How the Football Playoff Pairings are Determined — 2021

Last updated on October 17, 2021

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There are 481 IHSA member schools playing 11-man varsity football in 2019. (An additional 24 schools are playing 8-man football.) In the Chicago Public League, 31 teams play in "Chicago" divisions that are not eligible for the IHSA playoffs. That leaves a total of 450 eligible teams statewide. Of these, 256 (just over half) will be selected for the playoffs.

The boys football playoffs are the only IHSA tournament for which teams qualify on the basis of their regular-season records. The following steps are used to determine which teams receive a playoff berth and how the playoff teams are paired.

Selecting the Playoff Teams

The first step is to select the 256 playoff teams. The process proceeds as follows:

  1. All champions of conferences with six or more teams receive a playoff berth. Two-team ties are broken on the basis of head-to-head competition when those teams have played during the regular season. Three- and four-way ties are broken by eliminating teams according to the following steps. If, after any step is applied, only two teams remain, the head-to-head matchup determines the champion.
    1. Most wins in all conference games.
    2. Any team that has defeated all the other tied teams.
    3. If all tied teams played each other, fewest total points allowed in those games.
    4. If all tied teams played each other, highest point differential in those games (from -14 to 14 points in each game).
    5. Fewest total points allowed in all conference games.
    6. Highest point differential in all conference games (from -14 to 14 points in each game).
    7. Most wins in all games.
    8. Random drawing by IHSA Office.

  2. At the request of the Chicago Public League, only the teams in the eight "Illini" divisions are eligible for the IHSA playoffs.

  3. The remaining schools are sorted by three categories:
    1. First, by total wins
    2. Second, by combined wins of all opponents
    3. Third, by combined wins of all defeated opponents

    For example:

    School Wins Combined Wins
    of All Opponents
    Combined Wins of
    Defeated Opponents
    Abingdon 9 30 30
    Ziegler-Royalton 9 27 27
    Staunton 8 37 30
    Elgin 8 37 29
    Chicago Vocational 7 40 30
    Byron 7 38 31
    Libertyville 6 43 30
    Johnston City 6 37 28

  4. Starting at the top of this sorted list, the teams are added to the playoff field until the 256-team limit is reached. In the event of a tie for the 256th position, the following tiebreakers are applied:
    1. Head-to-head competition (if the teams have met)
    2. Number of teams played that qualified for the playoffs
    3. Number of wins by teams played that qualified for the playoffs
    4. Points allowed in games against teams that qualified for the playoffs
    5. Coin flip

    In practice, teams with 9, 8, 7, and 6 wins will always qualify for the playoffs. Teams with 5 wins are "on the bubble," and the tie is broken by the number of playoff points (the combined wins of all opponents).

The chart below shows the how the at-large cutoff was determined for the 256-team field over the past several years.

Year Total Schools
Conference Champions &
Teams with 6 or more wins
Non-Champions with 5 Wins Tie-Breaker
(Opponents' Wins)
Total Qualifying Not Qualifying
2009 548 218 60 38 22 38
2010 547 210 63 46 17 39
2011 549 221 60 35 25 40
2012 547 216 56 40 16 38
2013 544 208 58 48 10 36
2014 543 211 67 45 22 39
2015 538 202 64 54 10 35
2016 537 204 62 52 10 37
2017 533 209 64 47 17 39
2018 523 209 65 47 18 38
2019* 513 196 62 60 2 29
2020 Cancelled due to COVID-19 pandemic

*In 2019, the number of teams with 6 wins and the tie-breaker were affected by games canceled because of the Chicago teacher's strike.

Determining the Classes

After the 256 qualifiers have been determined, the schools are broken down into 8 classes of 32 teams each, based on the school's classification enrollment (from last year's report to the Illinois State Board of Education, adjusted by the 1.65 multiplier where applicable).

The largest 32 schools based on the official enrollment figures are placed in Class 8A, the next largest in Class 7A, and so on down to Class 1A. If a tie should occur for the final spot in a particular class, a coin flip is used to break the tie.

The following schools are affected by the Success Adjustment and, if they qualify for the playoffs, will be assigned to the designated class in 2021:

The following schools have elected to "play up" to a different class in 2021 and 2022: Elmhurst (IC Catholic) (3A), Joliet (Catholic Academy) (4A), East St. Louis (Sr.) (6A), Wilmette (Loyola Academy) (8A).

It is important to remember that a school's classification is not determined until the 256-team field has been selected on the final day of the season. The classes used in the Associated Press polls are a best guess at the final determinations, but they are unofficial and can be misleading. The fact that the AP ranks a school all season in a certain class has no bearing on the school's ultimate classification in the state playoffs. This can be determined only at season's end, after the entire 256-team field is selected.

The chart below shows the enrollment cutoffs for the 256-team field. The multiplier on non-boundaried schools was implemented in 2005. Starting in 2011, any school that had not won a playoff football game in the past six years received an automatic waiver from the multiplier. Starting in 2015, this window was reduced to four years, increasing the number of schools with waivers. Starting in 2019, the window was further reduced to two years.

Year Class
2009 up to 314 315-­438 440-­612 613-­1013 1014-­1453 1454-­1967 1968-­2544 2545-­above
2010 up to 326 327-­453 454-­613 614-­988 989-­1548 1549-­2020 2021-­2603 2604-­above
2011 up to 299 300-­430 431-­599 600-­896 897-­1346 1347-­1876 1877-­2489 2490-­above
2012 up to 310 311-­418 419-­570 571-­900 901-­1346 1347-­1876 1877-­2383 2384-­above
2013 up to 323 324-­429 430-­604 605-­906 907-­1369 1370-­1964 1965-­2397 2398-­above
2014 up to 308 309-­395 396-­528 529-­817 818-­1271 1272-­1693 1694-­2226 2227-­above
2015 up to 312 313-­407 408-­547 548-­822 823-­1287 1288-­1797 1798-­2338 2339-­above
2016 up to 305 306-­382 383-­528 529-­803 804-­1307 1308-­1787 1788-­2277 2278-­above
2017 up to 313 314-­393 394-­548 549-­910 911-­1392 1393-­1888 1889-­2302 2303-­above
2018 up to 292 293-­399 400-­561 562-­766 767-­1277 1278-­1792 1793-­2263 2264-­above
2019 up to 297 298-­405 406-­530 531-­769 770-­1238 1238.5-­1735 1736-­2216 2217-­above

Grouping and Seeding the Brackets

Once the 32 teams in a particular class are determined, the teams in Class 1A through 6A are grouped by the IHSA Office into two halves of 16 teams each, based on the general location of the schools within that class. In Class 7A and 8A, the teams are not grouped.

Then the seeds are determined by sorting the teams by some of the factors used to determine playoff berths:

  1. Total wins
  2. Combined wins of all opponents, and
  3. Combined wins of defeated opponents

If two or more teams are tied for a particular seed, the following tiebreakers are applied:

  1. Head-to-head record (if exactly two teams are tied)
  2. Random selection by computer

Then the teams are paired according to a standard bracket. In a 16-team field, the pairings are #1 vs. #16, #2 vs. #15, etc. In a 32-team field, the pairings are #1 vs. #32, #2 vs. #31, etc.

A school's ranking in the Associated Press poll has no bearing on its seed in the IHSA Football Playoffs. The only criteria used to seed the teams are those mentioned above.

Determining the Host Team and the Date and Time of the Game

In the first round, the higher seed hosts the game. In subsequent rounds, the school that has hosted fewer times during the current playoff series hosts the game. If both teams have hosted an equal number of times, the higher seed hosts.

When circumstances warrant, a site other than the designated host school's field may be requested by either school and may be used subject to the approval of the IHSA Board of Directors and the host school.

The game must be played on Saturday, unless both schools agree to play the game on Friday. Friday games must not be scheduled during school hours. Saturday games must start between 1 pm and 7 pm. The schools must agree on the starting time of the game. If they cannot come to an agreement, the IHSA Office will set the starting time.

For state championship games played played at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb, the home team is from the "northern bracket" (top bracket) and occupies the west grandstand. For state championship games played played at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, the home team is from the "southern bracket" (bottom bracket) and occupies the west grandstand.