A fork in the road

Football’s playoff path convoluted


Paul Tubridy

Coach Larry Hill speaks to his team during a timeout. Hill and his team have a labyrinthine road to traverse to close out this season.

Jackson Posey, Sports Editor

“If there’s a fork in the road, take it.”

Everyone’s heard Yogi Berra’s nonsensical adage about life’s divergent paths. But the “haha’s” turn to “ahh’s” when the words shift into focus. Berra wasn’t talking about a physical road, nor a mere decision; he was speaking of opportunity. An opportunity to take advantage of what’s in front of you.

Football’s playoff hopes are a lot like the metaphorical fork Berra spoke of: both exist just in front of the team (or adventurer), and hold three paths (or tines). (He was probably talking about a normal fork rather than an three-tined “oyster fork,” but hey, they eat seafood in New York, right?) 

Both hold unknowable futures ahead of them, and once the heroes have chosen, they cannot turn back. And both are exceptionally confusing.

The Rangers (5-1, 3-1) need only to win Friday’s game against East Central (1-5, 0-4) to clinch the playoffs, which shouldn’t be too difficult. But the playoff berth is just the first step into the thicket of postseason action. The goal is not simply to make the playoffs, no – the team is fighting for the first seed. Not for pole position in their district, but for the top spot in their division.

Class 6A football splits into two divisions once the playoffs start: the blandly-named Division I and Division II. The split is determined by enrollment; of the four teams that make the playoffs in District 27, the two higher-enrolled schools will play in the Division I bracket. The lower-enrolled schools will head to Division II.

Smithson Valley’s enrollment is the second-highest in District 27, and making them a lock for Division I. But Judson (4-1, 4-0), historically a Division I school, dropped down to Division II in this spring’s realignment period due to would-be Judson students attending Class 5A Veterans Memorial, a fellow Judson ISD school which opened in 2016.

This creates a scenario in which two (likely) playoff teams are assured of their postseason division. But two teams don’t, and that throws a huge wrench into seeding, which is critical: the higher-ranked of the two Division I teams will get the “privilege” of playing District 25 winner Austin Vandegrift (6-1, 5-0) instead of District 26 leader Austin Lake Travis (6-0, 5-0), at least until the regional finals. (The good part of that transaction has nothing to do with Vandegrift, a formidable team in their own right.)

In order to make any sort of playoff run, however, football must win its first-round matchup against a District 28-6A team, which is a convoluted mess in and of itself. If Madison (4-3, 3-2) beats Brandeis (4-2, 3-2) tonight, they’ll breeze through their last two games and into the playoffs. They would then claim the No. 2 seed in Division I, behind Reagan (6-1, 5-1), who beat Steele (5-2, 5-0) earlier this season.

However, if Brandeis wins that game and sneaks into the playoffs, Reagan would likely become the district’s second-seeded Division I team. Johnson (7-0, 6-0), arguably the top team in the San Antonio area, would move up from Division II, claiming pole position in the Division and immediately becoming a contender in Region IV. And it would guarantee that the Rangers, who beat Madison by 25 points earlier this season, would find no first-round respite.

To put it simply, the No. 1 seed looks a lot more appealing than does the No. 2 seed. And there are three primary paths for the Rangers to earn that top spot.

  1. Win out

This is the simplest, most-intuitive way to earn a good playoff spot. Just win every game! That sounds easy enough, right? Well, not quite. After this week’s game against East Central, the Rangers will host Steele (more on them later) in a day-after-Thanksgiving rivalry game. Then comes a showdown at Judson, in a game that was originally scheduled for last Friday.

Is this feasible? Absolutely. But closing out the season against perhaps the two best teams in the district, both of which are undefeated in district play, is a tall challenge. It isn’t impossible, but the next few paths are lot simpler to pull off.

  1. Beat Steele, Judson beats Smithson Valley and Steele

This scenario is an easy one to understand. If the current district standings hold, Smithson Valley and Steele would represent the group in the Division I playoffs. The Rangers beating Steele would give them one loss apiece, and grant the former team the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Judson beating both schools – rather than, say, just Smithson Valley – doesn’t impact the Rockets too much. Their seeding is all but locked in. But it would guarantee that Smithson Valley and Steele finish with the same district record, and in this scenario, that tie would go to the Rangers.

  1. New Braunfels wins out, Judson beats Wagner

Everybody likes math, right?

New Braunfels (4-3, 2-3) beat Wagner (3-2, 3-2) back on Oct. 29, giving them the head-to-head tiebreaker. And Wagner’s down-to-the-wire, 57-56 overtime win over Clemens (2-5, 1-4) last week knocked the Buffaloes out of the playoff hunt, whittling the candidates for the district’s four playoff spots down to just five teams.

New Braunfels’ path could’ve been an easier one to trod. After seemingly beating Steele on Oct. 23, a Unicorn penalty gave the Knights an untimed down. The defense got another stop, but the offense got another break, and Steele quarterback Wyatt Begeal ran the ball in for a touchdown on his team’s third chance at the end zone. He converted the two-point conversion attempt as well, leaving the Unicorns to stare at a zeroed-out scoreboard that showed the Knights up, 22-21.

Now, New Braunfels no longer controls their own destiny; Wagner does. For the Unicorns to make the playoffs, they must finish with an equal or better record than the Thunderbirds. Because they’re behind now, they have to make up a game somewhere in the last two weeks of the season. Both teams get to play South San (0-4, 0-4), but it won’t be there. No, New Braunfels has to beat Clemens this week, and Wagner must lose to Judson next week, for the Unicorns to squeak in.

It’s easier said than done. Clemens is playing for pride after last week’s loss, and Judson may have locked in their playoff position. But New Braunfels has something to play for, and Judson has a talent advantage over Wagner. So it’s certainly possible, if not likely.

This path could be vital because of New Braunfels’ enrollment. They have a mere 28.5 more students than Steele (don’t ask how that’s possible), but even if that half-child was the entire difference, it would be enough. A playoff New Braunfels team is a Division I New Braunfels team.

This path exists as a sort of safety net for the Rangers. Their win over New Braunfels solidified their tiebreaker, so as long as they beat East Central this week, there’s a chance they could lose to Steele and Judson, and still finish claim the top seed in Division I.


Bottom line: this playoff race is as wild as it gets. Think, “Fall Guys:” it’s a mess, but a mess everyone wants in on.

To lock in a playoff berth, and guarantee themselves a spot in the playoffs, the Rangers need to win Friday night at East Central. Meanwhile, keep an eye on Clemens at New Braunfels, Judson at Steele and even Madison at Brandeis, which will rage in the background as the Rangers fight for a playoff berth. There may be a fork in the road now, but before long, somebody’s going to take it.