The WPIAL has come under fire recently for their scheduling methodology, particularly in football. The current system uses a computer to generate the schedule based on team grids, arranged alphabetically by conference. From there, the teams with non-conference slots in the same week get slated to play against each other. The WPIAL prefers to have an even number of teams overall, so that during the regular season teams don’t have to match up with non-WPIAL opponents. Due to an odd number of teams in certain classifications, inter-classification games were necessary throughout the schedule. Last year, I wrote an article about potential strategies to fix the alignment problems the move to six classifications has created. While some of my realignment suggestions were admittedly a bit radical, fixing the scheduling issues could have much more tangible benefit in the short term while the WPIAL works towards a long-term alignment solution.
Blowouts and Forfeits
This scheduling method has created some marquee non-conference games such as the Aliquippa-Clairton matchups in 2016 and 2017 and the revival of the Mt. Lebanon-Upper St. Clair rivalry game in 2018. That said, non-conference games can also result in lopsided mis-matches, which is where the criticism has come from. Last year, Mapletown (one of the smallest teams in the WPIAL) forfeited a Week 1 game against 1A powerhouse Clairton. This year, 1A Northgate has already announced a Week 1 forfeit against 2A McGuffey. Last year, Northgate lost 5 players to injury in a 48-0 loss to McGuffey, including their starting quarterback. Other non-conference blowouts last year featured the top team in 5A Gateway beating 4A Ringgold 62-0.
Imbalanced Conference Schedules
The forfeits have been one issue, but the other issue which has gotten less publicity is unbalanced conference schedules. In 6A, where there are 9 teams and 8 conference games, logic would dictate that each team would get 4 home and 4 road conference games. Instead, last year Mt. Lebanon and Seneca Valley had just 3 home conference games and played 5 conference opponents on the road. Last year’s 6A Champions Pine-Richland played just 3 road conference games and had 5 home conference games. These schedules will invert this year so Mt. Lebanon will have 5 home and 3 road conference games and Pine-Richland will have 3 home and 5 road conference games.
Other teams saw an even greater imbalance in their conference schedules. In 5A, Connellsville had 5 road and just 2 home conference games. In 4A, Montour played 5 conference opponents at home and 2 on the road. Class 3A saw a number of uneven splits with South Park and Waynesburg playing 2 road and 5 home games while Keystone Oaks had the inverse of that schedule with 5 road and 2 home games. Burrell, Deer Lakes, and Uniontown also had 5 and 3 splits. The worst distribution was in 2A where East Allegheny incredibly played 5 road conference games and just 1 conference opponent at home. A number of other 2A schools also had an uneven distribution of conference games.
Football schedules are already set for this season, but it is never too soon to plan for the future. Next year will be a realignment year and the WPIAL will have the opportunity to create a new scheduling matrix.
1. Start with Conference Games
Conference games should be the starting point for the WPIAL football schedule. In the past, the WPIAL has traditionally aligned conference in favor of more teams in fewer conferences to have more of the schedule taken up by conference games. As an example, if a classification had 24 teams (as 5A did this cycle), the WPIAL has opted for 3 conferences of 8 teams rather than 4 conferences of 6 teams. Typically, this has led to conferences with somewhere between 7 and 10 teams. All of these groupings fit within a 9-week regular season schedule. Here is an example of how a 9-team conference should look (this could have been applied to 6A this past cycle).
If the WPIAL wanted to purposefully align to create certain matchups within the schedule (say, Pine-Richland vs North Allegheny in Week 9) they would just have to slot those teams in a given schedule that would create that matchup.
For a conference with 8 teams, they would play 7 conference games and 2 non-conference games in a given 9-week season. The WPIAL should build this schedule backwards, slating to have only conference games in Week 9 then have the other weeks only feature 3 conference games. (For full disclosure, I moved some things around in this matrix so that no team had 2 consecutive non-conference games.)
2. Non-Conference Scheduling: Prioritize Rivalries
There are obviously other factors that would come into play when generating the entire WPIAL schedule. For instance, in 2018 when the current schedule was made, there were 9 6A teams and 24 5A teams. Each week one 6A team played a 5A opponent. This left an odd number of 5A teams so one 5A team also had to play a 4A team. This had a trickle-down effect throughout the schedule.
One benefit is that it does enable the WPIAL to schedule some non-conference rivalry games (such as Mt. Lebanon-Upper St. Clair). My proposed system would still allow for that to happen. The WPIAL would just need to be intentional about which teams were slotted into which schedule outlines so that rival teams were given schedules with a non-conference slot aligned in the same week. It should be noted that “Weeks” are not locked in my schedule outline so if the WPIAL wanted to artificially create non-conference matchups, they could just swap an entire week within the schedule outline.
3. Non-Conference Scheduling: Fairness and Travel
The WPIAL could also do a better job in organizing the non-conference opponents a team faces, particularly in the smaller classifications. Heading into 2018, defending 1A State Champions Jeannette were given Avella and Brownsville as non-conference opponents. Avella had gone just 1-9 in 2017 and went 2-8 last year. Brownsville plays in 2A and has won just 1 game in the last two seasons. Jeannette beat Avella 55-7 and Brownsville 44-0.
Last year was derided as “the year of the blowout” in the WPIAL. In the 540 regular season games, the average margin of victory was a hair over 28 points per game. This was up from 25 points per game in 2016 and 2017. Under my proposed structure, once the WPIAL has the general outline of a schedule in place for teams and has included rivalry games where possible, they should look at the fairness of opposition.
Due to the 1A playoff setup, Jeannette had to play an opponent from the Tri-County South. However, instead of playing Brownsville in Week 5, Jeannette could have faced any of the following 2A teams who played non-conference games: Carmichaels, East Allegheny, Freedom, Valley, Riverside, Carlynton, South Allegheny, or Steel Valley. Of these 8 teams, 4 are closer to Jeannette than the 45-minute drive to Brownsville. The closest would have been a 20-minute drive to East Allegheny or a matchup between 1A Champion Jeannette and 2A Runner-Up Steel Valley. Instead, Jeannette beat Brownsville 44-0, East Allegheny beat Carmichaels 50-8, and Steel Valley beat South Allegheny 40-3.
The WPIAL should be able to create a more balanced schedule if they simply look at all of the opponents with open dates in the same week and create matchups based on the relative strength of those teams. One way to look at those relative strengths would be through a rating system used for all WPIAL teams, such as my ELO Rankings. Additionally, many schools have already seen their travel budgets stretched by the move to 6 classifications which created conferences with much broader footprints. Scheduling non-conference games with an eye towards geography would also help to alleviate some of those travel concerns.
With Albert Gallatin leaving, the WPIAL will have an odd number of teams this year. Heading into next season, this problem could be solved by re-admitting Vincentian into the WPIAL after the Royals have played an independent schedule for two seasons. On top of that, it will be interesting to see if more teams decide to follow Albert Gallatin’s lead and leave the WPIAL in favor of playing independently. Uniontown’s school board discussed it last year but opted to stay in the WPIAL. Other schools such as Brownsville, Mapletown, or Southmoreland who have not seen success in quite some time may also contemplate leaving the WPIAL if changes are not made.
In order to retain their current membership, the WPIAL should take steps to alleviate some of the burdens placed upon schools. To their credit, the WPIAL representatives did vote against the PIAA’s move to 6 classifications in 2016. The move to 6 classifications created a number of alignment issues throughout the state. Locally, a handful of teams such as Apollo-Ridge and Seton-La Salle have opted to play up in a higher classification in order to reduce travel for their conference opponents. The WPIAL Steering Committe should be working on a competitive balance formula (similar to my ELO Rankings) that would reduce extreme mis-matches in non-conference games. Additionally, in their next two-year schedule cycle (2020-2021) the WPIAL needs to balance home and away games against conference opponents. Aligning conferences and assigning non-conference matchups with an eye towards traditional rivalries, geography, and competitive balance would go a long way towards a more competitive structure with fewer blowouts.