The Unfair Case of Divisional Alignments in Ohio High School Football

Down in the small town of Chillicothe, Ohio, just off the highway, there sits a school that holds the only Tank mascot in the country. That’s high school, college, or pro. For four years this is where I played my high school football, my final season being just last year. But this isn’t about my playing history.

It’s about an unfair system that needs to be changed.

You see, Unioto High School has had football for 52 complete seasons.  And in 52 complete seasons, the Sherman Tanks have never been to the football playoffs.

That’s not to say there haven’t been some good seasons. In 1967, the U went 10-0. In 1981 they went 9-1 with their only loss coming on a failed fourth and goal play late in the fourth quarter. They got in neither of those years.

But the biggest travesty may have been 2014, when I was a junior and eight teams from each region got to go to the playoffs. We went 8-2. But we could have gone 9-1, it still would not have been enough to get in over the two 7-3 teams that came in seventh and eighth or even the 6-4 teams that were ninth and tenth.

Why? Because the OHSAA bases their divisional alignments solely on the male student body attending a school. We have 229 boys attending our high school, good for division four of seven in the state. Do you know how many of those boys play football? 29. That’s 13 percent participation, and I think most will agree not nearly enough players to compete with top end D-IV schools. But a D-VI school just up the road from us draws a participation of 43 percent with 52 out of 121 boys (numbers from OHSAA.org and chillicothegazette.com). And they beat us consistently, one of the reasons being the greater number of people to rotate in for fresh bodies.  

Why don’t we draw a lot of numbers to our football team? Some of it is laziness, but a lot of it has to do with the dominance of our other sports programs. We’ve won our conference all-sports banner 22 of the last 24 years. Our golf, cross country, basketball, and track programs dominate like Ohio State playing in the MAC. In my class the last four years, a ton of great receivers played cross country, three elite defensive backs played soccer, a lineman played golf, and another top-flight receiver decided to “focus on basketball”. Paint Valley, the school I mentioned from earlier, is dead last every fall in both golf and cross country. There’s nothing else for top athletes to do when the leaves change if they want to be a part of a winning program.

The other thing that makes this system flawed is the way the playoffs are scored by computers. Points stem from the divisional placements of the teams you beat and the teams they beat. So if you are stuck in a conference playing teams with student population densities the levels of which Alaska would be disappointed with (which can still turn out good teams when the kids actually come out) you can have a great season and get Lance Armstronged in the computer points.

In 2015, 8-2 Logan of Division II finished in tenth place while Lake at 6-4 finished in sixth place to get into the playoffs in Region five. In Region nine (division III), three different 7-3 schools finished behind Bishop Watterson for the final seed of eight. And in division IV’s Region eleven, 5-5 Ursuline finished fifth while 8-2 Firelands scraped by in eighth, yet 7-3 teams Streetsboro and Field missed the postseason (thanks to joeeitel.com for those rankings).

Quality of opponent should matter, yes. But does it account for two, even three games difference in record? No. If a team goes 8-2 and misses the playoffs they should be in a lower division, end of story. That isn’t right.

So, since this is just a rant without any proposal for a solution to the problem, here is what I think the division calculation system should look like:

  • 42.5 percent based on male student body (this should still be the number one factor due to a larger talent pool, but it should not be the only factor)
  • 32.5 percent based on average roster size over the previous five seasons (actual numbers, but not the largest factor since greater numbers don’t always equal greater talent)
  • 15 percent based on playoff appearances in the last ten seasons (if a school is never making the playoffs, they are in too high a division)
  • 10 percent based on the competition a school typically plays (this will help level the playing field of potential points for teams, but it should be the smallest factor with the smallest direct effect on team quality).

Does this sound complicated? Yes, but anything done right takes time to compute.

The other thing I like about this system is that it allows for more fluctuation between divisions, as you move up when you improve your overall team quality instead of when your school gets bigger. Some may argue that as a bad thing, but the greatest systems in the world are successful due to their ability to change with the times. I would point to the United State Constitution as a governmental example.

Is my system perfect? No. No system is, and I’m sure there’s a much better way to align schools than some biased eighteen year old’s angry musings. But there is definitely a way better system out there than what is currently in place.

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