Alternate Universe PIAA Playoffs: The Illinois System

We’ve all seen commercials for upcoming movies that begin with “In a world where [insert apocalyptic event].“. Today, let’s talk about a world where the PIAA adopted another state’s playoff system in order to crown its state football champions. We’re going to take all 550-plus football-playing schools in Pennsylvania and shove them into the process Illinois uses to determine its champions. Hopefully this serves as a fun thought experiment and exercise to consider the various components that make a state’s playoff system “good.”

Why not stick with the current PIAA system?

First, I’m not advocating for the PIAA to scrap its current setup. To begin with, it’ll never change. Period. And while the way we choose state champs and playoff participants is…well, kind of odd when you think about it, it is rooted in several decades of tradition at this point. But if you haven’t tried this yet, I encourage you to explain our state’s playoff procedure to an acquaintance from another state. It’s not as simple as it may initially seem. Our playoff system, which is dominated by 12 small kingdoms that are loosely associated and Frankensteined together each November and December, can lead to some difficult-to-explain scenarios to the uninitiated. In many states, the overarching organization creates one uniform playoff method. In Pennsylvania, all 12 districts choose their state playoff entries on their own and then they enter in various weeks of the bracket. You may think it works just fine, but it’s nevertheless unique.

Why Illinois?
There are a few reasons why I chose to base this project on how the IHSA determines its playoff fields in Illinois:

  • Illinois is a state that is comparable to Pennsylvania in number of football-playing schools, population, and geographic size (although Illinois is a bit bigger in land area).
  • The system Illinois uses (more on that below) is simple and straightforward, making it easy enough to copy for our uses here.
  • Illinois uses a statewide bracket where all teams enter at the same point, which would eliminate many (if not all) of the bizarre scenarios we face in Pennsylvania where a two-win team plays a one-win team for a district title or subregionals must be formed between multiple districts. In short, it produces a clean, easy-to-follow bracketing procedure.

How does the Illinois system work?

Here’s the meat and potatoes of the statewide playoff system used in Illinois. I’ll add how I’ve modified each step for Pennsylvania, too. Illinois has 8 classes for football and has 32-team brackets for each class, meaning 256 teams make the postseason. To be consistent with our classification structure, I’ll be putting together 6 brackets of 32 teams in Pennsylvania (a total of 192 schools entering the playoffs).

  1. All teams statewide are ranked in order of wins at the end of the regular season (in Illinois, all teams play 9 regular season games). School size is not considered at this point. All 9-0, 8-1, 7-2, and 6-3 teams get into the playoff field. Many years, all 5-4 teams make the playoffs and occasionally a few 4-5 teams can enter, too, if wins must go that low to get 256 total entries. Because much of Pennsylvania plays a 10-week regular season, I’ll use that many games to determine playoff participants (meaning games through the weekend of October 28th will still count toward a team’s playoff position). Also, because we will only take 192 entries in this simulation, the cutoff will be higher, meaning some 6-4 teams won’t be selected.
  2. Ties between schools with the same number of wins are broken by Illinois’ version of power points (or win points, or bonus points, or whatever you’d like to call them). Eastern PA Football posts a similar statistic for all teams statewide, so I’ll use that in this exercise as a close facsimile. I’ll prorate each team’s number to balance out the rating for teams that play varying numbers of regular season games.
  3. All conference champions, regardless of record, automatically qualify into the field. I’ll be using the league rankings page from Eastern PA Football to determine conference champions.
  4. Once the final list of 256 Illinois teams is formed (192 in Pennsylvania), they are re-ranked by school enrollment, largest to smallest. The top 32 schools form 8A, the next 32 are 7A, and so on. Due to this process, a traditional 4A program in Pennsylvania may play in the 5A or 3A playoffs in our simulation depending on how many bigger or smaller schools qualify. In essence, your classification doesn’t really come into effect until/unless you enter the postseason.
  5. Remember those ratings from Step 2? Those are used to seed teams within their classification bracket to form the finalized playoff. So the top-rated 6A team will be paired with the 32nd rated 6A team, the No. 2 6A will play the No. 31 6A, and so on. All of this is done without regard to geographic location in Illinois’ two largest brackets (8A and 7A). For the other six classes, Illinois splits the state into a north bracket and a south bracket to cut down on travel costs. In our thought experiment, I’ll make all six brackets statewide because I think it leads to more interesting matchups and we don’t need to pay for virtual gas. You could see rematches of league/district opponents in Round 1, or you may see a Lehigh Valley team paired with a team from Pittsburgh. It’s a truly statewide bracket.
  6. The final step: you play the games! The top seeds host, although in our fictionalized Pennsylvania bracket neutral sites could potentially be used in extreme circumstances. In the post-COVID world, the PIAA has become much more open to having teams host true home games in the state playoffs, meaning this really wouldn’t be a huge shift in our state.

So what’s next?

After this weekend’s (10-28 to 10/29) games are completed, I’ll run through the steps above and create all six brackets. I’ll publish them either Sunday or early next week. After that, I’ll publish updated fictional brackets each week after simulating that week’s round using either the or Massey ratings websites. Be sure to follow along to see if your team qualifies for the (fictional) postseason and to track how far it goes.

REMEMBER: this is just for fun. If you’re a huge Pennsylvania high school football and/or bracketing nerd like me, it should be fun. If not: I don’t hate your school! I swear!