Friday, August 13, 2010

SPORTS>>Teams face new opponents as conferences change

Leader sports editor

It remains to be seen which area football teams are still standing by the time the state playoffs roll around, but it’s clear those in the 7A/6A classifications are going to have to brush up on their math to find out where they rank.

In a wrinkle designed to improve the geography of the large-school conferences while maintaining competitive balance, the Arkansas Activities Association implemented a playoff points system to go with its latest round of realignment.

The 32 largest teams in the state have been grouped geographically with an end-of-season ranking system to determine playoff seeding.

That means 6A and 7A schools like Cabot, Jacksonville and Searcy have been thrown together under the same conference banners for the regular season but will split up for separate playoffs at the season’s end.

Jacksonville and Searcy, of the 6A, will have to play a 7A power like West Memphis in the 7A/6A-East regular season, while 6A schools Russellville and Van Buren must play 7A Cabot in the 7A/6A-Central. The West will include only 7A teams and the South will be all 6A.

“We’re playing the same conference, the playoffs is where it’s affected,” Cabot coach Mike Malham said.

The playoff points system for 7A teams in the Central and East awards 10 points for a conference victory and one additional point for each opponent’s conference victory. The total points are divided by the number of conference games (7) to determine a team’s power ranking.

The 7A teams from the Central and East will be grouped together with the top six, based on their power rating, making the playoffs, and the top two earning first-round byes.

“Until they get all that squared away, I don’t know how else to do it; it’s not really fair,” Malham said.

Malham’s beef is that a team like West Memphis, which has moved up to 7A and mercy-ruled most of its 6A-East opponents on the way to last year’s playoffs, will play primarily 6A opponents during the regular season and cruise to a No. 1 seed.

“With West Memphis, a 7A school playing in a 6A conference and the points system, probably, we’re fighting each other in this conference week after week battling it out for a second seed,” Malham said.

Cabot, Malham pointed out, will be playing mostly 7A schools returning from what was a highly competitive 7A-Central Conference last year. The Panthers went 9-1 to win the 7A-Central in 2009.

“West Memphis doesn’t have anybody to challenge them over there,” Malham said. “In fact, if they’d put that points system in last year, we wouldn’t have been a No. 1 seed, we would have been a two seed and West Memphis would have had the one seed.”

The 7A-West will simply rank teams based on their conference play and send the top six to the postseason, as will the 6A-South.

The points system for the 6A teams playing in the hybrid conferences differs from those used by the 7A teams.

Points will be awarded for all games and not just conference matchups. A 6A team earns 10 points for a victory and five for a tie, regardless of an opponent’s classification, and a one-point bonus is awarded for each 7A team played, conference or non-conference, as well as for an out-of-state opponent that plays in that state’s largest classification.

“To be honest with you, you kind of like to know where you stand and what to expect,” Searcy coach Tim Harper said. “But we have a situation with these power ratings that even your non-conference games figures into it. So basically there are no off weeks.”

Some 6A schools are jumping at the chance to collect points by tougher scheduling. Jonesboro, Jacksonville’s and Searcy’s opponent in the 7A/6A-East, played five 5A schools last year but picked up non-conference games this year against 7A Conway and Fayetteville.

While the current 7A/6A system is based on geography, Harper said it hasn’t really solved all travel issues and it’s a system that can still be manipulated.

“I’d like to see it based more on enrollment like it’s supposed to be and not travel,” Harper said. “I think that is being used as an excuse; you still have teams pretty much traveling the length of the state to play ball games. I think it’s another way to get what you want.”

The realignment and points system, though designed to maintain balance, have also fueled the argument the state simply has too many football classifications (six) for one of its size. Arkansas only has 16 teams in 7A for example, and that’s the smallest classification group of any state in the union.

Comparably sized states like Mississippi and Kansas have 32 in their large-school classes.

“I’d like to see some things fixed. But at the same time, I don’t necessarily want to go back to a 32-team class 5A either,” Harper said. “I don’t want to play the Cabots and North Little Rocks every week, because they should win every time. It’s like putting up a 12-year-old to fight a 6-year-old, the odds are going to be in his favor.”

Don’t count on the current alignment and points system to last, however. School populations will change, balances of power will shift, and the high school football landscape will likely change again by 2012.

“Maybe they’ll have it figured out by the next two-year cycle,” Malham said.