The Kentucky high school football playoffs began Thursday night. That is, officially, they began Thursday, but the real games don’t begin for another week. That’s because the first round of the playoffs each year matches the worst team from one district against the best team from another district across eight districts in six classifications.
Rarely are those matchups much to witness. Often the visiting 4-seed brings few fans. Many of the games can’t get a witness, except by the one seeds who have family and hardcore fans dedicated to watching their not-so-little Johnny’s – and a few Janes – pummel ruthlessly on the field the visitors who weren’t so interested in being there in the first place.
The point? Something must be done to alter this abomination of Kentucky high school football.
There will be those who will point to the few instances where one district is loaded with quality teams and so it would be unfair for that district’s No. 4 to not get a crack at pursuing its state title dreams. My counter is that 4-6 Edmonson County in Class 3A will sit home Friday night, while 2-8 Jackson County has earned a first-round trip to Estill County by virtue of being in a district with only four teams. Edmonson is in a 5-team district, but I venture to say it has a better football team than Jackson. Jackson beat Morgan County and Berea, which are teams with a combined 1-19 record. Edmonson beat Adair County – a district opponent – Caverna, Grayson County and Barren County. The Adair win was a good one. The other three teams have two wins combined, and, by the way, are in the playoffs in their respective classifications. (Barren beat Grayson, so the Trojans are a 3-seed. Grayson was winless in the district and the, therefor, the four.)
The first glaring issue is that there are not enough football programs to fill out six classifications evenly across the state. Especially when there are programs that do not play district schedules.
Let’s step back for a moment. Prior to 2007, the Kentucky High School Athletic Association had football in four classes. There was a push to expand the classifications. I do not recall the exact proposals, but at the time it seemed, to me, expanding to five classes could be justified. The student population expanse for schools in Class 1A and Class 4A was pretty wide. That meant that the largest 1A school could have as many as three or four times the student population of the smallest school.
Things have happened in the nine years since the classification expansion. The population centers in Kentucky, especially Northern Kentucky, Bowling Green and counties near Louisville and Lexington have continued to grow. Meanwhile, counties in Eastern Kentucky have lost population. This means new schools have opened in the growth areas and they have closed or consolidated in population decline areas.
By my count, 10 schools have closed since 2007, mostly because of consolidation. There have been seven schools that have opened either as brand new schools, or the result of the consolidations. Five schools opted to not play district football schedules for the 2016 season, which means they are not eligible for the playoffs. In total, by my rough math, there are eight fewer teams in 2016 than there were in 2007. Six of the seven new schools are in the top three classes. (Of note, the KHSAA also changed the formula by which in classifies schools. Formerly, it would take a school’s total population – boys and girls — and classify it by that. It would calculate double the population of the single-gender private schools, such as St. X or Trinity, to determine their classification. It now uses the total number of boys in a school to determine football classification.)
In Class 1A, two teams have first-round byes. Meanwhile, Berea, which is a five-team district, did not make the playoffs. They also did not win a game this season, so they are probably OK with not having to play an 11th game for the fun of it. (South Floyd and Caverna also did not win games, but they do play Friday night in the first round of the postseason.)
In Class 6A, there are three 3-team districts and three 5-team districts. In order to try to balance the playoffs so that there are not as many teams with first-round byes, the KHSAA shifts the fifth place teams in Districts 1, 3 and 4 to the fourth place slots in Districts 2, 5 and 6 for the playoffs.
All of this feels forced and convoluted. The basic reason for the three-team and five-team districts is geography. In order for teams to not have to travel long distances for district games, the KHSAA has devised the present scenario to cut down on regular-season travel.
Conversely, one complaint I have heard in recent years is that it is hard to schedule games. Prior to the six classification setup, there were 5 to 8 teams in each district. That meant at least half of a team’s schedule would be district games. That left only 4 or 5 games to schedule outside of the district. With there being only four classes, there were some geographic challenges which caused disparity in district sizes. One 3A district had nine teams, while another had only four. Four teams went to the playoffs, which probably influenced how things are now set up.
Some would suggest going back to four classes for football. I prefer five. That would give each class about 44 football playing schools. Then each district would have 5 or 6 teams. The key would be to set a rule where each district must have a minimum of five teams. Without such a rule, the dual present issue of too many meaningless regular season games and meaningless first-round playoff games would not be fixed. Further, change the number of teams that qualify for the playoffs from 4 to 2. (But if everyone is committed to four teams, at least teams would have to win their way into the postseason.)
James Brown is Digital Director for Commonwealth Broadcasting. He is also the host of the Glasgow-based Brown Sports Bag show each Monday at 4 p.m. on ESPN 1450 AM. He is a long-time sports writer working for newspapers in Kentucky and Mississippi. Follow him on Twitter @JBrownESPNKY