High School Football

Fed up with predrawn brackets? Idaho testing computer formula to seed state playoffs

The best plays of the 2017 Treasure Valley football season

The top high school football plays from the Boise, Idaho, area during the 2017 season. Music: "What Dreams Become" by Audiobinger. From the Free Music Archive. CC BY.
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The top high school football plays from the Boise, Idaho, area during the 2017 season. Music: "What Dreams Become" by Audiobinger. From the Free Music Archive. CC BY.

Idaho high school sports have taken a first step toward a new world.

The state’s activities association finalized a plan Wednesday to use computer rankings to seed the 2018 2A football playoffs, a break from Idaho’s tradition of using brackets drawn before the season.

The change allows Idaho to dip its toe into a fate many surrounding states have embraced. Washington, Oregon, Colorado and Arizona all use computer rankings to seed at least some of their state tournaments.

“It’s uncharted territories, uncharted waters,” said Tim Perrigot, a board member of the Idaho High School Activities Association. “It might be the greatest change in our system, or we might be back to right where we’re at today. We’ll find out.”

The change is limited to 2A football and a tweak to 3A football. No other sports or classifications will use the rankings in the 2018-19 school year.

What’s the ranking system Idaho will use?

Idaho will follow in Colorado’s footsteps, using that state’s modified version of the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), a simple ranking popularized in college basketball.

The formula weighs a team’s winning percentage, the winning percentage of its opponents and the winning percentage of its opponents’ opponents into a single score.

Margin of victory is not a factor in the formula, so teams have no incentive to run up the score.

In theory, the formula rewards teams that play in a stacked conference or face a tough nonconference schedule with a higher score.

Why the change?

The predrawn brackets led to yearly howls about matchups and teams left out of the postseason. For example, Wendell (0-7) and Soda Springs (1-7) made the 2A playoffs last season, while Ririe (5-3) did not. Ririe beat Soda Springs 26-0 in Soda Springs during the regular season.

At least one winless or one-win team has made the 2A playoffs each of the past three years. Using RPI to determine the final three playoff berths should end that streak and would make every game more meaningful.

“By seeding it, it makes every game important,” said Dwight Richins, the IHSAA board member who led the RPI charge. “Non-league games are going to be part of your RPI. Every game is valuable to you.”

How will it affect the playoffs?

The 2A playoffs won’t use a fully RPI-seeded bracket just yet. Thirteen of the 16 teams still automatically earn their way into the postseason via their conference standings. The next three highest-ranked teams in the RPI claim the final three spots.

A committee of representatives from each district will then determine the first-round matchups using the RPI rankings as a guide. Coaches are not allowed to join the committee.

To limit travel costs, the committee will break the state down into a Boise and Northern Idaho region (Districts 1-2 and 3) and an Eastern Idaho region (Districts 4, 5 and 6). Teams from Boise and Northern Idaho meet in the first round, while teams from Eastern Idaho face off in their own play-in round. Depending on who qualifies for the three at-large berths, cross-region matchups are possible.

The winners advance to the quarterfinals, where the regular-season RPI rankings set the pairings (No. 1 vs. No. 8, No. 2 vs. No. 7, etc.) regardless of first-round matchups or travel. Results from the first round of the playoffs will not count toward the RPI.

The IHSAA will not reseed after the quarterfinals, allowing the bracket to proceed as drawn.

So who automatically qualifies for the playoffs?

Here’s how the 13 automatic berths are split up, based on the final conference standings in each district.

The top two teams in the three-team northern Idaho region (District 1-2).

The top four teams in the six-team Boise region (District 3).

The top team in the two-team Twin Falls region (District 4).

The top three teams in the five-team Pocatello region (District 5).

The top three teams in the five-team Idaho Falls region (District 6).

The RPI only affects the three at-large berths and potential quarterfinal matchups.

Why isn’t this for every classification?

The IHSAA is taking it slow. Instead of fully embracing an RPI-seeded playoffs like Colorado, it will use the 2018 2A playoffs as an experiment. Richins said coaches in the 2A classification expressed the most interest in using RPI.

If it goes well, Richins said Idaho could expand its RPI seedings to the 3A classification in 2019 and possibly the rest of the state and other sports in 2020.

“It’s a one-year deal,” Richins said. “Then we’ll take the good, the bad and the ugly and revise it. And if there’s a big enough uproar, we’ll go back to the way we used to do it.”

What about 3A?

The 3A playoffs will remain largely the same in 2018: 11 automatic berths and one at-large team.

But instead of using the MaxPreps’ own computer rankings to decide the at-large berth, the 3A classification will use the RPI rankings to award its at-large berth in 2018.

How is this different from the past?

Idaho traditionally seeds the playoffs in every sport based on brackets drawn before the season. Those brackets seed teams by district finishes and try to ensure teams from the same conference don’t meet in the first round.

In football, which only plays once a week, it attempts to spread the travel costs around the state. West Side football coach Tyson Moser said his school spent $12,000 to travel to St. Maries for a 2A quarterfinal last fall. Avoiding sending teams across the state in back-to-back weeks remained one of the largest concerns for the IHSAA and that is why it will keep a regional structure to the first round of the playoffs.

How will teams know their RPI?

Richins said the IHSAA will publicize the rankings but hasn’t finalized how yet. He said the state will publish the results starting the fourth or fifth week of the season, likely on the state activities association website.

Idaho will require teams to upload their own scores to MaxPreps.com, and Richins said the latest rankings should be available by Saturday morning.

MaxPreps will calculate the RPI rankings, which are different from MaxPreps’ own computer rankings its displays on its site.

How does it handle cross-classification and out-of-state games?

Idaho will follow Colorado’s example and weight its games by classification. The weights increase by 15 percent for each classification. So a 2A win against a 3A team is worth 1.15 wins, for example. And a 3A win over a 2A team is worth 0.85 wins.

Out-of-state competition forces teams to use an abbreviated form of the RPI. Idaho teams will count the record of that out-of-state team in its opponents’ record column. But Idaho teams do not have to track every team that opponent has played. The opponents’ opponents’ record for those out-of-state teams will be .500 for simplicity’s sake.

Will this actually be better?

The IHSAA thinks so but remains cautious.

Colorado stands as the model Idaho is following. But it has hosted its own share of controversies.

In 2016, Colorado left an eight-win Doherty football team out of the 5A playoffs in favor of two three-win teams. And 9-1 Loveland, the defending state runner-up, missed the 4A playoffs the same year.

Colorado switched to a modified RPI after the season that puts more stock into what a team can control — its record. Its win-loss record accounts for 30 percent of the RPI, its opponents’ record 40 percent and its opponents’ opponents’ record 30 percent.

A traditional RPI weighs a team’s record as 25 percent of its score, its opponents’ record at 50 percent and its opponents’ opponents’ record at 25 percent. Washington has used that formula for basketball the past two years and is weighing expanding it to other sports.

Colorado’s adjusted formula would have put Doherty and Loveland in the playoffs, and Colorado did not have any major issues in 2017. Idaho will use Colorado’s modified formula.

“When you look at what they’re doing in Colorado, it’s working,” Perrigot said. “If something’s working, you steal it.”

But the adjusted formula doesn’t solve every problem. IdahoSports.com calculated the RPI rankings for every football and boys and girls basketball team this school year. Entering the 5A boys basketball state tournament, Borah held the No. 1 ranking ahead of No. 2 Rocky Mountain despite a 1-2 record against Rocky Mountain entering the tournament.

Moser said he knows Idaho’s first year using the RPI will lead to some unforeseen hurdles. But he maintains they’re better than the alternative — predrawn brackets.

“Any seeding and ranking system is never going to be 100 percent accurate,” Moser said. “We understand that. But there’s nothing more inaccurate than a predetermined bracket drawn up two years in advance.”

Michael Lycklama: 208-377-6424, @MichaelLycklama