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East Brunswick finished 4-4 and appeared to have clawed its way into a playoff berth, but lost a tiebreaker to 2-7 Hunterdon Central.
by Mike Pavlichko

After a 2018 football season that saw me up til the wee hours of the morning, trying to crack the code of the Born Power Index, arguing with people in charge that I had figured it out, then telling anyone who would listen how teams were being rewarded for dropping more points on the other team, traveling down to Robbinsville to share my findings with the NJSIAA, the last time I headed back home up Route 130 I figured things would be a lot quieter in 2019.

And they almost were.

In fact, things were too quiet for most of the season.  Even with all the transparency of the adjusted playoff system, few coaches seemed to be able to wrap their head around it and threw their hands up.  Then, the flood of calls, emails, texts and DMs on Twitter came in.

“Are we a 3?”  “We in?”  “Do you have us playing (team x here)?”

“I can’t figure this out.”

A lot of questions, but no controversy.

But then, the South 5 supersection became increasingly difficult to predict.  Even with the simplicity, a lot of teams were mashed together.  And in the end, Hunterdon Central qualified for the playoffs at 2-7, earning an OSI tiebreaker over East Brunswick, which which is 4-4.

The rule is the rule.  Teams tied in UPR – the main seeding criteria, a mix of 60% OSI rank and 40% power point rank – must be broken in the following manner:  head-to-head (there was none), common opponents (both lost to Hillsborough), then OSI rank.  The Red Devils were higher.

Travesty, right?

Let’s look at the facts:

Hunterdon Central played a murderer’s row schedule.  In fact, their starting OSI (counting full points for all teams, not giving half points for losses) was a 73.45, second only to Cherokee’s 76.51 (they were 3-5 and made the playoffs at number-10).

The Red Devils also lost to a majority of those teams.  With the exception of Franklin, all were very, very good teams.  Ridge, Phillipsburg, Hillsborough, Bridgewater-Raritan, Union, North Brunswick.  That’s a brutal slate.

Do I have an issue with them getting in?  Yes.  Should their schedule have been as hard?  No.

If the state is going to keep the current playoff seeding formula, leagues and conferences need to do better jobs handing out schedules.  The lowest power point average to make the tournament was 7.56.  The lowest OSI to make the playoffs was 39.27.

Hunterdon Central had every opportunity to improve their power point average – if they had just won more games.  But their strength of schedule was too much, they lost those games, but got a lot of credit for them.

Hunterdon Central played three teams with Strength Index ratings of 80 or higher.  That’s very high in the new system.  For losing to 80.35 Ridge they got 40.18.  For losing to 84.09 Phillipsburg, they got 42.05.  And for losing to 81.55 Union they got 40.53.  That beats the 39.27 OSI Eastern had.  They also played three teams in the 70s:  Hillsborough, Bridgewater and North Brunswick.

Had the Mid-State Conference not given Hillsborough as hard a schedule, the Red Devils would have either gotten in on with a better won-loss record, or not made the playoffs with a similar record.

As a crossover, they could have played 4-4 East Brunswick instead of Union.  The Bears had an SI of 50.39.  A win over EB would have gotten Hunterdon Central 1) an extra win 2) more power points than losing to Union (23 vs 18) and 3) increased their OSI (50.39 for a win instead of 40.53).  All that would have been enough to easily avoid a tie with East Brunswick if they’d beaten the Bears, or – if they’d lost – would have kept them out because they’d get fewer power points and OSI for losing to East Brunswick.

The other issue may be the system.  I’ll run some models on this, but perhaps giving half OSI for a loss is too much weight?  Consider:  Power points gives 6 quality points for a win, and none for a loss.  Residuals are 3 for wins by a team you beat to 1 for a team you lost to (3:1 ratio).  But OSI gives half, and of much larger numbers.  Maybe 1/3 for a loss is the sweet spot?  It makes the math a little more difficult, but maybe it’ll make things fairer by not just rewarding some teams for tougher schedules, regardless of results.

(I also plan on running some models eliminating power points, but adding a school size weight to OSI – such as 5 points added for a Group 5 school, and 1 for a Group 1 school.  The working theory here is that the systems are duplicative:  both measure wins and losses (power points with quality points, OSI with full or half points), both measure strength of schedule (power points with residuals, OSI with strength values), but only power points measures size.)

Of course, the second controversy was what happened with Robbinsville and Allentown.  Robbinsville was entitled by a new NJSIAA rules this year that said being undefeated automatically gains a berth to the playoffs.  Robbinsville was 9-0.  Allentown was 4-4, in 16th, and got bumped.  But they argued that the rules did not clearly state the 16th place team would be the one to get bumped.

It didn’t; they’re right.  But it’s a fair assumption.  So what happened?  The NJSIAA caved and allowed both in the playoffs, making them play a play-in game, which Allentown won 24-10.

But in the process, as always happens, the team that did nothing wrong or shouldn’t have been affected did get affected.  Since the NJSIAA wanted to have the play-in on Wednesday, they asked Wall to play its first-round game Monday.  Wall refused, and they compromised on Sunday.  But why should Wall have to adjust its schedule?  If anything, they earned the top seed and should be left alone.  Instead, they were asked to play a first-round game with a short turnaround to a potential sectional semifinal!

I’m less upset about the play-in than messing with wall.  But even the play-in now requires that Allentown must play three games in 10 days, which is asburd.  For all the talk about concussions and limiting practice hits, which are controlled anyway, we’re going to have a high school football team play three of its most meaningful games of the year in a span of ten days?  That’s downright dangerous.

Oh, and hurting the team that does nothing wrong in Wall?  That also brings us back to the Hunterdon Central-East Brunswick situation.

Remember those New Brunswick forfeits?  Well, East Brunswick played New Brunswick – and unlike Edison – beat the Zebras on the field even with the ineligible player.  (WCTC Sports is not naming him due to the nature of the situation.)  But four wins got taken away, meaning East Brunswick lost 12 residual points.

Give them back, and East Brunswick would have a higher power point average and UPR than Hunterdon Central, getting them in the playoffs.

I have heard others say “But East Brunswick doesn’t play anyone.  Hunterdon Central did.”

Let’s look at the two top seeds.  Did North Brunswick play anyone?  Four of their eight wins came against teams with a combined 8 wins.  Four of Williamstown’s eight wins came against teams with 11 combined victories.

There’s a lot of bad football out there, and bad matchups.  Bill Born doesn’t need his power index to pick games.  A gnat could pick 75% of the games in New Jersey.

But our man Bill says it best:  “Potential is interesting.  Performance is everything.”

It’s time to make wins and losses count more than anything in high school football.