As much as the picture for high school football playoffs for 2014 cleared up Thursday, the outlook for the 2015 football season couldn't be more unsettled.
The Minnesota State High School League approved plans to host the 2014 Prep Bowl at TCF Bank Stadium and to hold state semifinals at various sites during construction of the Vikings stadium. The championship games will be played a week earlier, rather than the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving.
But in 2015, even regular-season schedules are up for debate, prompted by pressure from two legislators who fielded complaints from constituents about teams forced to travel out of state to play.
The league has found support for creating scheduling groups primarily based on geography but also enrollment. The plan would keep schools from either having to schedule games with out-of-state teams or having byes. Pros and cons were laid out at Thursday's board meeting, and action is expected at an upcoming meeting, hopefully to help with 2015 schedules.
Problems with 2015
The playoffs for 2015 have their own issues. A late Labor Day and a Gophers home football game on the traditional Prep Bowl weekend have created a one-time scheduling headache. To solve it, the league has discussed the possibility of closing off section playoffs to 35 to 40 percent of the state's teams, playing three games before the traditional start of school, or reducing the regular season to seven games.
Shrinking the section tournaments could mean as many as 140 schools, from Nine-man teams through Class 5A, would not qualify for postseason play. This is the preferred option for the MSHSL Board and activities directors, said associate director Kevin Merkle, head of football scheduling. Merkle noted "not a lot of pushback" from activities directors on shrinking the section playoffs at recent area meetings statewide.
Merkle acknowledged, however, "the coaches don't like it and would do whatever they could to avoid it."
The 32 teams in Class 6A, home to the state's largest schools, would not be affected because they play fewer games to advance to state.
The board voted to table any action on the 2015 football schedule until its December meeting.
The 2015 playoff problems should go away starting in 2016, when the Prep Bowl will be played in the new Vikings stadium.
Concerns about the regular-season schedule emerged in a bill introduced during the 2013 Legislature by Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, and Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka. It demanded that the MSHSL, an independent organization, provide schools a full eight-game regular-season schedule against Minnesota teams.
The problem has been especially acute for the five Lake Conference schools: Eden Prairie, Edina, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Wayzata.
In the past five years, those schools have traveled to Iowa, North Dakota, Missouri, Wisconsin or even Manitoba to find games. To secure enough games in 2010, Eden Prairie and Wayzata paid a combined $3,500 to entice in-state schools to play them.
This fall Eden Prairie and Wayzata, the state's largest schools and winners of seven of the past eight Prep Bowl championships, will play just seven regular-season games.
"The high school league has been aware of the problems and refused to do anything about it," said Hann, whose sons were Eden Prairie football players. He said he and Bonoff, a former Hopkins football mom whose district includes the Hopkins, Minnetonka and Wayzata schools, "introduced the bill as a way of saying, 'If they aren't going to do it, we'll do it.'"
Merkle said under statewide football scheduling groups, schools would be put in groups of at least 14 or 16, based primarily on geography, but with some consideration for enrollment. Schools within those groups could schedule games based on competitive balance or long-standing rivalries.
Scheduling groups offer more flexibility than section scheduling, a proposal the board voted down in 2011.
That year the league created Zero Week, a three-year experiment to allow teams to play one week before the majority of teams in the state.
The scheduling groups started taking shape in December. At recent meetings with groups of activities directors throughout the state more than 80 percent favored scheduling groups over section scheduling by a show of hands, Merkle said.
Merkle plans to present specific information on scheduling groups at December's league board meeting and bring the issue for a vote at January's meeting.