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PREECE: High school RPI systems flaws evident in football playoff picture

By Brian E. Preece - Herald Correspondent | Oct 19, 2021

Lehi's Issac Terrell (99) prepares for a defensive play in a high school football game against Orem on Wednesday. Oct. 13, 2021. (Darnell Dickson/Daily Herald)

Lehi head coach Ed Larson isn’t the only coach frustrated with the RPI, but he boldly stated some things that needed to be said. I like the expanded playoffs, and I do like elements of the RPI or what it is trying to do. But the RPI is only as good as the algorithms that it uses. And room for humans in the seeding process must be made.

One of my tweaks would be to use the RPI as an initial ranking system. But you have to account for teams winning their regions and other head-to-head wins. With the latter, sometimes there is a Team A beat Team B who beat Team C thing going on that fans don’t realize. But when there is no Team C involved, if Team A beats Team B then Team A needs to be seeded higher.

That’s what wrestling coaches do when they seed for their divisional tournaments. The initial pre-seed, much like the RPI, spits out a percentage based on some pre-set criteria, mostly winning percentage. But then the coaches (or humans) have a seeding meeting and this is where head-to-head and even wins and losses versus common opponents comes into play.

I have no problem with Springville being seeded better than Spanish Fork and Provo. Spanish Fork did beat Springville but it also lost to Provo that beat them. And then Spanish Fork and Provo lost other games, with the latter losing to a team Springville beat.

But seeing American Fork seeded below Weber and Bingham, two teams it not only beat but beat handily, is really silly. American Fork is the fourth best team in 6A based on the regular season. It’s only losses are to the top three seeds.

And Riverton, who tied for the league title with Bingham, should get a higher seed than Bingham and Mountain Ridge. Mountain Ridge, who tied for third, actually got the highest seed of any team from Region 3 and lost to both Bingham and Riverton. Not only did the Sentinels lose to Bingham, they lost by 31 points! How are they seeded above the Miners, let alone Riverton who also beat them and Bingham?

Larson’s frustrations come from the fact that Lehi played a very tough schedule but is ranked behind other teams with similar records that didn’t challenge themselves as much.

The 5A classification seems to get the most messed up, or just messy with the mathematics of the RPI. This is because 5A teams will often play up against 6A teams, but many 5A teams also play down, not just against 4A teams but some have even played 3A teams this year.

Lehi played three 6A programs in Copper Hills, Corner Canyon and Davis. Copper Hills was a lousy 6A team, but Corner Canyon is Corner Canyon. The big variable is Davis, a 5-5 team in 6A. And perhaps that’s where Lehi got stung a bit. They seemed to be penalized for losing to a 5-5 team from the 6A classification.

Two teams seeded just ahead of Lehi are Spanish Fork and Provo from Region 9. Both have lost just two games. Provo lost to top-seeded Springville but it also lost to Wasatch, seeded No. 10. Spanish Fork lost to Provo and also lost a game against 4A Crimson Cliffs, who by the way are seeded sixth in the 4A tournament. Crimson Cliffs also lost four games on its schedule.

So it begs the question, should Lehi’s losses to two 6A teams be viewed more harshly than the losses of Provo and Spanish Fork, with the latter having lost to a 4A program with four losses? And one of Provo’s non-region wins was against a 3A team, a 7-2 victory over Grantsville, a program that lost three games including one to a 2A team. Lehi played only 5A and 6A teams.

And Stansbury’s third seed is indeed curious. The Stallions did finish 8-2 and were the Region 7 champs, but they did lose to two 4A teams including Logan which finished 5-4 on the season.

There is always the argument that this will work itself out and to take state you have to beat every team anyway that is ahead of you on your bracket. So Lehi plays Timpview in the quarterfinals vs. the semifinals or finals, what is the big deal?

But football is a bit different animal than other sports. Injuries are more frequent and as a tournament proceeds, more players get banged up. It could benefit Lehi, a good team, to play Timpview or a Springville later in the tournament as one of these teams could lose a key player(s) changing the whole outlook of the contest.

Also, making the state championship game, even if one loses that game, is a special experience. Just getting to the semifinals gets you a chance to play in a college stadium, something that is very memorable for many involved in any program. So shouldn’t a system be set up to get the best, or most deserving teams, to the semifinals and finals?

Two seasons ago, Orem played Olympus in the 5A second round as Orem was seeded No. 12 and Olympus was seeded No. 5. Both teams were seeded (very) poorly as Orem ended up winning the state title. Olympus also won its region, and in the Deseret News rankings Olympus and Orem were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 respectively. Orem beat Olympus by three points as they stopped the Titans just short of the goal line in a thrilling contest. This would have made a great state championship game, and certainly shouldn’t have been a game played in the Round of 16.

Lehi could argue it should be seeded as high as third, or at the very least, a sixth seed, as the best second place team in the state as 5A has five regions this year. But just being seeded sixth instead of seventh gets them away from possibly meeting Timpview in the quarterfinals.

But besides the teams mentioned, Brighton also got the short end of the stick. They draw Orem, who is ranked incredibly at No. 20. Brighton won its league but could only manage to get the No. 12 seed. There has to be more reward to winning your league than being seeded No. 12 and hosting a team that won four state titles in a row. Incidentally, four teams from Region 7, three of which lost as many or more games than the Bengals, were ranked higher than Brighton. I see that as a huge problem that demands a fix.

And then begs the question in the RPI era whether regions should exist at all. Why not let teams create their own schedules entirely? Lehi, for example, plays in Region 8 against teams that have dominated 5A football in recent years. Perhaps Larson would rather schedule other teams than say Orem and Timpview ensuring wins and a better RPI.

There is no doubt that the UHSAA purposely created regions in 5A and 6A that are not equal in strength mostly to help struggling athletic programs. But should teams from these softer regions benefit in the RPI system as teams in stronger leagues are forced to play each other increasing their chances for losses and a lower RPI rating?

One can’t say to American Fork or Lehi that being in the best leagues in their classification has really benefited them in the RPI system. American Fork has found itself seeded below two teams it beat and beat handily. And Lehi, which not only played in rugged Region 8 but challenged itself taking on 6A teams like Corner Canyon, is penalized for doing such.

Much of this can again be alleviated with bringing in the human factor.

Form a committee to seed the teams. Yes, still use the RPI as a baseline. But like what wrestling coaches do before their divisional tournaments, take a look at who actually beat who and adjust the seeds accordingly. For the most part, the best or most deserving wrestlers make the state finals. It doesn’t mean that upsets don’t happen, but the brackets are solid and built properly. It’s time for the UHSAA to make some adjustments in other sports. I’m not saying to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but just make some needed tweaks to better a concept that does have some merits.

And one other thing I would like to see changed, again if we are going to have regions, is playing your own region in the first round. In the 5A and 6A, there will be three games where teams from the same league will play each other.

My proposal to avoid this in 5A and 6A, where the top eight seeds have byes and seeds 9-24 play in the first round is to divide those 16 teams into two groups. Then using the RPI rankings, have the ninth seed play the lowest seed NOT from its own league. Then the tenth seed would play the next lowest seed from another league and so forth until you get down to the last two teams.

The other classifications have two regions so it should be a bit easier to avoid this, especially if the leagues have the same amount of teams. One fun thing about the state playoffs is having the chance to see other teams outside your league to see where your region stacks up.


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