How football teams with losing records could make the IHSA playoffs

Jacksonville's Elijah Owens (2) launches a pass against Springfield's Mardell Daniels (23) in the first half at Kraushaar-Rosenberger Field in Jacksonville, Ill., Friday, October 8, 2021. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]
Ryan Mahan
State Journal-Register

Five victories has long been the magical number necessary to qualify for the Illinois High School Association's football playoffs

But this season, a variety of factors may converge to allow four-win teams to earn at-large bids into the postseason for the first time. Previously, only four-win conference champions have made the 256-team field.

Teams with six or more wins are guaranteed an at-large bid, while 5-4 teams hope playoff points — the sum of opponents’ wins — ensure a postseason berth. Of the spots available to five-win teams, the teams with the most playoff points would be selected. That means a 5-4 team with a stronger schedule would be selected before a team with a weaker schedule.  

Steve Soucie, one of the state’s top experts on the IHSA’s football playoff system and who heads up fridaynightdrive.com, a high school football vertical for the Shaw Media Group, says his predictions show a likelihood there will be some at-large four-win teams in the 2021 playoffs. COVID-19 forfeits have increased those odds this season, but it certainly isn’t the only reason, Soucie said.  

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“Eight-man (football), consolidations, dropping the programs, school closures; there’s a litany of reasons why we’ve gotten to where we’ve gotten,” Soucie said. “But we’re now below 500 (schools eligible for the football playoffs).”  

According to the IHSA, there were 30 teams already at 8-0 before this weekend’s regular-season conclusion. Currently, Pana is the only undefeated team in The State Journal-Register's coverage area.  

Along with those unbeaten teams, there were 46 7-1 teams and 70 6-2 teams. Fairfield is 8-1 because it took a forfeit win this week against Vienna-Goreville. Three schools have won conference titles for automatic postseason berths with 5-3 records — Riverside-Brookfield, Chicago Morgan Park and Villa Park Willowbrook. A 4-4 team, Cahokia, has also wrapped up its conference title and stamped its postseason berth. 

That means 151 teams have either automatic or at-large bids for the 2021 playoff field. There are 64 teams with 5-3 records, while 71 teams sit at 4-4. 

“If you do the simple math there, it almost seems likely that you’re going to have a certain number of teams finish 9-0, you’re going to have a certain number finish 8-1, 7-2, 6-3 and so on,” Soucie said. “When you get to 5-4, it’s kind of a coin flip if you get down to 5-4 or 4-5. When you start doing that and you add up those groups, you have a hard time finding a scenario where you have enough five-win teams to get to 256.” 

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In a three-year span, Jacksonville was a victim of the numbers’ game twice. In 2009 and in 2011, the Crimsons finished 5-4 but missed the playoffs.  

Conversely, Jacksonville has been a playoff team three times since 2007 with five wins: 2007, 2010 and 2012 (the Crimsons beat higher-seeded teams in the latter two seasons in the first round: 8-1 Sacred Heart-Griffin in 2010 and 9-0 Centralia in 2012).  

Soucie also said with numbers of football teams in the state diminishing, this could be a trend in years not plagued by coronavirus forfeits.  

“We have 494 teams which are playoff eligible in the state,” Soucie said. “That’s the first time in state history since the playoffs have been in relevance that we have had less than 500 teams that are competing for 256 berths. Even before this COVID stuff and all the forfeits and other things, you’re already facing an uphill climb to get there. 

“The last time that we had normal playoffs and we had a normal schedule, only three teams missed (the playoffs with five wins).” 

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Soucie said after seven weeks, he projected 14 teams with four wins in the postseason. But he said after the Chicago Public League announced its Week 9 schedule, that projection fell to just six and could drop even further. The CPL has a 16-team invite-only tournament which begins in Week 9 while the other teams not in the tournament are scheduled in a regular-season finale before any playoff-eligible team advances to the postseason in the first round.  

“(The number of 4-4 teams in the postseason) has a remote chance of disappearing all together if enough teams currently at 4-4 rise up and beat teams with better records in Week 9,” Soucie wrote on Tuesday for shawlocal.com/friday-night-drive

There are several four-win teams looking to punch tickets to the postseason this weekend: On Friday, Jacksonville hosts Decatur MacArthur in a matchup of four-win teams, Lincoln (4-4) hosts Troy Triad (6-2), Riverton (4-4) hosts Maroa-Forsyth (6-2) and Beardstown (4-4) travels to Pleasant Hill (1-7).  

Additionally, Southeast (3-5) plays Springfield High (5-3) at Memorial Stadium and Hillsboro (3-5) looks for a fourth-straight win when the Hiltoppers host Litchfield (0-8).  

Any four-win team would need a large number of playoff points to qualify. Currently, at least 11 three-win teams have at least 40 points as well as 18 four-win teams.  

Contact Ryan Mahan: 857-246-9756, ryan.mahan@sj-r.com, Twitter.com/RyanMahanSJR.