The annual muddled mess called the TSSAA football playoff selection process is in full swing with Friday night’s regular season finales set to settle things once and for all — maybe.
Since its inception in 2009, the TSSAA Z-plan was billed as a fairer way of determining postseason participants. It has drastically reduced the number of sub-.500 teams making the playoffs, but it has also caused havoc every year with the teams which were selected.
In its initial season, the brackets were announced via a radio broadcast and the Internet, causing a firestorm of angry emails and phone calls across the state questioning the seedings.
Two hours later the TSSAA pulled the brackets back off the board and had to redo them to correct several errors, one of which had a 1-9 White County team seeded ahead of a 3-7 Cleveland High squad. Yes, a few teams with losing records did still make the lists that first year.
Some coaches, who had already traveled many miles to exchange game films with their first listed opponents, had to retrieve them and meet up with their new opponent’s coaches.
In 2010, Cleveland won the District 5-AAA title, but was a No. 6 seed in its eight-team Class 5A quadrant, while Bradley Central was the district runner-up but earned a No. 1 seed in Class 6A. For the second straight year the Blue Raiders had to make the more than 350-mile round trip to south Central Tennessee for opening round games (Columbia 2009, Lawrence County 2010).
Also that year Polk County and Tyner were pitted against each other in the opening round of the 3A playoffs, despite both having won their respective districts, and were state ranked all season in the Associated Press polls.
The following fall (2011), Cleveland won its regular season finale to finish 5-5, and, according to the format, needed just two of 14 other teams to win for the Raiders to be in the postseason. Instead, all 14 lost, although 10 other .500 squads advanced, leaving the Raiders out in the cold.
Last year, not only did Bradley and McMinn County end up playing each other on back-to-back Fridays in the regular season finale and opening round of the playoffs, but after being upset by a 1-8 Rhea County team, Cleveland thought its postseason hopes were gone, only to find out the next day it made the brackets, but then, just like Lucy always does to Charlie Brown, the TSSAA pulled the ball away just as the Raiders were ready to kick it.
“We left out last night thinking we were out of it (the playoffs), then this morning we find out we were in. Now I have to tell the team we’re not in it,” expressed an exasperated coach Ron Crawford on that infamous Saturday. “Our hearts were broken last night, then we were excited to be in, and now they’re broken again.”
The stunned first-year Raider coach had already exchanged film with Columbia when the rug was pulled out from under his team again. Instead of the Raiders, which got in due to a clerical error, it was Sullivan South who would make the even longer drive from Kingsport to Columbia (640 miles round trip) on the TSSAA’s dime, to prevent a complete redrawing of the 5A quadrants.
To add insult to injury, one of the 5-5 teams that made the playoffs ahead of the Raiders was Walker Valley, which Cleveland had defeated 56-28 during the regular season, but head-to-head is not one of the 16 criteria used as a tiebreaker.
This time around Cleveland has “Left No Doubt,” it will be in the playoff picture after knocking off previously 5-AAA unbeaten Ooltewah last Friday to move from seventh in the state poll to fifth, while the Owls dropped from third to sixth.
Having wrapped up their regular season a week early (due to drawing a Week 10 bye) Coach Crawford’s crew is sitting at 7-3 overall and 5-1 in district play, with a shot at the 5-AAA championship if archrival Bradley can upset eighth-ranked East Hamilton on Friday.
The Raiders’ fate could have them anywhere from being a district champ and No. 2 seed in their quadrant, to being a wild card team that could be seeded as low as sixth, depending on Friday night’s results in upper East Tennessee and on the Cumberland Plateau.
While the not knowing is what drives coaches and fans nuts, it’s also part of what makes it exciting — like the March Madness pairings announcements in college basketball.
Over the summer the TSSAA Board of Control voted down a proposal to revert back to the old five-classification system, but there is obviously a better system is out there somewhere.
I didn’t like the old region setup because of the travel involved for league games, plus there was much less interest in games against William Blount and Maryville Heritage for Bradley fans, than there is for games against Ooltewah, Cleveland and Walker Valley. This year the Bears’ played six games in Bradley County, three in Hamilton County and one in Polk County. The longest road trip was to Hixson.
In my opinion, football should be done like the majority of the other sports — three classifications. Since only one game a week can be played (unlike other sports that can play every day and therefore all teams make the postseason), the 16 district champs and 16 wild card teams (which could be based on the current 16-point tie-breaker) could advance to the playoffs.
I don’t think that plan will draw much support at the TSSAA offices though, as it would cut the organization’s revenue (50 percent of the gate at all playoff games across the state) in half.
While I’m throwing in my two cents worth, I am also in favor of the movement gaining momentum across the state to separate ALL private schools from public schools district competitions. They, too, can be divided by enrollment into classifications and be allowed to play public schools in nondistrict games, but battle for their own state championships, like some already do.
There are currently seven private schools listed in the AP state poll in classifications 1A-3A, with two — CPA (3A) and Grace Christian (2A) — being No. 1 in their divisions.
Like my wise old dad has always said, “I’ve got the answers to all the world’s problems, but nobody’s asking me the questions.”
Joe Cannon is the assistant sports editor of the Banner and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.