Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two part look at the Arkansas high school football playoff system. The second part will appear Thursday (Dec. 8) on The Varsity Wire.
story by Aric Mitchell
The Arkansas high school football playoff system has been deciding a clear state champion for a few decades now, which is more than can be said for the Bowl Championship Series and NCAA Division I football. But many feel there remain gaping holes in the logic for how the Arkansas Activities Association (AAA) structures the postseason.
Critics have a field day pointing to teams like 2011’s Little Rock Fair War Eagles, a 6A school, which scored an underwhelming 106 points in 11 games and allowed 471. It was like losing every game by a 33-point margin, yet when the first round of the playoffs arrived, Fair was right there, taking it on the chin from the Jonesboro Golden Hurricane 42-6.
Also at the 6A Classification, the Russellville Cyclones were able to sneak in to the playoffs based on a comparatively stellar 1-9 record. The team’s only win came in Week 3 with a come-from-behind victory against 5A Alma, 37-30. When the first week of the postseason came, Lake Hamilton had an easy time with the black-and-red 38-13.
The Varsity Wire recently asked AAA’s Associate Executive Director Don Brodell to discuss the issues. And one thing Brodell wanted to be very clear on is this: “The AAA oversees the playoffs, but proposals are made by and voted on by the principals for each of the schools within a classification. We gave them (the 6A) the option to choose the top six teams (from each conference) or to take all 16, and they chose all 16.”
Brodell also noted that any complaints for the system as it stands today should be taken up with the administrators at that level.
Brodell continued: “With it set up that way (all 16), that means there are going to be some teams get in with bad records. But they bring the proposals to us. We oversee the playoffs and are in charge of all of it, but all our rules and regulations are voted on and proposed by the member schools themselves.”
While the two above examples are at the higher level, the lower classifications are not immune to criticism. In the 2A, 3A, and 4A, the AAA rewards the top 5 teams from each conference with a playoff berth. The result?
At 2A, the Hampton Bulldogs got in with a 3-5 record, only to be sliced and diced by Magazine 41-6 in Week 1.
At 3A, the Mansfield Tigers eked in at 5-5 and were manhandled in the first round by Yellville-Summit 39-7.
At 4A, the Clarksville Panthers (4-6) managed to survive to Week 2, where they would meet their fate 27-12 to the McGehee Owls and finish 5-7. And that Week 1 postseason win? It was a 7-point victory against the 3-7 Lonoke Jackrabbits.
Additionally, at the 5A level, the Arkadelphia Badgers (4-7) made it in only to be stopped by Greenbrier in round one 35-16.
Brodell noted that to change the current system, individuals would need to talk to an administrator in their classification.
“If you belong to a particular school, then you should take it up with that school,” Brodell said.
Fort Smith Athletic Director Jim Rowland isn’t confident there will be changes anytime soon.
“I can honestly see the argument from both sides. On the one hand, you’ve got those of us at the 7A, who would like to see a 32-team division made up of four eight-team conferences comprised by geographic location. But at the 6A level, there are many, who feel schools with a bigger enrollment have an unfair advantage.”
Continuing, Rowland said: “It should always be about education first, and obviously, picking by geographic location best meets that criteria because you end up having more class time for the students, who don’t have to travel as far during the regular season. But the argument from 6A is why should a school with an enrollment of eight or nine hundred students have to compete with a Bentonville, who has more than 2,500?”
Rowland believes 6A schools can compete with the 7A schools, but he understands the reservations. Still, whether a roster has 90 or 140 men, a team should be able to hold its own.
“Any Friday night, if you’re lucky, you’ll get about 40 or 50 guys into the game. That’s not playing anyone both ways (on offense and defense), having a separate special teams unit, and then another five or six guys that you work regularly into the rotation. At the end of the day, you can only play 11 at a time,” Rowland said.