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Football playoffs expanding

Salem football coach Ron Johnson huddles with Quakers Isaac Turnbull (66), Cooper Gottschling (58) and Cody McElfresh (53) last fall on the way to a Division IV state playoff berth. (Special to the Journal/Gary Leininger)

COLUMBUS — The Ohio high school football playoffs are expanding in the 2021 season and will include nearly half of all teams.

“I’m not a fan of it at all,” Salem coach Ron Johnson said. “I was involved back when there was two, then four and eight (from each region). I think there will be a lot of unqualified teams in the playoffs and a lot of uneven games.”

The Ohio High School Athletic Association Board of Directors voted unanimously Wednesday to expand the football playoffs from eight schools per region to 12 beginning in the 2021 season. The 9-0 vote was given to a recommendation from the OHSAA staff, which was based on a proposal from the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association.

“I have mixed feelings,” said South Range coach Dan Yeagley, who has guided the Raiders to 16 playoff berths. “If you’re sitting there in 9, 10, 11 or 12, it’s a good thing. There were times we got in at 7 or 8 and I didn’t feel like we belonged to get in.”

During the first round of the playoffs, the top four seeds will have a bye, while the No. 12 seed will play at the No. 5 seed, No. 11 at No. 6, No. 10 at No. 7 and No. 9 at No. 8.

“I would never want a bye,” Johnson said. “If I was a top four team that worked hard all year, you earned the right to have another home game in front of your fans.”

Johnson has guided the Quakers to the state playoffs three of the last five seasons.

“A lot of the times you want to keep playing and keep the momentum,” he said. “We are all creatures of habit. When you do that (a bye), it kinds of throws a wrench in the works.”

The higher seeded teams will host playoff games during the first and second rounds.

“(The bye) is going to affect the top four in each division,” Johnson said. “I wish they would have some kind of thing, if you’re a top four, you could have a chance to play in the first round. If you wouldn’t want the bye, that would bump to No. 5 and so on. There are a lot of teams that would take the option to play the next week.”

Johnson said it could be compared to the way basketball draws were held and teams placed themselves on the board to play an extra game early rather than have a couple of weeks off.

“By that time of year, you’re kind of practiced out,” he said.

Only 26 of the 96 first-round playoffs games in 2019 were decided by eight points or less.

“If you’re good enough to be in, you should be in,” Yeagley said. “I think there are going to be games that aren’t going to be very good games.”

In the second round beginning in 2021, the No. 1 seed will play the winner of the 8 vs. 9 game; the No. 2 seed will play the winner of 6 vs. 11; the No. 3 seed will play the winner of 7 vs. 10 and the No. 4 seed will play the winner of 5 vs. 12.

The expansion will increase the number of football playoff qualifiers from 224 to 336. Last year there were 709 schools in Ohio that played 11-man football.

That means 47.4% of the teams will qualify for the playoffs in 2021, up from 31.6% last fall.

Football is the only OHSAA team sport in which not every school qualifies for the postseason.

“We still have details to work out regarding the format and specific season dates, but this vote by the board gives us the green light to finalize those details for 2021,” said Beau Rugg, senior director of officiating and sport management for the OHSAA and the Association’s football administrator. “We are thankful for the board’s support on this proposal, which will bring all the great things of playoff football to 112 additional schools and communities.”

Rugg said the football finals in 2021 are expected to end during the same weekend as previously scheduled (Dec. 2-5). Schools will still be permitted to play 10 regular-season contests.

The status of the 2020 football season and whether students will return to classes this fall is still not known because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m just hoping that it works out and we’ll get to play,” Yeagley said. “If we do play, it’s going to be different.”

“I think things are progressing very fast and changes are happening quickly,” Johnson said. “I believe we’re going to be playing in the fall.”

If so, the first Friday night football game will be Aug. 28 with the playoffs starting Nov. 6.

The OHSAA football playoffs began in 1972 when only 12 schools qualified for the playoffs (four schools in each of three classes). Expansion first came in 1980 when the OHSAA changed to five divisions with eight teams each (40 total qualifiers). A sixth division was added in 1994 (96 total qualifiers) and the number of qualifiers was increased to eight schools per region in 1999 (192 total qualifiers). A seventh division was added in 2013 to bring the number of qualifiers to 224.

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