'Bowl games' lack value for football teams | Phil Anastasia

Shawnee’s Jeremy Fisher celebrates after scoring a touchdown against Hammonton in the Group 4 championship game.

As a means to an end, “bowl games” matching sectional football champions have value.

On their own merits, they are worthless.

So, thanks to a vote by the general membership of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association on Monday, the 2018 football season will begin with scrimmages and end with exhibition games.

The scrimmages make perfect sense. Every team need to gauge its summer progress and evaluate its athletes against other teams after weeks of intrasquad stuff.

The exhibition games make no sense. These “bowl games” are little more than showcases at the end of the long season, a mid-December clash of sore, tired, physically vulnerable and emotionally exhausted teams with zero at stake.

That’s the thing. There’s nothing on the line in these games under the terms of the New Jersey United Proposal that was passed by the NJSIAA’s general membership by a 218-79 vote with 12 abstentions.

The creation of the “bowl games” was part of a significant change to the format of the sport, with teams’ predetermined regular-season schedules slashed from nine to eight games and with a major overhaul of the seeding system for the respective public-school group tournaments.

Proponents of the plan, including West Jersey Football League president Bud Kowal, tout the “flexibility” in the new format that will allow teams to tailor their schedules in November, based on the relative strength of the program as well as other factors including depth, injuries, momentum, and the wishes of the coaches and leaders in the senior class.

Non-playoff teams can have eight games. Or nine games, with one cross-over consolation game arranged by the NJSIAA and designed to match programs of similar strength.

Or 10 games, as a second cross-over consolation also will be available. And playoff qualifiers that lose in the first round have the option of jumping into the consolation pool and participating in another game the following week.

“I like the flexibility of it,” Mainland athletic director Mike Gatley said. “If you want to end early, maybe get ready for the winter season, you can do that. If you make the playoffs, lose a tough game but you want your seniors to play another game, you can do that as well.”

Gatley, Kowal and others make good points with regard to the flexibility in the new format, especially in relation to non-playoff squads. The proposal also preserves traditional Thanksgiving games.

“I think it’s a good system,” said Kowal, the athletic director at Ewing who was one of the authors of the plan and worked behind the scenes with North Jersey football people to develop a proposal acceptable to officials at both ends of an often fractious state.

Kowal is especially pleased that lower-profile programs will have the option of making decisions later in the season to proceed in a way that’s best for their student athletes.

“Maybe you have a lot of injuries, numbers are down, and eight games is enough,” Kowal said. “But maybe you want to play one or two more games against teams of similar strength, and you have that option to do that.

“You have a good senior class, and you want those kids to have the opportunity to play another game or two. You can do that. Or maybe you’ve got some good young kids, and you want them to get some experience for next year. You can do that.”

It will be interesting to see the impact of the new power-point system and new seeding format, since they represent drastic changes to the current arrangement.

Under the new plan, the state will be cut in half for seeding purposes, with a Northern pool of teams in each public-school group and a Southern pool of teams in each public-school group.

When the top 16 teams in each pool in each group are determined by the new power-point system, those 16 teams then will be cut in half again, with the eight southern-most schools forming the South sectional; the next eight southern-most forming the Central sectional; the next eight, the North 1 sectional; and the next eight, the North II sectional.

That’s a big change as it will be tough to tell during the season which teams will be in which section. Scouting will be complicated.

Adding to the intrigue will be the new power-point system, which has yet to be determined. Members of the NJIAA’s football committee will work to develop a new formula for ranking teams that likely will use some combination of the old power-point system, MaxPreps’ power ranking and perhaps a third system as well.

It likely will be confusing, especially at first, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. The old system certainly had flaws, especially recent jury-rigged changes that used a multiplier for games involving North Jersey non-public powerhouse programs.

The most visible change will be the creation of “bowl games” that will match sectional champions in each group. Kowal and NJSIAA director Jack DuBois, who oversees football, both indicated that the games are likely to match the South champion vs. the Central champion and the North 1 champion vs. the North II champion, in each group.

Camera icon Tim Tai/Staff photographer
Delsea players celebrate with the South Jersey Group 3 championship trophy after defeating Woodrow Wilson.

“If you’re thinking about adding one more game and creating a true state champion, that’s a no-brainer to set it up that way,” Kowal said.

That’s the end game here. Public-school football is the only sport in which the NJSIAA does not offer competition to a state championship, mainly because of a clause in the organization’s constitution that prohibits it.

Somehow, the organization has managed to ignore its constitution when it comes to non-public football, which has competed for state championships since 1993, but that’s another story.

These “bowl games” have one role: To set the stage for the creation of state championship games when the playoff system is changed again, assuming a majority of the general membership votes in agreement, in December 2019.

That’s clearly the plan, to note that state semifinal games already are being played under the guise of “bowl games” and to note that with just one more week of competition for just 10 teams — out of the 300-plus that sponsor the sport — New Jersey will finally join the rest of the country and crown state champions in public-school football.

That would be a good thing. And maybe the price to pay is two years’ worth of the strangest of games, with sectional champions practicing in December and traveling to neutral sites and lining up to play another champion with nothing at stake.

If these games really were state semifinals, if there really was a state final awaiting the winner, it would be a different story. There would be something on the line, real motivation for these players and coaches.

But that won’t be the case in 2018 and 2019.

These kids pour their hearts on the field in pursuit of sectional titles, and the emotion overflows when they hoist those trophies in the air during post-game celebrations.

Now they’re supposed to do it again a week later? For what? A half-state title?

Scrimmages in August, exhibition games in December. That’s going to be New Jersey public-school football for the next two years.

‘Bowl games’

These would have been the matchups had the NJSIAA playoff system that will take effect next season been in place in 2017:

Group 5

Lenape (11-1) vs. South Brunswick (11-1)

Group 4

Shawnee (8-4) vs. Long Branch (9-3)

Group 3

Delsea (9-3) vs. Somerville (11-1)

Group 2

Haddonfield (9-3) vs. Hillside (9-3)

Group 1

Paulsboro (10-2) vs. Middlesex (11-1)