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We broke out the calculator to see who has the easiest and most difficult paths to the playoffs!

Now that the NJSIAA has decided to not make any changes to the high school football playoff formula in 2020, we can breakdown the new schedule put forth by the Big Central Football Conference in its inaugural season.  And we can also give you some playoff predictions.

What, now?

That’s right, we’re talking who’s going to make the playoffs.

Alright, maybe we won’t tell you who’s going to make the playoffs.  But we’ve got a stat we think will be a good indicator of how many wins each team needs to qualify for the playoffs.  Some will need more than others.

One of the big reasons for a merger between the Greater Middlesex and Mid-State Conferences was to make scheduling easier, especially for mid-range Group 2 and 3 schools, of which there were fewer in each respective conference, making it difficult to find good opponents.

Smaller schools were hurt, too.  Among them, Bernards and South River.  The Mountaineers were 7-1 heading into cutoff weekend, with their lone loss to state power Hillside.  And even a win against Delaware Valley on that final weekend to finish the regular season 8-1 was not enough to get themselves a first round home game.

South River was 6-3 at the cutoff, but failed to make the playoffs.  They were hurt by playing much lesser opponents in their final three games:  Highland Park, Roselle Park, and Metuchen.  All three were wins, but all three lowered their OSI, and helped keep them out of the playoffs.  In fact, an mid-season loss to state power Hillside (44.31 points) was better for their OSI (which ended up averaging 31.3) than the wins against Highland Park (20), Roselle Park (24.2) and Metuchen (25.49).

It’s tough to tell from the preliminary numbers, so the jury is still out on whether the merger and its scheduling helped.

Get ready for a deep dive here, but I promise you, it’s worth the read!

Ranking the Schedules

The old Strength of Schedule used for helping settle tiebreakers when Power points were used exclusively wasn’t a very good method.  Essentially, it was the sum total of the group size of all opponents, and the number of wins of those opponents.  But group size doesn’t necessarily equate to strength.

With the new SI and OSI formulas, we have a better picture.  WCTC Sports rates Strength of Schedule by looking at what we’ll call “Potential OSI.”  This is the average OSI of every opponent at full value – basically, what a team would get if it ran the table.  And, of course, assuming those values stayed the same all year.  That doesn’t actually happen, but since some teams generally go up and others go down, we think it all balances out mostly in the end.

In fact, believe it or not, from Preseason 2019 to Preseason 2020, of 341 teams in the state, 171 saw their Strength Index go up, while 170 saw it go down.  That’s as perfect a split as you could get.  The net movement – adding up all the pluses and minuses – was -11.47.  Conceivably it would be a perfect zero, but remember, some teams play out of state opponents which are not reflected here.  So, yes, it all works out in the wash.

Anyhow, we ranked everyone’s schedules based on information supplied to WCTC Sports by the Big Central Football Conference.  One note is that since Immaculata left the league and went to an independent schedule, that left a few teams with one fewer opponent.  Some may schedule replacements.  Others who already had nine games may not.  Immaculata also is working on the rest of its schedule, which right now includes only five games, with one more close enough that it could be called “in the works.”

Interestingly, the Spartans – who backed out the “The Big” because they didn’t field a JV schedule last year and felt their schedule wasn’t a good fit, wound up with a tougher Potential OSI/Strength of Schedule than they had when they were in The Big’s “3” Division.

Here are the rankings of all teams in the Big Central Football Conference (and Immauclata, from toughest schedule (highest OSI) to lowest:

Phillipsburg 69.44
St. Joe’s 68.64
Hunterdon Central 68.25
Bridgewater 67.53
Hillsborough 67.47
North Brunswick 66.20
Piscataway 66.16
Westfield 65.81
Ridge 65.73
Sayreville 64.56
Elizbaeth 64.37
Immaculata 64.06
Franklin 63.86
Carteret 63.55
Union 62.15
Somerville 61.88
Rahway 61.69
New Brunswick 61.60
Scotch Plains 61.36
Linden 61.24
Watchung Hills 61.14
Colonia 61.13
Warren Hills 60.95
Cranford 60.88
Edison 60.77
South Plainfield 60.61
Governor Livingston 60.58
Woodbridge 60.24
Montgomery 60.17
Summit 60.13
Voorhees 60.07
North Hunterdon 59.81
JFK 59.45
Bernards 59.31
North Plainfield 58.88
South Brunswick 57.65
Hillside 57.61
Delaware Valley 56.86
Plainfield 56.12
Monroe 56.06
East Brunswick 55.41
Old Bridge 55.32
JP Stevens 54.34
Perth Amboy 53.35
Roselle 52.46
Johnson 51.73
St. Thomas Aquinas 50.43
South River 50.08
Roselle Park 49.51
Bound Brook 49.50
Brearley 49.38
Middlesex 49.00
New Providence 48.55
Metuchen 46.70
Spotswood 46.26
Dayton 43.72
Dunellen 43.48
Highland Park 42.62
South Hunterdon 41.20
Belvidere 41.08
Manville 40.55

A New Statistic:  Play Up or Play Down

Strength of Schedule or Potential OSI is useful in telling us how difficult a team’s schedule is when compared to other teams.  But, how do we know if a team is playing its peers?  Are they playing a challenging slate?  Or simply padding the resume with easy Ws?

We came up with a new measure of that, and we’ll call it the “Play Up Or Down.”  Is a team playing up?  Playing down?  And by how much?

To do this, we compared the average SI of all a team’s opponents (the Strength of Schedule or Potential OSI above) with its own SI.

A team whose OSI is higher than its own SI is playing tougher competition.  A team with a lower SI than its own rating plays mainly weaker schools.  At least, on average.

This is a number leagues should pay attention to when scheduling.

Going back to the South River example:  the Rams entering 2019 had a team SI of 54.4.  Their Potential OSI was a 45.62.  They “played down” by 8.78.  In South Group 2, the lowest OSI team was to make the playoffs was 5-4 Collingswood at 37.63.  That left the Rams with little margin for error, as they finished with an OSI of 31.3, about 69% of their potential.  They won 66.7% of their games.

This year, they begin as with an SI of 50.08, while their Potential OSI is a 53.98.  They only “play down” this year by 3.90, and their Potential OSI is higher than last year.  So, with a 6-3 record, they would conceivable be more likely to make the playoffs this year.  If they again got 69% of their potential OSI, they’d end up with 37.03 OSI at the cutoff.  That would have left them short by 0.6 points last year.  Still short, but a much better chance and within striking distance, considering you also have to figure power points into the equation.

This is one of the main reasons the NJSIAA decided to make no changes to the playoff formula; everyone wants to see more data before any more tweaking is done.

Below, is every team in the Big Central – plus Immaculata – ranked from biggest “play up” to biggest “play down.”

Highland Park 42.62 22.22
JP Stevens 54.34 18.41
Scotch Plains 61.36 16.28
Governor Livingston 60.58 14.71
Metuchen 46.70 14.33
Roselle Park 49.51 13.63
JFK 59.45 11.08
Carteret 63.55 10.95
South Plainfield 60.61 10.16
Warren Hills 60.95 9.78
Plainfield 56.12 8.24
Elizbaeth 64.37 8.02
Immaculata 64.06 7.86
Voorhees 60.07 6.89
North Plainfield 58.88 6.12
Hunterdon Central 68.25 5.68
Monroe 56.06 5.31
Perth Amboy 53.35 4.65
St. Thomas Aquinas 50.43 4.23
Dayton 43.72 4.12
Sayreville 64.56 3.67
St. Joe’s 68.64 3.55
Roselle 52.46 2.26
Spotswood 46.26 0.94
Watchung Hills 61.14 0.79
South Hunterdon 41.20 0.71
Bridgewater 67.53 0.48
Colonia 61.13 0.33
Franklin 63.86 0.04
East Brunswick 55.41 -0.55
New Brunswick 61.60 -0.87
Edison 60.77 -1.04
Westfield 65.81 -1.72
Piscataway 66.16 -2.31
Dunellen 43.48 -2.35
Bound Brook 49.50 -2.42
Johnson 51.73 -2.72
South Brunswick 57.65 -2.87
North Hunterdon 59.81 -2.99
New Providence 48.55 -3.83
South River 50.08 -3.90
North Brunswick 66.20 -4.20
Linden 61.24 -4.46
Phillipsburg 69.44 -5.23
Old Bridge 55.32 -5.41
Manville 40.55 -5.79
Hillsborough 67.47 -5.97
Ridge 65.73 -6.23
Summit 60.13 -6.71
Woodbridge 60.24 -6.75
Cranford 60.88 -6.94
Belvidere 41.08 -7.34
Middlesex 49.00 -7.72
Bernards 59.31 -8.11
Delaware Valley 56.86 -9.66
Montgomery 60.17 -10.33
Brearley 49.38 -10.62
Rahway 61.69 -10.64
Union 62.15 -14.74
Somerville 61.88 -18.80
Hillside 57.61 -27.86

Generally, the weakest teams should have the biggest “play up” because there are few teams with lower Strength Index numbers.  But, some of the strongest teams have the biggest “play down,” which can hurt them at the cutoff date

Somerville is the largest “play down” team in the WCTC coverage area, at -18.8.  Hillside (from Union County, but in the Big Central) is a whopping -27.86.

The Comets are an interesting study.  Last year they were one of the top public schools in the state, finished 12-0, and won the South Jersey Group 2 regional championship game.  But they ended up as the overall fifth-seed in the South 2 supersection, behind four teams that were a combined 27-6 at the cutoff.  They beat one of those teams – West Deptford, on the road, despite being undefeated – in the sectional finals, and another – Cedar Creek – at Rutgers for the South 2 regional title.

Why?  Their starting 2019 SI was 79.13, but their Potential OSI was 52.67, meaning they played down by 26.46.  They went undefeated, and ended up at 51.87 OSI (they got 98.5% of their preseason OSI – remember, we said it doesn’t change much?).  That ranked 5th in OSI at the end of the year.

This year, their “play down” number is similar.  So, you might want to watch Hillside this year.  Could they go 12-0 again and still finish no higher than 5th in the supersection?  If so, maybe they should get a tougher schedule?  Then again, it didn’t keep them from a perfect season and a regional championship.

For what it’s worth, they ranked 2nd in South Group 2 in traditional power points, which would have given then a top-seed in one of the sections.

As for Somerville, they struggled to earn a top-seed in the playoffs, despite being a dominant team all year long.  Their pre-cutoff wins were by more than 30 points a game.  But they also played down 19.31.  This year, they play down 18.8.  It’ll be interesting to see if Somerville again faces an uphill battle for a top-seed.

For a complete, color-coded list of the Strength of Schedule and Play Up/Down stat in the Big Central Football Conference by division in PDF format, click here and follow the red link on the next page:  2020 Big Central Football Conference Strength of Schedule and Up or Down

Predicting Playoffs:  Is there a Magic Number?

One can look at the various supersections from 2018 and figure out the minimum OSI to get into the playoffs.  This can also be done regardless of power points.  They matter, for sure.  But, we can filter out the teams that didn’t make it because of power points and still come up with a minimum.

For example, in North 5, the 16th team to get in was 5-4 Bayonne with a 39.08 OSI.  But at 39.94, Kennedy (4-4) did not get in.  So, we can say the minimum to get in was Eastside Paterson at 40.2 with a 4-4 record at the cutoff.  No team with less than 40.2 OSI made the playoffs in North 5 last year.  We’ll call that the section’s “Target OSI.”  This can vary from year to year, but we only have one year of data to work with so far.

Since we only have one year of data – another reason the NJSIAA made no changes this year – we can only use this as a rough guide.  Still, let’s say 40 is the Magic Number.

We can’t just use a winning percentage to figure out what percent of a team’s Potential OSI they would get.  Sure, an undefeated team would get 100% of their Potential OSI.  But as you go down in wins, winning percentage becomes less accurate.  After all, even a winless team would get half it’s Potential OSI.

Another New Statistic:  Step Value

With the help of Piscataway High School Volunteer Assistant Coach John Thompson, we’ve come up with another new stat.  We’ll call it the “Step Value.”  Since a winless team would get 50-percent of its full Potential OSI, we can find out how much one more win would be – in steps – by dividing the difference between full and half OSI by the number of games played.

Say a team’s Maximum OSI is 80 (which is very high, but makes this example simple).  They would get 80 for being undefeated, and 40 for being winless.  The difference is 40.  If they play 8 games, divide 40 by 8 and find that each win is worth about 5 points in OSI.  Remember, it’s not exact; it’s an average.  Some teams are worth more points than others, so it can vary depending on whether you beat the strongest teams on your schedule or the weakest ones.  And values will change throughout the year.

Put another way, going 0-8 would conceivably give you a 40 OSI.  Going 1-8 would give you a 45, 2-7 would be a 50, 3-6 would be a 55, and so on.

Now, let’s compare that to the minimum to get in the playoffs.  We’ll choose a real life example, since a Potential OSI of 80 indicates a potentially brutal schedule.

Piscataway’s Potential OSI in 2020 is 66.16.  An 0-8 record would give them an OSI of 33.08.  Each step (33.08 divided by 8 games) is worth 4.14 points.  To get over the 40-point OSI threshold, they would need to win at least 2 games.

Sounds ridiculous, but 2-7 Hunterdon Central got in the playoffs on a tiebreaker last year finishing with an OSI of 43.54.  So, it could happen.

A third win for Piscataway, with a 3-5 record at the cutoff, would do them even better, leaving them with a 45.49 OSI.  Going .500 would get them to 53.76, virtually a lock.

Piscataway plays a tough schedule.  With an SI of 68.47, they only play down 2.31.  That’s a big part of it.

Don’t forget one more variable:  OSI is only 60% of the UPR formula.  Power points is the rest.  Still, we think this is a pretty good predictor.

But let’s go back to South River.  What’s their magic number?  Remember, they failed to qualify for the playoffs at 6-3 last year.

The Rams have a Potential OSI of 50.08.  A winless season would get them 25.04.  Their “Step Value” – how much each win is worth – is 3.13.  In the South 2 supersection last year, no team below a 37.63 OSI made the playoffs, so that’s the target.

South River would need to win four games to get to that target (it would get them 37.56).  Five wins gets them to 40.69, which is a good bet, and 6 wins locks it up.

Let’s check our work.  If we used this method last year, they had a Potential OSI of 42.77 (remember, they had three weak games against Roselle Park, Metuchen and Highland Park – only the Bulldogs are on their schedule this year – for a playdown of 11.21).

Each step value would have been just 2.38 points.  An OSI of 37.63 is still the target, since that data was from last year.  Six wins only gets them 35.64, though they actually ended up with 31.3 last year because many of their teams fell even further in OSI; their weak teams did even worse than expected.

They would have needed 7 wins to possibly to to 38.02, and 8 wins to get to 40.39.  Considering the change throughout the year had them getting 4 OSI points less than their pre-season potential, you would say South River probably needed eight wins to qualify for the playoffs with the schedule they had last year.

This year, if you take 4 OSI points off, 6 wins would do it, and they could possibly even get in with five.

How reliable is the “Step Value” method?  We looked at the 2019 record for the entire Big Central Football Conference, plus Immaculata.  On average, the pre-season “Step Value” predictor was off by 5.44% either up or down.  The predictor was off by 4.35% by the cutoff date, meaning it was more accurate because those are the new numbers used to calculate OSI.  (Also note that OSI changed little from the beginning of the season to the end; see the next section.)

One last note about Step Values.  They will generally be more accurate on the extreme end of the results scale.  A team with 7 or 8 wins, or even 1 or 2 win, will be closer to the predicted value than those in the middle with 3 to 6 wins.

Think about it:  an undefeated team will be perfect, because they got 100% of their Potential OSI.  Same with a winless team; they get half.

A team that’s 7-1 or 8-1 is getting 100% of most of their Potential OSI.  So assuming all their opponents don’t tank or have turnaround seasons, those predictions should be fairly accurate.  Our data bore this out.

But a 4-4 team is much more of a mixed bag.  And there are lots of combinations as to who a team might have beaten.  So this will be a little more variable.

But we can still get an estimate close to how many wins a team might need to at least be in the playoff conversation.  And it’s not meant to give a team a target.  But it is a good method to help determine if a team has a favorable or unfavorable schedule, whether the goal is making the playoffs, or earning a top seed.

If a team needs to win 8 games to be in the playoff conversation, they have to weak a schedule.  If they can sniff the postseason with 2 or 3 wins, it’s probably too weak (though some will argue they should be rewarded for playing a tougher schedule, regardless of results.)

The bottom line is:  this is where scheduling matters.  Leagues should be using these target OSI values to figure out how many wins a team needs to qualify for the playoffs.

But what about Strength of Schedule?  Can’t it change throughout the year?

Strength Index values can, and do, change throughout the year, sometimes drastically.

JP Stevens fell 19.39 points last year, the biggest drop of any team in the WCTC listening area, and second-biggest drop in the state, falling from 50.2 at the start of the season to 23.9.  The Hawks lost nearly 48-percent of their value.

Ten teams dropped by 20 or more.  Other big falls in our area included Highland Park (-19.39), Sayreville (18.27), and South Plainfield (17.73).

The biggest gain in our area was Montgomery (+21.82), while the state’s biggest gains went to Willingboro (the only team that picked up more than 30 points, at 36.73) and Woodrow Wilson (+29.54).  Twelve teams gained 20 or more.

Those are large swings, but remember how we said things balanced out generally?

Comparing Potential OSI at the cutoff date to what teams had in preseason, the numbers are a lot smaller.

We looked at only teams in the Big Central here (as doing the entire state would have been a mammoth undertaking).

Of those 61 schools, Cranford had the biggest gain in Potential OSI from the start of the season to the cutoff, at +7.26.  That means the teams on their schedule generally improved.  There were 14 teams who gained more than 3 points.

The biggest loss in Potential OSI belonged to Highland Park at -6.57, followed by Bound Brook at -6.51.  Only 13 of 61 teams fell more than 3 points.

There were 34 teams who were within +/-3 points at the cutoff, compared to their pre-2019 Potential OSI.  The average gain overall was 2.69.  The average loss was 3.23.

How can we use the SOS and Play Up/Down for Scheduling?

There are many valuable ways to use all of this information.

Conferences can use this to determine if a team is playing too strong or too weak a schedule.  Playing down too far could limit a team’s ability to make the playoffs, earn a first-round home game, or a top seed, even if that team goes undefeated.  Playing up too high could be damaging in that a team may not be able to garner enough wins – and power points – to qualify for the playoffs.

Some leagues like to schedule nine games broken into three categories:  games you should win, games you should lose, and games that can go either way.  But how do you put teams in those categories?  Using the SI values is a good way to do it.

A situation came up in a conversation with Carteret head coach Matt Yascko this week.  After having a nine-game schedule, they were one of five teams to lose Immaculata when the Spartans pulled out of The Big.  His question was whether it benefitted him to add a ninth game?

The answer depends on what kind of team you add.  Carteret’s SI heading into this season is 52.6.  Their potential OSI is 63.55.  In North Group 3 in 2019, Bergenfield at 39.58 was the lowest SI to get in, so around 40 should be the goal.

Carteret isn’t necessarily hurt by not adding a game.  Assuming things work like they did with South River, which was 6-3 and got about 69% of their Potential OSI, Carteret would get a 43.5 OSI if they went 6-3.  Sounds like it would work.

So, Carteret would not want to add a team with an SI that would bring their average down:  any team with an SI under 63 could be dangerous.  Over 63 could also be tricky, since a loss would only give them half; they’d want a good matchup and a team they feel confident in beating.  They could try for a team around 81 or 82 or higher, that way a loss would get them a little over 40 points, right around their OSI target.  A win, of course, would help them tremendously.