Tepper: What the Class 5A division split means for Texas high school football
The UIL announces that Class 5A will be split into divisions in the 2018 district realignment.
Nothing warms the cockles of Texas high school football nerds’ hearts quite like district realignment. And even in the deepest moment of the offseason — nearly a year until the next of the UIL’s biennial school reshuffling — it can grab your attention.
Such was the case on Wednesday when the UIL announced that it would split Class 5A into divisions in its next realignment after the classification’s superintendents voted for the measure.
There’s a lot to unpack here.
What in the heck does this even mean?
It’s a fair question, because this can be very confusing. So, as presently constructed, there are 253 teams in Class 5A (schools with enrollments between 1,100 and 2,147), divided geographically into 32 districts. Four teams from each district make the playoffs, with the two playoff teams with the largest enrollments going to the 5A Division I bracket and the two smaller teams going to the Division II bracket.
In contrast, smaller classes are pre-divided into divisions. For example, while Class 4A is comprised of teams with enrollments between 480 and 1,099, it is actually two separate divisions — Class 4A Division I (schools with enrollments between 723 to 1,099) and Class 4A Division II (schools with enrollments between 480 and 722). Each division’s teams are divided geographically into 16 districts, with four teams from each district making their respective division’s playoffs.
What today’s news means is that 5A is going to become like 4A. When the next UIL realignment rolls around in early February 2018, Class 5A will be pre-divided into 5A Division I and 5A Division II.
Why is this happening?
This has been on the table for a while. The topic first came up in 2015 at a UIL legislative council meeting, and after studying it for two years, the UIL gave the 5A superintendents an opportunity to vote on it. The results: 144-77 in favor of the resolution, with Region II (DFW and East Texas) voting overwhelmingly in favor, Regions I (West Texas and some DFW) and Region III (Central Texas and Houston) voting mostly in favor, and Region IV (San Antonio and South Texas) voting against.
What are the benefits of this change?
The biggest benefit of this change (which is for football only) is that Class 5A teams will be playing teams more similar to their size. As presently comprised, districts feature some pretty stark enrollment disparities. Take District 22-5A, for example: Port Arthur Memorial has an enrollment of 2,098, while its district bunkmate Beaumont Ozen has an enrollment of 1,121. That means that Memorial is nearly twice the size of its district opponent!
If the rule were to be put in place right now (remember: it won’t go into effect until 2018, when 5A will both gain and lose some teams), the split would be right around 1,735 — the 127 5A teams with enrollments between 1,735 and 2,147 would be in 5A Division I, and the 126 5A teams with enrollments between 1,100 and 1,734 would be in 5A Division II. That means that Port Arthur Memorial would be in an entirely different division than Beaumont Ozen, so Ozen wouldn’t have to battle Memorial for a playoff spot.
What are the drawbacks of this change?
The big elephant in the room is an increase in travel. When you split into divisions, you can leave some schools out on islands all by themselves.
Let’s go back to Port Arthur Memorial in District 22-5A. If the rule were put in place right now, Memorial would be the only team from District 22-5A to go to the newly created 5A Division I. So instead of playing teams like Beaumont Ozen (a 15-mile drive), Memorial could be faced with playing teams like Texas City (a 100-mile drive) or Galveston Ball (a 110-mile drive). That is not a small thing, especially with shrinking budgets.
Indeed, teams like Texas High in Texarkana could be forced into a district with Dallas-area teams like Highland Park (a three-hour drive). And while West Texas teams have always had to deal with lengthy travel, they could get even lengthier, especially for teams like San Angelo Lake View. Of course, teams can opt to play up a division or even a classification…but while that may lighten the travel load, it would mean they’re still playing disproportionately bigger schools.
What are the practical implications of this?
The whole idea here is to level the playing field a little bit, and there’s an argument to be made that it needs leveling.
Let’s go back to the idea of hypothetically implementing this new guideline in Class 5A as it is presently constructed (teams bigger than 1,735 are Division I, teams smaller than 1,735 are Division II). If you look at the playoffs from last year, there were 30 teams that played in the “wrong” bracket — that is to say, teams that would’ve been Division I (big-school) teams under the new guideline played in the Division II (small-school) bracket, and vice versa. The most egregious: The Colony, with an enrollment of 2,060, played in the Division II bracket, while Beaumont Central, with an enrollment of 1,471, played in the Division I bracket.
And that’s not to mention the disadvantage that smaller teams faced in even making the playoffs: just 54 of the 126 smallest schools (42.8%) in Class 5A made the playoffs in 2016, compared to 74 of the 127 largest schools (58.2%).
What are the hidden implications of this?
The increased travel may have coaches rethinking their non-district scheduling. Whereas traveling 50 or 60 miles for a non-district game was no big deal in the pre-split era, now it’s an added expense to an already thin travel budget. Teams may opt to play teams closer to home in non-district games, knowing full well that they’ll be logging extra miles in district play.
And then there’s the ever-present rumblings of adding another classification — a so-called Class 7A — in order to even out the classifications even more (though that is currently more hype than reality).
Overall, there was a bit of a seismic shift in the way Texas high school football will operate in 2018 and beyond, but it’s not worth worrying about right now. Once we grasp the enrollment shifts in each school — so-called Snapshot Day, when schools turn in their enrollments to the UIL, will come in October — we’ll have a better idea of how the newly reconfigured Class 5A will shape up.
For now, though, it’s fodder for Texas high school football nerds, and that’s never a bad thing.