The 256 teams that qualify for the playoffs on a year-to-year basis are a constantly changing group of teams, but they actually share more in common than you might think.
Although the 2019 playoff field featured 69 teams that had not made the playoffs the previous year, – 27% of the overall playoff field – just 34 of those new teams were ending a playoff drought of longer than just one year.
With isolated exceptions, by using a three-year win model, you can get a very accurate assessment as to how the 2020 playoff field will appear.
Obviously, there will be teams that rise up and buck past trends and join the playoff field after an extended absence. But for each time that happens, they are replacing another team in the field, and the bubbles between classes almost always seem to involve the same teams from year to year.
Using the aforementioned three-year victory model – with the success formula and squads electing to play up applied – here are the breakdowns:
Class 1A: 305.5 and below (Tuscola: largest)
Class 2A: 306-408 (Breese Mater Dei: largest, Nokomis: smallest)
Class 3A: 409-552.5 (Wood River East Alton: largest, Alton Marquette: smallest)
Class 4A: 553-782.5 (Peoria Notre Dame: largest, Benton: smallest)
Class 5A: 783-1237.5 (Sycamore: largest, Hyde Park: smallest)
Class 6A: 1238-1793.5 (Thornton: largest, East St. Louis: smallest)
Class 7A: 1794-2347 (Glenbard West: largest, Blue Island Eisenhower: smallest)
Class 8A: 2348 and up (Brother Rice: smallest)
So what does this all mean?
The bubbles will likely reside around the teams that they always do. But there are many small fluctuations that can occur to push those teams onto or off of a bubble in a respective class.
What does the forecast say for East St. Louis?
We'll be doing the same thing that we did with the Flyers last year: watching the line very closely. Last year, for example, this exercise had East St. Louis just on the opposite side of the 5A barrier. This time around, the Flyers find themselves on the list in slot number 161, which would make them the smallest 6A school.
The slight shift is caused by where the additional teams that weren't in the field in the last projection come in now. For example, one of the schools with a slightly smaller enrollment than East St. Louis, Kankakee, is in the projection this season. The Kays were not in the field in last year's projection. That's all it took.
It is important, however, to note one thing: Chicago Public League qualifiers are always the wildcard. Since a large majority of those schools fall in classifications between 4A and 6A, the movement can be extremely fluid involving schools in those areas. On top of that, more CPL schools will qualify this year. The teacher's strike cost between four and eight teams an opportunity to qualify for the playoffs, and dependent on where those schools fall on the enrollment chart, East St. Louis could just as easily move back to 5A. It's just that close.
How about Rochester?
Some were surprised when Rochester made the move up to 5A in 2019, but it has been trending that way for a few seasons.
That's not to say its a lock the Rockets will be trying to defend a 5A title next season as they currently reside in spot 126. They would have to have a strong push from smaller schools to move up to 5A.
But we have a precedent now, and certainly can't dismiss the possibility of it happening again.
What are the other interesting bubbles to watch?
In smaller schools, Tuscola always seems to be hovering between 1A and 2A, and a Class 3A semifinalist from last year in Quincy Notre Dame currently finds itself trending toward 2A.
Solid programs such as Morris, St. Laurence and Rockford Boylan are close enough to the 4A line to see it as a possibility, while Sycamore's fence ride between 5A and 6A is well worth monitoring.
Glenbard West is always a pivot point between 7A and 8A and currently holds residence as the smallest Class 7A school. Brother Rice is one spot above them. Always an intriguing thing to watch.
What's the impact of the teams leaving for 8-man football?
Right now, it terms of the projection, it is minimal. Only one of the departing teams, Kirkland Hiawatha, would have made the projection had they continued in 11-man football.
And nearly all of them were from the Class 1A ranks, so really all that fundamentally happened is the list of 1A nonqualiifiers decreased.
There is, however, a much more substantial effect that no one is talking about in the grand scheme of things. With each defection, the number of available wins is decreasing. It's a very small amount, for certain, but it could start to sting for the teams that were using the wins over the teams that left for 8-man football to get to the five-win threshold that now have to make replacements in their schedule with better teams just to fill the slate.
What's the overall takeaway from the exercise?
The first thing that stood out was that we have dropped to just 502 schools that are currently playoff eligible that competed in 11-man football last season.
That number could fall further with more 8-man defections, but it is certain to go up at least one as the Chicago Public League will likely elevate one school to replace Chicago Marshall, which folded its program prior to last season.
Complete data isn't available from the 1970s, but if we dip below 500 playoff-eligible schools, that could be the first time that's happened.
And what it means from a math perspective is that there's just simply less wins to go around for everybody, especially if Illinois schools continue to struggle as they did last year in beating out-of-state opponents.
We came dangerously close to 4-5 at-large qualifiers last season with just two five-win teams failing to make the playoff field. Of course, there were extenuating circumstances that contributed to that relatively low number – most notably the CPL strike – but trends point to us continuing to slide in that direction.