With a little more than two months before the high school football season kicks off, several local coaches have as many questions over the new classification format as finding replacements for graduated star players.
The new plan, which was passed last June by the TSSAA, goes into effect this fall through 2012 and affects only football. Teams were placed in one of three classifications for the regular season, based on last year's school enrollment figures. Those classes will expand to six classifications for the playoffs, again based on enrollment, with teams in Class A divided into 1A and 2A , while AA teams are grouped into 3A and 4A and AAA makes up the 5A and 6A brackets.
Every four years the TSSAA's Board of Control sets the new classification guidelines for member schools. There had been five football classifications since 1993, with the only significant chance coming in 1997 with the addition of Division II, which grouped schools giving financial aid into a separate league.
However last summer TSSAA officials opted for a new format, in the hopes that clustering teams from closer geographic regions would cut travel costs and renew old rivalries, which had been discontinued under the former classification system. It is also believed that having teams play more neighboring schools will boost attendance, which had been dropping in recent years.
"This was the best way of answering several concerns our member schools had," said Sequatchie County principal Tommy Layne, who is also a member of the TSSAA's Board of Control that voted in the new system. "There needed to be a change and after looking over several proposals, this is the one that seems to be the best fit for the majority.
"There are still a lot of questions, just because nobody has seen how it will work other than on paper yet."
A total of 32 teams will qualify for the playoffs in each of the four larger classes, which is the same number as under the old format, while 24 teams in 2A and 1A will get in with the top eight seeds in those classes earning a bye. Teams finishing first and second in the district will be automatic qualifiers, and the rest of the playoff field will be filled by wild cards with the best overall records. All schools will play every team in their district, and there will remain two classifications in Division II (private schools), which makes for a total of eight state champions.
"That's one question is are we really a big enough state to have that many state championship games?" said Hixson coach Houston White, who coached in Texas previously. "There are five times more high schools in Texas and they have only a couple more state champions than us.
"But I like the fact that all the schools are grouped closer by enrollment now, so we aren't having to play schools that have twice our enrollment. And we don't have to worry about traveling very far away for district games now, which I really think will help attendance. It's just one of those deals where we'll have to actually go through a whole season before everybody completely understands how it works. I'm sure there will be bugs we have to work out."
The local AAA district is also loaded with traditional powers. Six of the seven teams in District 5-AAA earned playoff berths last year and four of those advanced at least to the second round. Whichever teams among Bradley Central, McMinn County, Ooltewah, Rhea County and Soddy-Daisy do make the playoffs will have to contend with a brutal 6A postseason bracket. Class 6A also includes 10 teams that have played for state titles this decade -- Maryville, Oakland, Smyrna, Brentwood, Independence, Ravenwood, Riverdale, Germantown, Franklin and Oak Ridge.
Cleveland and Walker Valley will also be part of 5-AAA, but would play in the 5A playoff bracket.
Because overall records determine wildcard playoff spots most smaller schools are hesitant to play bigger opponents, meaning that although local programs like Ooltewah, McMinn County and Soddy-Daisy will no longer travel to Knoxville and Maryville for league games, they have had to schedule non-district opponents outside the area. Among Soddy-Daisy's non-district games are trips to Johnson City and Kentucky.
"I don't like the fact they've mandated that we're going to play in a district with five schools that are a lot larger than us," said new Cleveland coach E.K. Slaughter, who was at Soddy-Daisy last season. "Most of the schools around Chattanooga are smaller, so none of them want to play us. That means we still have to travel to find nondistrict games and the only teams that will play us are the bigger schools.
"Secondly, with so many wildcard teams, you won't know who you're going to play or where until maybe the week before the game. There is still a whole lot of confusion right now to be honest."