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MIAA football committee considering realignment

By Bob Holmes
Globe Staff / January 29, 2009
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The state's high school football alignment is a lot like your computer password. About the time you finally remember the darn thing, it's time to pick another.

The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association's football committee will meet Monday to plot a new course for the next two years for the 325 schools that play football in the Bay State.

For Eastern Massachusetts, that could mean a new division, which would bring the total to eight for the 2009 and '10 seasons. The extra division is a result of the splitting of the Dual County and the Patriot leagues.

In addition, the committee already has given approval to the Merrimack Valley Conference to split into large and small divisions. The fourth league will either come from a split of the Tri-Valley League or the Middlesex. The TVL has applied for the split, which would include Bay State Conference defector Dedham, but the Tri-Valley principals have yet to approve it.

The Middlesex split has been approved, but its application to the committee came after the December deadline. One league will go home disappointed Monday.

The four new leagues would be placed into divisions based on the schools' average enrollments. If enrollment averages dictate, other leagues in Eastern Mass. could move up or down.

But while the committee tinkers with the current structure, a plan not on Monday's agenda could dramatically change the way football is structured in the state, as well as eliminate the need for leagues to split to get additional playoff berths.

The plan was proposed by the Massachusetts State Football Coaches Association and is being worked on by a subcommittee of the Tournament Management Committee (TMC). The plan is complicated and includes a statewide playoff system. If accepted, it would be implemented for the 2011 season. The plan's highlights include:

A seven-game regular season with options for additional games.

Fifty percent of the teams would make the playoffs based on a rating system that includes records and strength of schedules. That means 96 teams in the Eastern Mass. playoffs compared with 28 last fall.

The playoffs would be structured along the lines of other sports, with North and South sectionals and six divisions in each sectional.

Sectional championships in Week 10 with Eastern Mass. championships the Friday before Thanksgiving.

No change to traditional Thanksgiving games.

Super Bowls at Gillette Stadium would be statewide, giving Central and Western Mass. teams the opportunity to play there for the first time.

"It's a concept right now," said Bill Burkhead, the Plymouth North football coach and a member of the TMC subcommittee. That's why 2011 is the target date for implementing the proposal and why it's not on the agenda for Monday. But because it addresses the top concern of coaches, opening the postseason to more teams, it has momentum.

Football is the only sport in which league championships determine what schools make the playoffs. If accepted, the new proposal eliminates league standings as the criteria for postseason play. Teams will play seven games. Those that qualify for the playoffs will play a first-round sectional game in Week 8. Teams that don't make the playoffs will go into a pool, from which a commissioner will form a schedule for Weeks 8 and 9. Week 10 will be left open for teams that are not playing sectional championships to play anyone they wish. Week 11 is Thanksgiving.

In September, the TMC defeated a proposal from the football committee to extend the playoffs and double the number of teams with postseason berths. Reasons given included a longer season that would have encroached on winter sports, safety concerns with some teams playing four games in 16 days, and weather concerns, including the potential for the Super Bowls to be canceled.

The TMC then formed a subcommittee to work with the coaches to come up with a more workable plan.

The subcommittee started by surveying principals across the state, asking if they supported a statewide playoff system. The results indicated strong support.

Football committee chairman and Woburn principal Bob Norton is aware of the proposal but is more focused on the business at hand.

"Who requests to be where," is Monday's theme, according to Norton.

A number of Central Mass. schools objected to the divisions they were placed in last fall and will appeal to change those divisions.

And in Eastern Mass.,five leagues that are dividing will compete for four playoff spots, a change that would necessitate creation of a new division, and force other leagues to change divisions as well.

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