By Tim Whyte
Other than the NFL, football has always had a weird way of choosing its champions and playoff teams.
In a sport where there’s a clear winner and loser at the end of each game, based on the scoreboard, we have playoff brackets that bear a greater resemblance to “judged” sports, like gymnastics or figure skating.
The college football playoff comes to mind: The top four teams that make the playoff are determined by rankings, not necessarily the actual standings or who wins which conference.
And here locally, we have something almost unbearably similar: the CIF Southern Section playoffs.
Historically, each high school football league was in a division. There would be four or five leagues in a division, and if you finished in the top three in your league, you were assured a spot in the playoffs.
Even then, there were “at large” bids in which a fourth-place team could sneak into the playoffs.
But a few years back, the CIF shuffled the deck. Now, schools are placed in divisions based not on their league, but their individual track record of strength and success (and, of course, subjective judgment).
The top three teams in each league are still assured of a playoff spot, although with leagues having teams playing in different divisions, I’m sure that involves an algorithm that would give Bill Gates a conniption.
Here in the Santa Clarita Valley, we have our own six-team league consisting of the six local public schools that play varsity football.
Except, those six schools are in five different divisions. Valencia, the perennial local powerhouse thanks to the fact that all of the valley’s best players take advantage of loose transfer rules so they can study Mandarin or whatever, is in Division 2 for purposes of playoffs.
I’m kidding, of course. Sort of.
Hart, the erstwhile local powerhouse, is in Division 4.
Saugus is in Division 5, Golden Valley is in Division 6, while Division 7 Canyon and West Ranch are the only local schools that share the same division.
If you’re not confused yet, stay with me. I’ll get you there.
This year, as is the norm, Valencia and its SCV all-star squad went 5-0 in league. They’re in the Division 2 playoffs.
Here’s where it gets murky.
Hart (6-4), West Ranch (8-2) and Golden Valley (8-2) finished in a three-way tie for second in the Foothill League with identical 3-2 league records.
Guess how they decided which ones got into the playoffs?
That’s right. A coin flip.
Might as well put a blindfold on each coach, spin him around three times and play pin the tail on the donkey.
Golden Valley, now fourth in the Foothill League thanks to the CIF slot machine, went 3-2 in league and 8-2 overall. But based on coin flips, they were out of the playoffs.
Saugus was fifth in league at 1-4 and 4-6 overall, so it’s no surprise that my Centurions are out of the playoff picture. Get ’em next year, boys.
And Canyon, bringing up the rear in the Foothill League at 0-5, and with a 2-3 nonleague record for an overall 2-8, sneaked into the playoffs.
It would make Ocean’s 11 proud.
There, on the outside looking in, is Golden Valley, 8-2 and not playing in the playoffs. One team, 8-2. The other, 2-8. And the 2-8 team gets in.
This is what stands for justice in the CIF?
As this is being written, the first-round games haven’t been played yet, but one thing is certain: Saugus, not deserving a playoff spot, didn’t get one. Canyon, also not deserving a playoff spot, got one — but I still wish them luck. The system isn’t their fault.
And Golden Valley, clearly deserving with an .800 winning percentage, was left out.
Observers mumbled some things about strength of schedule and whatnot, but that doesn’t address the central question. We’re still “ranking” teams based on subjective opinions and the football equivalent of Russian roulette.
Bring on the East German Olympic judges…
Even IF it’s a strength of schedule argument, the Foothill League is a murderer’s row. If strength of schedule counts, then that gauntlet — especially Hart, West Ranch and Valencia — should offset any cupcakes that were on the Golden Valley nonleague schedule.
In a sport with a scoreboard, there’s got to be a better way.
Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays. On Twitter: @TimWhyte.