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RPI Madness: Breaking down Utah's switch to a new prep playoff format, seeding system

From the Football is back! 20 stories to preview 2019 prep football in Northern Utah series
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For many years, a team that wanted to qualify for the playoffs in Utah high school sports had to finish in a certain place in its region, normally fourth place or better.

That’s not the case any longer.

In January, the Utah High School Activities Association scrapped the region-placement qualification process in lieu of an all-comers tournament format with seeding based on a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) starting in the 2019-20 school year.

The RPI is calculated based on a team’s winning percentage, along with strength of schedule and opponents’ strength of schedule.

Every team in every classification now qualifies for the state tournament in the traditional “team sports” (football, volleyball, basketball, soccer, baseball, softball and lacrosse) as a result of the shift.

"The last realignment just showed that we have obvious inequity in the number of teams in our alignments and it’s because teams, programs and school districts want geography to be a huge part of where they’re aligned," UHSAA assistant director Jon Oglesby told the Standard-Examiner in January.

"In our current postseason format, that’s extremely problematic because there’s only so many seeds you’re able to fit into a tournament.”

Such a fundamental changes prompts many questions. How does the RPI formula work? What are the impacts? And what are the positives and negatives?

INSIGHT FROM A TEST BRACKET

Last year, MaxPreps released a test bracket of what the 2018 6A football playoffs would’ve looked like under an RPI seeding.

The top four seeds were Bingham, Lone Peak, American Fork and Pleasant Grove, the eventual four semifinalists.

The No. 5 seed was East, which went 7-3 and lost to PG in the first round of the playoffs.

No. 6 was Fremont. The No. 7 seed? Weber.

Wait, didn’t Weber beat Fremont and win the region title? Yes.

"I shook my head, I didn't understand why we were above them. I think there are some flaws to it, but I do like the idea of being seeded based on strength of schedule and so forth," Fremont football coach Ross Arnold said.

Things like that could happen in the new system. 

There are now a number of first-round byes in the various state tournaments as a result of everybody qualifying. The number of byes depends on which classification and which sport. Should those byes go to region champions?

“I can see some positive things with the RPI and I’m sure they’re still trying to figure things out, but to me the No. 1 thing I would say is they need to keep somehow regions alive and make a region championship matter ... and do whatever they want from there on out,” Ogden football head coach Erik Thompson said.

In a memo sent by the UHSAA to athletic directors, it pointed out a few examples concerning RPI and the fall state tournaments from the 2018-19 school year.

In 6A volleyball, the top-ranked team that wasn't in the tournament under the previous format was Davis, which had the No. 11 RPI ranking but finished fifth in Region 1 last year and missed the playoffs.

"You had teams ... that were playing in really strong regions that wouldn’t even make the postseason, but when you add in an RPI factor, suddenly they’re in the middle of the pack and potentially hosting a home playoff game,” Oglesby told the Standard-Examiner in July. 

In 4A football, Bonneville was ranked 12th in RPI but missed the 2018 tournament (composed of 16 teams) because the Lakers finished tied for fourth in Region 11 and were on the wrong side of a head-to-head tiebreaker.

In 6A girls soccer, the Weber girls soccer team was ranked eighth in RPI but missed the state playoffs after losing a play-in game to Northridge, the No. 6 team.

"There are better teams in deeper regions, and ours is a perfect example," Syracuse soccer coach Taylor Allen said.  

For the record, the four Region 1 girls soccer teams that did go to the 2018 playoffs won their first-round games by a combined score of 24-0 against teams from Region 2. Three of the four eventual 6A semifinalists were from Region 1.

Might Weber have won a first-round game if the Warriors made the playoffs last year? Against many teams, they probably would've won handily.  

HOW THE MATH WORKS

The RPI score will be operated by MaxPreps. Each team’s RPI score starts at zero.

A team’s RPI score is calculated by adding three numbers: 

No. 1: Multiplying a team’s modified winning percentage (more on what modified winning percentage means later) by 40%.

No. 2: Multiplying a team’s “opponents winning percentage,” or “OWP” by 40%. OWP isn't the combined record of a team's opponents; it's the average modified winning percentage of a team's opponents.

No. 3: Multiplying a team’s “opponents’ opponents winning percentage,” or “OOWP” by 20%.

OOWP uses the average winning percentage of all the teams your opponents have played (For example: In football, OWP uses the average winning percentage of 9-10 teams, whereas the OOWP uses the average winning percentage of anywhere from 81-100 teams).

The term “modified winning percentage” adjusts a team’s winning percentage based on what classification opponents come from.

It’s computed by dividing the “win value” by the “game value.” The game value is a fixed number depending on a school’s classification.

Each game for a 6A school is worth 2.01 points, 5A is worth 1.75, 4A is worth 1.52, 3A is worth 1.32 and 2A is worth 1.15 points. If a 6A football team, for example, has 10 games, then its total season game value is 20.1.

The win value is what changes depending on who you play. By rule, any team can play a lower-classification team once and, if it wins, not be penalized in the win value.

But if, say, a 6A team beats a 4A team and the 6A team has already played a lower-classification team in the season, then the win against the 4A team would be devalued from 2.01 to 1.52.

Example: assume the aforementioned 6A team is a football team with 10 regular-season games and wins them all. Its game value would be 20.1 points, but its win value would be 19.61 due to the win over the 4A team — giving the team a modified win percentage of .976.

The UHSAA RPI is not the same as the MaxPreps rankings, which is a different algorithm. Margin of victory is not part of the RPI.

UHSAA's website goes in depth on other specifics, such as how out-of-state opponents are counted, how often RPI rankings will be published (the first ones come out in September) and other frequently asked questions.

COACHES WEIGH IN

The dramatic shift has been met by a lukewarm mood from coaches.

Last year, Bonneville football missed the playoffs by being on the wrong side of a head-to-head tiebreaker, but the Lakers won their last two games of the year once they figured out their new offense.

The new format would’ve benefited them in 2018, sure, but head coach Jantz Afuvai says teams now have to have a new way of approaching preseason goals.

“Coming from the old system and doing this for the last 25 years, one of your team goals is to make state — make a run for the state championship and making it to that state (tournament) was a team goal that everybody puts on your board, or something that you’re going to look forward to,” Afuvai said.

Of the coaches’ dislikes about the new system, the all-comers format is the most common one. Even some coaches of teams that haven’t made the playoffs in 14 years don’t like the all-comers system.

“It’d mean more to me to break through and be in the top four then, all of a sudden, you’re the last team in the region but you get to play a playoff game,” Clearfield football head coach Andre Dyson said.

The goal of the RPI is to create a more competitive state tournament, which some coaches believe will be accomplished.

But including every team in the playoffs means there’s an extra round of playoffs and more games to play.

That can be a good thing for some schools who haven't hosted home playoff games in decades. But it can also take a physical and mental toll.

"If you’re a team that has guys that play both ways and are always on the field, it’s hard to have the body last that long," Farmington football coach Daniel Coats said. "College and NFL players fight to stay healthy their whole seasons. High school players don’t even have the equipment and stuff to help them like they do." 

On one hand, coaches like that a good team in a tough region won’t miss the playoffs. On the other hand, coaches think the RPI system somewhat devalues a region championship.

In the past, a region title meant a No. 1 seed. Now, it might not even guarantee a first-round bye, especially in weak regions.

The other common complaint among coaches is the makeup of the formula itself.

To review: 40% is based on a team's modified winning percentage. The remaining 60% of a team's RPI score is based on what its opponents and opponents' opponents do.

"That doesn't make sense to me. The majority of what decides our playoff seeding should be in our control," Viewmont football head coach Scott Ditty said.

Oglesby said the UHSAA is comfortable with the research and planning that's gone into implementing the RPI and he doesn't anticipate changes.

Association members have received feedback from other states, such as Washington and Arizona, who have used this formula in the past or currently. Some that have adopted an RPI seeding system have made minor changes over the years.

While changes to Utah's formula and process aren't expected, this massive tremor in Utah's high school athletics landscape may have a couple more aftershocks in the future.

You can reach prep sports reporter Patrick Carr via email at pcarr@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter @patrickcarr_ and on Facebook at facebook.com/patrickcarr17/.

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