Tualatin's Jack Wagner breaks free for a touchdown run in a 6A semifinal win over West Linn last season. (Photo by Jon Olson)
Tualatin's Jack Wagner breaks free for a touchdown run in a 6A semifinal win over West Linn last season. (Photo by Jon Olson)

A two-division 6A football playoff has moved to the brink of reality.

The state championship committee followed the lead of the football ad hoc committee and included the 6A playoff reform in its final recommendation to the executive board, which was released Thursday. If the board approves the change at its next meeting May 2, it will go into effect this fall at the start of the next four-year time block.

The ad hoc committee had proposed dividing the 32-team format into brackets of eight teams for Division I and 24 teams for Division II, with separate championships. But after the topic was discussed by the delegate assembly and among state athletic directors at their annual conference, the state championship committee recommended two 16-team brackets.

In a poll of 6A athletic directors, the two 16-team brackets had unanimous support. The ad-hoc committee met again last week and had a “healthy debate” about the 6A changes, according to Sunset coach Damien Merrick, a member of the ad hoc committee.

“The athletic directors had spoken very loudly that they liked the 16 and 16,” Merrick said. “For us as an ad hoc committee to push forward a different recommendation opposite of that would've been counter-productive. As one athletic director put it, to see all 6A athletic directors vote unanimously on any topic, let alone playoffs, is unheard of.”

Under the plan, the No. 1 team from each league would earn an automatic bid into the Division I bracket. The rest of the Division I field would be composed of the remaining highest-ranked teams. The Division II bracket would include the remaining automatic league qualifiers and be completed with the next highest-ranked teams.

“I think the 16/16 is an intermediate step to doing something different in four years,” said OSAA assistant executive director Brad Garrett, the staff liaison to the ad hoc committee. “I don't think they'll stick with it that long, but I could be wrong. I don't think it's where they want to be, but it's a step in that direction.”

The plan would have 6A finishing its postseason on the same week as the other classifications, a break from previous years, when the 6A final would be one week later. Under the 8/24 proposal, the Division II final would have been one week later than the other brackets.

“I like the fact that it finishes with the rest of the state,” McNary athletic director Scott Gragg, an ad hoc committee member, said of the 16/16 format. “That's a great outcome for that. I also like the idea of league champions being seeded regardless of their rank in the first division.”

The new format would allow 6A to avoid a first round that matched up No. 1 vs. No. 32, No. 2 vs. No. 31, etc. The games often turned into blowouts.

“Any change is a good change, in my opinion, because the playoff system as it was, those first-round games weren't enjoyable for anybody,” Merrick said. “We've moved away from that, which I think is a good thing.”

Creating a more competitive first round was a major impetus for the change.

“I think it'll be great to see the outcomes and the matchups of a 17 vs. 32, and a 1 vs. 16 in that first week,” Gragg said. “I think we're going to see some exciting football. I think there's some opportunity for teams to continue to build their program by playing more than one outmatched opponent in the first week.”

In the 8/24 proposal, any league No. 1 team that was not ranked in the top 12 would have been relegated to the Division II bracket. With the 16/16 plan, league No. 1 teams will secure a Division I berth, regardless of ranking.

It's not unusual for league No. 1 teams to fall outside the top 16. Last season, Portland Interscholastic League co-champions Grant and Roosevelt were ranked No. 23 and No. 26, respectively. In 2019, Mountain Valley Conference champion McNary was No. 21.

Gragg said he believes it is important for league champions to play in the Division I bracket.

“It would not be ideal to have a league champion win the second division and wonder if they were qualified to win the state championship,” he said, referring to the Division I bracket.

Since the OSAA began seeding brackets by power ranking in 2010, no team outside the top 14 has ever made the semifinals and no team outside the top seven has ever made the final.

Merrick, who supported the 8/24 plan, was instrumental in initiating the 6A playoff reform.

“Change in our state has always been hard, and it takes a lot of time and effort to move people in a certain direction,” Merrick said, adding, “Our big fear was that we were going to end up with the status quo with the old 32-team bracket.”

Gragg said that “time will tell” how the new plan works.

“I'm just glad that we're moving in a direction that I think is going to be better for 6A football,” Gragg said. “If it's not the right system, we have more data and we can make changes moving forward.”