Playoffs are in the near future for La Habra.
Patrick Takkinen

Understanding the new CIF Bowl Game format

November 6, 2015

Prep2Prep presents an AP course on Bowlology

With the various playoffs in the 10 CIF Sections just around the corner Prep2Prep is going to endeavor to give our readers a snapshot of how the new CIF Bowl Game format will work, and answer some lingering questions.

The information is all on the California Interscholastic Federation web site but it’s amazing how many fans and even some coaches are still unclear on how the changes will play out. It’s almost like having to take an AP course in Bowlology, so in short that’s what we are providing.

First off, the new CIF state structure does not and cannot impose changes on the federated section members that each have their own playoff system, and since none of the 10 sections use the same criteria a brief explanation of each one’s format will help kick-start the learning process of how it all works.

Section formats

The CIF Southern Section will have most of its top teams in the Pac-5 Division, however, their 13 division playoff format is unique in the state and probably mirrors best how the new Bowl Game format will pan out - and that involves the phase “competitive equity.”

According to CIF-SS Director of Communications Thom Simmons: “Actually, all of our divisions are based on the same criteria, competitive equity." Football includes some regionalization. It would be unfair to teams like Mission Viejo and Vista Murrieta (to name a few) to say all of our top teams are in the Pac-5.”

The Southern Section puts out a rankings/poll each Tuesday during the season of all its divisions and then seeds the teams after the various leagues end this weekend with the seeds determined from a final change off last week’s poll based on the games this weekend.

All 13 divisional champions from the CIF-SS will advance as qualifiers.

The CIF Central Coast Section just adopted a new playoff system agreed upon with the State CIF that was slightly outside the original guidelines established by the state for teams to qualify.

The CCS will use a its previously established formula to determine the top 24 “A league” teams and then split them into three enrollment-based Open divisions. Those will be the only teams that can advance as qualifiers. The other two divisions that are not A league teams will not advance to a Bowl game.

The CIF-CCS will advance five teams but their playoffs do not start for two weeks.

The CIF Los Angeles City Section is similar to the CCS in that it will split the teams into three eight-team divisions and then place them by enrollment.

The criterion the LA City Section uses is based on the previous two year’s rankings on MaxPreps. We are in year one of this criteria according to LA City Section Sports Information Director Dick Dornan. All three of their winners advance.

The CIF San Diego Section will have an Open Division with the remaining five divisions using a formula that is based on a competitive equity criteria and enrollment, however according to CIF-SDS Assistant Commissioner John Labeta this will be the last year enrollment is used as a factor.

All six of the CIF-SDS winners will advance as qualifiers.

The CIF Sac-Joaquin Section uses a “playoff plan” that is their term for competitive equity in which 78 teams qualify for the playoffs with three brackets of 16 teams, three 8-team brackets and one 6-team bracket. After those teams are selected they are split into divisions by enrollment and seeded by the seeding committee.

Based on the criteria of the seeding committee, which includes where they finish in their league plus more, Division I and II teams are not necessarily guaranteed to play in that division. Besides that criteria there are particulars for other divisions as well.

In this system the teams have a pretty good idea of what division they will play in but won’t know for sure until the seedings are done this Sunday.

“A team could be moved from D3 to D4 or vice versa strictly by enrollment versus how good they are this year. If a team is really, really good and a lopsided favorite in D4, we wouldn’t move them up to D3 because of that. It would only be by enrollment,” said CIF-SJS Director of Communications Will DeBoard. “To complicate matters, we do have ‘continued success’ rules, where if a team wins three section titles in a row, it does move up. That happened to Central Catholic (Modesto) for this year. They used to be in D4.”

The CIF-SJS will advance all seven of its winners as qualifiers.

The CIF Central Section uses enrollment but teams can be moved up like in the Sac-Joaquin Section using a similar continued success formula they call competitive equity like most other sections, but that is the only way teams can be moved up and it’s done the year before so the schools being moved up know it in advance.

The CIF-CS that the locals call “The Valley” is advancing its six winners as qualifiers.

The CIF Northern Section has four divisions that are predetermined based on enrollment and then seeded using a competitive equity seeding formula. The formula has three parts with overall record, league record and standing, and strength of schedule based on teams that had winning seasons and to account for division and upper division opponents.

The teams are seeded based on their point total and may be adjusted based on head-to-head if their points are close enough, usually within two points. But teams may not be seeded outside of their league finish or order. (Example: If Team A had more points than Team B but a better league record, then Team A has to be dropped behind Team B).

All four section champions are qualifiers for a Regional game.

The CIF North Coast Section is strictly enrollment based, while the CIF San Francisco Section and CIF Oakland Section both play in one division.

The CIF-NCS will advance five division winners as qualifiers and San Francisco and Oakland one each.

Now that you are probably still a little confused by the different systems used by the 10 sections, we’ll attempt to explain how the section winners will fold into the new CIF Bowl Game format where enrollment is totally out the window.

Bowl Game Qualifiers

There will be a total of 51 qualifiers that must be Section champions or Open Division runners-up in a section that has an Open Division. They will be broken down as follows by CIF Section:

Southern Section – 13

Sac-Joaquin – 7

Central – 6

San Diego – 6

Central Coast – 5

North Coast – 5

Northern – 4

LA City – 3

Oakland – 1

San Francisco – 1

Because they have an Open Division, the Central Coast and San Diego Sections have an advantage in that they will be allowed to replace one or more of their Section champions from another division with a team that participated in that Section’s Open Division. That Section’s Open Division team may only replace that Section’s Champion from the division in which they would have been slotted if they had not been selected for the Section’s Open Division.

The San Diego Section voted to not exercise this option; however, as previously stated, the Central Coast Section has recently adopted a new format that involves three Open Divisions. For their five qualifiers, they will send the three Open champions and two of the three runners-up that meet the criteria in the previous paragraph.

Since only Section champions are eligible to be qualifiers, the only non section champion qualifiers this year will be from the CIF-CCS.

Divisional Classifications

Since the Southern Region, which includes the Central Section, has more schools, the Central Section is being divided between the south and the north.

“In order to balance the number of teams from the north and the south, Central Section Divisions I, III and V have been slotted in the north and Central Section Divisions II, IV and VI have been slotted in the south,” CIF State Media Relations Officer Rebecca Brutlag quoted off the CIF website. “The Central Section teams will be slotted in their respective regions in a manner to ensure that two teams from that Section would not play each other in a CIF State Football Championship Game.

Based on the number of Section divisions, there exists a possibility for "play-in" games unless one or more of the sections decides not to send a qualifier.

“Every section has their number of qualifiers but that doesn’t mean they have to fill all their slots,” remarked Brutlag. “Right now there will be a play-in game but if for some reason a section champion does not advance to a Regional game there could be byes.”

Unless there were extreme extenuating circumstances it’s hard to imagine a team not wanting to play for a state championship, but if that’s the case a team could advance directly to a state Bowl Game other than the Open Division where like last year the two top teams go directly to the state title game.

Competitive equity used for seedings and pairings

So how will they place the teams when the commissioners meet on Sunday, December 6 to decide on the pairings?

They will use a formula similar to what Simmons of the CIF-SS and others described as using, competitive equity. This competitive equity will be determined using the following criteria as stated on the web site:

a. Win-Loss Record (Preseason, League, Section Playoffs)

b. Strength of Schedule (Preseason, League, Section Playoffs)

c. Head to Head Competition

d. Common Opponents

e. Various rankings may be consulted when placing teams (i.e. MaxPreps, Cal-Hi Sports, Cal Preps)

f. Opponents win-loss record

g. Suitability to represent the State in a Bowl Championship with regards to Pursuing Victory with Honors and acceptable standards of sportsmanship.

Once this criterion is applied the commissioners will place the 13 teams in the south and the north regardless of enrollment.

Lineup of games with new Divisions

There will be two Open Divisions.

The first will be open to all teams regardless of enrollment that have qualified through their respective section playoffs. The best team from the north and the best team from the south will be selected to participate and will receive byes directly to the CIF State Football Championships Bowl Open Division game.

The second will be open to all teams with an enrollment of 1,250 students or less that have qualified through their respective section playoffs. These teams will participate in the CIF Regional Football Bowl Games with the winner advancing to the CIF State Football Championship Bowl Game (1,250 or less).

Once the two teams going directly to Sacramento State for the December 19 Open Division game are pulled out of the pecking order, there will be 24 games remaining for the Northern and Southern Regional football Bowl Games.

The commissioners will then pull out the top two teams from the north and south that meet the 1,250 students or fewer requirements and send them to a Regional Small School Open Bowl Game.

That will leave 11 games in both the north and south and the commissioners will reset the placements and fill in the slots in the new divisions. Once again remember, it’s regardless of enrollment. The Divisions are as follows:

I-AA and I-A

II-AA and II-A


IV-AA and IV-A

V-AA and V-A


Where will the games be played?

On the media teleconference last Tuesday with state CIF officials several questions came up with two specifically about logistics and local matchup’s with respect to the Regional Games. Here are the answers from CIF State Associate Executive Director Ron Nocetti with respect to those two issues.

“The Regional games will be home games based on the higher placement and who submits a proposal to host. If the school does not have a suitable stadium the game could be moved to a nearby school or junior college that is available.”

“We are going to try to take travel and local matchups into consideration but we’re not going to do a local match-up just to do a local match-up. We’re going to place the teams where they fit competitively. If they can stay close to home under the criteria than that would be good.”

Once the 12 Regional champions are crowned together with the two Open Division teams that had byes, the 26 teams remaining for the 13 Bowl Games will be ready to face off.

Like last year in Carson where all five Bowl games contested were played, the top five divisions will be at Sacramento State on December 18-19.

The 2-AA game will be at 4 pm on Friday and the 1-AA will be at 8 pm. On Saturday the action will kick off at noon with the 1-A game followed by the Open Small at 4 pm and the big boys in the Open Division at 8 pm.

As for where the other eight games will be played are anyone’s guess right now, and how the eight will be divided between north and south is still undecided.

Brutlag had this to say in an email response to Prep2Prep on on that question: “With five state games already being played in the North we’ll try to balance the eight remaining games so that the South will be hosting games accordingly. It also will depend on who submits a proposal to host form and what locations are available for State as locations could be available for Regionals but not state.”

That pretty much explains most everything but once again the details are all on the CIF and Section web sites. Each section has its format on their respective web site. The CIF also has a two-page explanation that can be found at: (PDF)

So there you have it. It may be a bit confusing this first year but the good news for high school football fans in California is instead of five schools winning a Bowl Game like the last few years in 2015 there will be 13 champions – and that means a lot of teams that never had a chance to win a state title in football will now get that opportunity.

“The system definitely has some moving parts,” DeBoard said somewhat musingly.

Moving parts may be a bit of an understatement. It’s more like getting bowled over.

That’s quite all right because on December 20 after the two Open Division teams are done squaring off there will 13 schools that will be state champions in the start of a new era for high school football in California.

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