking off Mercyhurst or Farrell because it will be coming off a very physical game. District 5 is not strong enough to beat either Rochester or Clairton, even though that game will be a war.
X-factor: Can the WPIAL teams keep their edge? After battling one another at Heinz Field on Thanksgiving weekend for the title, will Rochester or Clairton be as excited to go play at a high school field for the next three weekends? Complacency shouldn't be an issue as both teams are very prideful, but that is why it is the X-factor. Winning the WPIAL could be more important than winning state this year.
Prediction: The winner of Rochester and Clairton rolls to a state title. And wins the title game by 20-plus points. There doesn't appear to be a team that will stay within that of those two aside from the other. It is a fantastic rivalry game and one that should be a state title final not a qualifier to get to the official state playoffs.