5 Observations on the NJSIAA's 2018 Playoff Overhaul

The 2018 football season was an exciting one across the state, but one also filled with more questions than answers when it came to the new playoff system.

A new seeding formula created by the United Power Committee - a group of coaches and administrators with representatives from around the state - added a rating system called the Born Power Index to the traditional power point system.  The BPI accounted for 60% of playoff seeding, and power points counted for 40%.  Those numbers combined to make the United Power Ranking, used to qualify and seed teams this year.

But the Born Power Index was never officially revealed by its creator, Bill Born, or the NJSIAA.  Coaches who were used to knowing the power point formula were often in the dark as to their playoff chances until WCTC Sports learned the gist of the formula - though not the actual formula itself - and revealed that margin of victory was a key component.  And in the early weeks of the season, it was learned there was no cap on blowouts.  A win by 60 points would drive up a team's ranking more than a win by 35, the NJSIAA's mercy rule threshold that institutes a running clock. That discovery led to much controversy statewide, with some teams apparently running up scores to improve their playoff standing, and others simply worried about maintaining smaller margins of victory, lest they hurt their playoff chances.  Born actually changed his formula to institute the blowout cap, a direct result of WCTC's findings.

Looking back on the season, what does it all mean?  We crunched some more numbers, and had these key observations:

1.  Born Power Index ratings don't generally change much

A team's BPI to start the season is the same one they end the previous season with.  For that reason, creator Bill Born says games the first several weeks of the season are worth more points, as a sort of adjustment period.  But a final analysis of numbers shows that may not have gone far enough.

We started to realize that a few weeks before the playoff cutoff with Westfield.  The Blue Devils had won 37 straight games heading into 2018, but had that streak snapped in their opener and were 2-4 just two weeks before the cutoff.  At that point, WCTC projected they had already clinched a playoff berth.  Due to the Born formula, and the strength of teams they would play in their final two weeks, there was no way Westfield could drop far enough to be out of the playoff picture.  In the end, they finished 11th out of 32 teams overall, in a 16-team field in North Group 5.  They were also helped by a loss to a non-public multiplier (more on that later).

Westfield started the year with an 81.6 Born rating, and ended at 72.1, a drop of only 9.5.  There were 81 football teams in NJ that dropped more than Westfield, even though the Blue Devils went from 12-0 in 2017 to 2-6 by the cutoff in 2018.

As for the rest of the state, 180 out of 341 teams in New Jersey gained in BPI, and the average gain was 9.63 points.

Among the 160 teams statewide that saw their Born Power Index rating fall throughout the year, the average loss was 11.2 points.

The largest gains were 28.5 points by Belleville and Sussex Tech.  Belleville went from 1-9 in 2017 to 4-5 this season.  Sussex Tech had a bigger turnaround, going from 2-8 to 7-3, a near complete reversal.  Only 14 of the 180 teams that rose in the BPI gained 20 points or more.

Of the top 20 teams in BPI gain, 8 were from the North Jersey Super Football Conference.  That conference includes Montclair, whose head coach John Fiore introduced the Born Power Index to the United Committee.  Seven came from the West Jersey Football League and two from the Shore Conference.  Those are the leagues United Committee members say forced the NJSIAA's hand in using the system before it could be fully studied, because hey had already made their schedules on the premise that the UPR system - including the BPI - would be in place for 2018.

Local teams in that top 20 included Bernards (+28.2) and South Plainfield (+24.5).

However, among the top 20 losers in BPI, the WJFL also had 7 teams, while the Shore had 4.  The NJSFC had 5.

Locally, Manville (-22.6) and Old Bridge (-28.3) were among them.

The biggest loss was 46.3 points by Camden Catholic, which went 0-7 in 2018 after a slew of problems in the program.  They started at 87.3 BPI and finished at 41.  They were thought of highly enough before their off- and on-field issues that they were considered a multiplier team this season.  25 teams fell by 25 points or more.

2.  What's the Magic Number to make the playoffs??

We only looked at public schools here, since two non-public sections were seeded by committees and all teams that didn't decline a playoff invite qualified.  Of those 160 public schools, the top 65 (about 40%) seemed to be guaranteed to make it.

The teams that qualified for the playoffs ranged in BPI from 100.4 for Williamstown all  the way down to 27.7 for Maple Shade.  Interestingly, despite the low BPI, Maple Shade was 6-2, and got in with no funny business.  No multipliers here; the Wildcats just beat good teams and did really well in power points with an average of 11, enough to counter their low Born number, finishing 13th of the 16 teams that made the playoffs.

The Magic Number in BPI for 2018 appeared to be 72.  That could always change from year to year, but the highest BPI team that missed the playoffs was Cherokee, at 0-7 but with a 71.8 Born ranking.  Alternatively, Mansaquan made it with a BPI of 71.8, with a 6-1 record.

Essentially, everyone with a BPI of 72.2 (Kingsway) or higher made the playoffs, so we'll say 72 was pretty much the Magic Number to get in.

Interestingly, Bill Born himself told us at the start of the season that any team above 70 can essentially beat anyone else, based on his system.  That Magic Number is right around that mark.

3.  What about winning percentage?

This has been a point of debate for years, since the early 2000s when sub-.500 teams started being allowed into the playoffs.  This year, 27 public schools made the playoffs with a record under .500.  That means 17% of public school playoff qualifiers had losing records.

If you want to make a case for 4-5 teams getting in, there were six of them.  Of those, five Northern Highlands, Ocean Township, Sterling, Voorhees and Demarest all were 4-4 before losing on cutoff weekend.  Only Newark Central was 3-5 heading into the cutoff and won to get to 4-5.

There were also three schools that only managed 7 games before the cutoff and were 3-4 (Ocean City, Schalick and Asbury Park).

That would leave 18 other schools at 3-5 or worse  - or 2 more losses than wins, to put it another way - with winning percentages of .375 or lower that got in the playoffs.

It's hard to say there's a Magic Number winning percentage to get in the playoffs, since the best two teams to get left out were Delran at 7-1 (.875 win percentage) and Hamilton at 5-2 (.714).

In all, 27 teams that went .500 or better failed to qualify for the playoffs, while an equal number of sub-.500 teams made it to the postseason.

The sweet spot seems to be a winning percentage of .700, meaning a record of 6-2 or 5-2.  Of the 86 teams with a better than .700 winning percentage, 84 of them (97.7%) made the playoffs, with the only exceptions being Delran and Hamilton, as mentioned above.

It's interesting to note that until the sectional playoffs were expanded from four to eight teams in 1998, the minimum number of wins to qualify for the playoffs was 6.  This was the case in 1987, for example, when Ridge was awarded the Central Jersey Group 2 title because no other teams qualified with a minimum of 6 wins.

4.  Does playing a multiplier automatically get a team into the playoffs?

The short answer is no.  But it sure as hell doesn't hurt.

There were 64 games between public schools and non-public schools on the multiplier list in 2018.  (The list was expanded beyond the North Jersey superpowers this year.)  Public schools went a paltry 16-48 in those games.  But Camden Catholic was on the multiplier list, as they were expected to be really good until a series of on- and off-field issues caused them to go 0-7.  Taking them out of the equation, public schools went just 9-48 against all the rest of the multipliers.

Also, some public schools played two multipliers, but NJSIAA rules say only the game with the higher value would count.  Taking those out - but keeping Camden Catholic in - we had 59 games that counted toward power points featuring public schools vs. non-public multipliers.

Of those 59 public school teams, 48 made the playoffs.  The 11 that didn't all had losing records.

Of the 48 that made the playoffs, another 11 had losing records.

This means 22 public schools that played multipliers had losing records, and half of them made the postseason, likely boosted by that multiplier.  Some, like Westfield, perhaps would have made the playoffs regardless, based on their high BPI to start the season.  But in most cases, the multiplier strongly helped their case.

Remember we said there were 18 schools with records of 3-5 or worse that made the playoffs?  Half of them - nine - played multipliers.

In our opinion, the multipliers need to be drastically reduced.  They need to exist in order that public schools aren't penalized too much for losing to them, but they appear to be rewarded too much for losing to them under the current system.

5.  High BPI means a high seed, and success

Teams that did the best in the Born Power Index tended to do very well in terms of playoff seeding and playoff success.

Of the Top Ten teams in BPI as of cutoff weekend, seven of them earned Number One seeds in their respective sections:  Piscataway, Somerville, Williamstown, Ramapo, Piscataway, Long Branch, Haddonfield and Phillipsburg.

Six of those seven teams made bowl games; Somerville was the only one that didn't.

Three of them finished 13-0, including Piscataway, Ramapo and Haddonfield.

But you don't necessarily have to finish in the top ten of the BPI to earn a top seed.  Shabazz ranked 21st in BPI on cutoff weekend and earned a top seed.  Penns Grove did it ranking 29th.  And Rutherford was 61st in BPI at the cutoff, and won the first-ever bowl game in NJSIAA history, defeating Kittatinny in the North Jersey Group 1 bowl to finish 12-1, their only blemish to Hasbrouck Heights.

What's it all mean?

The United Committee is well aware that changes will have to be made for the 2019 season.

To begin with, they know they can't use the Born Power Index to qualify or seed teams.  It appears to be a very good indicator of a team's quality, but that's not the issue.  The problem is with the margin of victory component.  Bill Born says his formula doesn't take into account "point spreads," and that may very well be 100% true.  But what's undeniable is that margin of victory is what drives teams' ratings up or down.

One idea being floated is some sort of "reverse Born" principle.  This idea first came from Piscataway volunteer assistant John Thompson.  In essence, the Born Power Index would be used as is, but only to determine a power point or other value for opposing teams.  For example, Piscataway would get more points from beating a team with a 94.5 BPI than they would for beating a team with a 45.5 BPI.  There's no enticement to run up the score.  In fact, the opposite is true; you would want a lower Born rank for yourself, because that would give the teams that beat you fewer points.

Multipliers also need to be greatly reduced, as outlined above.  Public schools can still get a bonus, but the NJSIAA needs to find a sweet spot, and be a little more conservative with what private schools get such a designation.  Maybe instead of a fixed amount it should be a true "multiplier," and based on a non-public school's record to some degree?

Our suggestion - and this could be open to some tweaks - is to keep the traditional power points system - and keep the "average" since that was a big hit this year - but add in a reverse Born component.

Call them "Born Points" and assign them a value based on their rating.  You could make all teams in the 80s worth 8, teams in the 70s worth 70, etc.  Or you could use 1/10th of the amount (a 94.3 would be worth 9.43 points).

Example Power Points Formula

Let's say Piscataway and South Brunswick meet in the 2018 season opener.  Piscataway's BPI is 100.3.  South Brunswick is a 73.4.

If Piscataway wins the game, the current power points system would give them 6 points for a win, 5 for beating a group 5 school, and 3 residual points for every win they have (none here, since it's the season opener).  Adding in the Born Points, Piscataway would get 7, since South Brunswick is in the 70s.

The Vikings, meanwhile, would get 0 points for the loss, no group points, but they would get half the Born Points (3.5) and 1 point for every win they have (none here, since it's the season opener).

Should South Brunswick finish 4-5 by the cutoff, Piscataway would get 12 residuals and that game would now be worth 30 points.  Should Piscataway be 8-0 at the cutoff, South Brunswick would get 11.5 points for the loss.

The current system would have given Piscataway 23 points and South Brunswick 8.

Making such a change would satisfy proponents of the Born Power Index, while making the formula easy to understand.  It would also give teams and conferences a guide to scheduling.  Based on the breakdown of numbers above, since the average gain or loss was between 9 and 11 points in Born throughout the season, teams could use the Born Power Index as a guide for schools to decide who they might want to play or who should be in a particular division.

We think that's a win, win, win!