Todd Helmick

It finally has happened. After nearly two decades of debates, voting procedures, meetings and red tape, the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association (MPSSAA) has officially approved a new high school football playoff system.

Instead of 16 teams making the playoffs, there will now be 32 teams making the playoffs. Instead of a 10-game regular season schedule, there will now be a nine-game regular season schedule. But there is an extra round added to the playoffs so every school is still guaranteed 10 games to play — even for schools that do not make the playoffs. The new format starts now with the upcoming 2019 fall season.

The MPSSAA had their spring meeting in Ocean City on Friday to take a final vote on whether this new system would become official. It passed with an overwhelming 47-4 approval.

Mike Calhoun, MPSSAA Football Committee director, said after the Ocean City meeting that this playoff change has been a long process and a great deal of hard work. Many, including Calhoun, felt this was a historical vote for Maryland athletics. He credits MPSSAA Director Andy Warner for having to put in an enormous amount of time and effort. Andy had to discuss with and convince the Finance Committee, the Classification Committee, the Executive Board and push it through the Board of Control Meetings to see the new format come to fruition.

How the playoffs will work

Keep in mind, most aspects from the previous format are still the same. This new format is just an expansion on the number of teams.

Again, 32 teams will now make the postseason playoffs instead of 16. The same four region setup will continue to be used (North, South, East and West). The difference is that the top eight teams from each region will now make the playoffs instead of just four. Those teams and their seedings will be determined by the same point system that has always been used. There are no changes to the point system, which awards points based on how many teams you beat and how good those teams are that you beat.

There will now be five rounds of playoff games instead of the previous four rounds. Because of this, the regular season, which used to be 10 games will now be cut back to nine games. So in short, the regular season gets cut back one game but the postseason adds another game.

Locally what this means, for example, is that the annual Allegany vs. Fort Hill Homecoming game that ends the regular season for both schools will now be bumped up a week earlier. Oddly enough, in 2020, the Homecoming game will now be on Halloween.

The next week starts the playoffs. The No. 8 seed in each region will play on the road at the top seed in their respective region. The No. 7 seed will travel to the second seed and so on down the line. The second week of the playoffs will still be another regional match up with the highest remaining seed hosting the lowest seed remaining. After this second week of playoffs there will be two teams left standing in each region. They will be declared regional co-champs.

So in this new format, after the second playoff round we have two regional co-champs from each of the four regions which leaves eight teams still standing. The MPSSAA takes those eight teams remaining and throws them all into one big group and reseeds them based on their regular season point totals. The higher seed will continue to play home games the next two weeks until the state championship, which will still be played in Annapolis. This is no different than what the MPSSAA has done since 2003. Except, instead of reseeding the final four teams, they will reseed the final eight teams. Notice this is not much different than taking 16 teams and seeding them without regions like they do in West Virginia.

Locally, what this also means, for example, is that both Allegany and Fort Hill can be declared regional co-champs and then move on into the final eight. Yes, Allegany and Fort Hill can now play each other in the state championship game or semifinals if the seedings work out and they both continue to win.

What happens with the teams that had tough seasons and did not make the 32-team playoff field? They get split into what will be called an Open Bracket and they will all play each other in a separate competition. More on that later. So everyone is guaranteed 10 games even though the regular season has been cut to nine games.

The pros and cons to this set-up are vast. So many of us have been extremely hard on the MPSSAA for the decisions they make. But this one is a winner. What had to be realized by the stubborn folks of the world was that Maryland was never going to do away with the regional system that limited travel and cost.

What is most important is that teams should not be afraid to schedule tougher competition because essentially everybody makes the playoffs now. There is no more fear of having a 7-3 or 8-2 season and getting left out of the playoffs. Everyone, and I mean everyone, big and small, good and bad, has been trying to schedule their team into the playoffs by avoiding good competition. 

For those that feel too many teams make the playoffs now, well football was the only sport where everybody doesn’t make the playoffs. The participation world has changed. The MPSSAA got this one right and it was a very long time coming. You can’t please everybody. That is why it took so long to finally move to a new playoff format. This arduous process only mirrors what we deal with in all of American society. If 95 people want one thing, the fact that five other people don’t usually means we can’t have it. Kudos to the MPSSAA for making a decision and following it through.

Todd Helmick is a former Fort Hill High School and Florida State University football player. He is the owner of the college football Website NationalChamps.net and his radio show can be heard on Baltimore FOX Sports 1370.

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