State FB Playoffs: Early Season Primer

Hughson players celebrate (left) after win over Pasadena Muir for 2022 CIF D5-AA state title. At right, coaches from Pittsburg celebrate after winning first CIF North Coast Section title since 1991. Photos: Diego Hernandez / & @PittHSFootball /

It’s never too early to start thinking about CIF state football championships, especially when just about every year there are changes in some of the CIF section playoff formats that are sure to impact what happens when the regional games are selected. The biggest changes this year are in the CCS and in the Sac-Joaquin. We break it down.



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It’s hard to fathom that it’s only three years away from the CIF state football championships being 20 years old. There were were just three divisions at the start and competitive equity based divisions were not even a thought in those days.

It’s also been true almost every year of the CIF state playoffs that a new method for a CIF section conducting its playoffs is foreseen to have a big impact on the regional playoffs. Sometimes, it’s more than one and this year is one of those years.

Danny Scudero and team from Archbishop Mitty (San Jose) were the runner-up last season in the CCS Open Division playoffs. Photo: Archbishop Mitty HS.

First, we bring you the new format in the CIF Central Coast Section that it is going to use for its Open Division/Division I playoffs. It will start this year and is the same format that the CIF North Coast Section has used for the last two years.

That format calls for eight teams to be in the top section bracket. They are seeded in a way, however, in which the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds play in the second week if they win first-round games. The winner of that game is then the champion of the Open Division. The losing team isn’t done, but comes back in the third week to play the No. 3, No. 4, No. 5 or No. 6 seed with the winner getting the D1 section title. Since a team has to be a section champion to get a berth into the CIF NorCal playoffs, now both the NCS and CCS second-best teams, in effect, are playing on.

In the first two years of the NCS Open/D1 system, De La Salle of Concord captured its 30th and 31st consecutive section title while Pittsburg (many times a runner-up to the Spartans in the top division with no way to keep going in the regionals) won both years for D1. Pitt was in the NorCal D1-A regional bowls both times as well (losing to Liberty of Bakersfield in 2021 and winning over Manteca in 2022 before losing to Liberty in the state game).

When the CIF had a rule for a couple of seasons that allowed runner-up teams from a section to advance to the regional bowl games, the CCS had more than one runner-up team playing on. Liberty of Brentwood also was an NCS runner-up to De La Salle in 2018, but went on to the regionals and won the CIF D1-A state title with a 19-17 victory over Sierra Canyon of Chatsworth. The runner-up rule was soon discontinued and the new way of the CCS and NCS sending its second-best teams to the regionals as a champion was initiated.

Serra of San Mateo has won the CCS Open Division title the past two seasons and is a big favorite to make it three in a row in 2023. But this season, remember, the second-best CCS team is going to have a mechanism to get into a regional bowl game as well. While this could then create the very real possibility of a game, for example, between Pitt and St. Francis of Mountain View for a NorCal bowl game, the other impact is that other teams from other sections winning titles will all be lower on the NorCal side of the CIF bowl games than before. In the seeding system that the state uses, everybody slides down one spot when teams like Pitt and St. Francis are added in.

Let’s just hope the Southern Section doesn’t think this bracket-splitting format of the NCS and CCS is a good idea. We’d then have not one but two CIF state title game blowouts because the loser of the annual St. John Bosco-Mater Dei clash for the CIFSS D1 title would obliterate any other teams it would face and also would win a state title every year. What to do about the Bosco-MD dominance of the rest of the state, however, is a different issue and requires an entirely different solution.

Sac-Joaquin Section Divisions

There’s another perhaps more subtle change in the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section format. In the SJS for many years, if a team from a league designated as Division I were to win the league title then that team would move up into the next highest division. This year, that rule is gone. Teams in the SJS already know which divisions they are going to be in before the season starts based on enrollment and on a method of teams moving up if they have continued success.

Teams like St. Mary’s of Stockton that have tended to be D1 in the SJS before because of winning its league title are now D2 (and wouldn’t be in the same section playoffs as perennial power Folsom). Since Grant of Sacramento hasn’t moved up from D3 after winning the CIF D3-AA state title last season and is currently ranked No. 2 in the Sacramento Bee’s Metro Area rankings (only Folsom is higher), there’s a very good chance that the top three divisional winners from the Sac-Joaquin are going to all be highly ranked squads in the state overall.

Combined with another new team on the NorCal side of the CIF regional lineup (2nd best from the CCS), all of that is going to make it very, very likely that in order for the CIF to balance out the brackets north and south that the top teams from the CIF Central Section will be in the south this season (even if its not a team from Bakersfield).

It might even be a bigger issue for the state games, however, in the lower divisions of the SJS. A school like Sonora would not have moved up last year into the same division as Escalon and instead of losing to Escalon in the final seconds of the D5 section championship the Wildcats might have won it in D6 and then they perhaps would be celebrating the CIF state title instead of Hughson, which won in last season’s D5-AA final over Muir of Pasadena.

This is example of playing conditions that were endured by players from Shafter & Orland during last season’s CIF D5-A state final. Photo:

No More Rain, Mud Games For The CIF

We’re not sure if the CIF would have ever changed its policy of schools being able to host their own state championship games in football, but they have had to do it now for this season after the state senate got a bill passed from Melissa Hurtado (D-Sanger) and it was signed into law.

This came about primarily because of the outcry from some schools, particularly Shafter of the CIF Central Section, having to play CIF state title games on muddy fields during rainstorms at a place like Orland. Schools like Orland do not have all-weather fields.

The passed bill reads as follows:

(a) The California Interscholastic Federation shall hold all state football championship games at a neutral location that is comparable to the location of all other championship games. (b) For purposes of this section, a “neutral location” means a venue or site that is not the home ground of either team.

In other words, the CIF will likely be using junior college venues with all-weather playing surfaces for NorCal based state finals (which are those for D3-AA and below). The bill didn’t specify it has to be a junior college, however, so a high school like Lincoln of Stockton (right off a major freeway and a great place to watch a game) could technically be used as well.

Another possibility due to this new state law is that the CIF could look into doing doubleheaders at a venue like Sacramento City College for lower division state football finals. San Jose City College or Diablo Valley College also would seem to be places that would make sense as possible sites. All it says in the CIF blue pages is that home sites are to be determined.

Mark Tennis is the co-founder and publisher of He can be reached at Don’t forget to follow Mark on the Cal-Hi Sports Twitter handle: @CalHiSports

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  1. Fumble
    Posted August 24, 2023 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

    The only solution for the MD-SJB problem is to have a private Open game and a public open game. Let Folsom or other good public SJS teams play Mission Viejo, Centennial, Los Al, Poly, etc. in an actual state championship game that would be interesting.

    • Mark Tennis
      Posted August 25, 2023 at 11:48 am | Permalink

      Yes, but you have to be a section champion to play after the section playoffs. The CIFSS would have to have a public D1 and private D1 playoff bracket and splitting the two would be abhorrent to a lot of folks in the CIF. Not saying it wouldn’t work, but getting something like that to pass would be unlikely.

  2. Bulldogmgc
    Posted August 31, 2023 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Hi Mark,
    What is your resource that locks St. Mary’s into D2 for the playoffs? Sure, their enrollment (and no longer the D1 league they play in) is now the contributing factor to be in D2 with the SJS enrollment document for this year stating that St. Mary’s cannot be placed in a division lower than D2 and (D2) is referenced next to the school name. But, why not D1? St. Mary’s has satisfied the SJS bylaws for playoffs with Continued Success, appearing as a semifinalist, finalist, or section champion at D1 from 2015 thru 2018 and did not fail to make the semifinals 2 years in a row or not the playoffs (noting 2020 was not a playoff year due to Covid). So, why D2? Did St. Mary’s petition to be in D2? Also, why is Monterey Trail locked into D1, when they played in D2 in 2021 (where’s the continued success in D1 if absent in 2021)? Yes, Monterey Trail has a large enrollment, but why lock them in and just let the enrollment dictate where they land? Could the SJS have made an error in classifying St. Mary’s for D2 and take away their opportunity to compete against the likes of Folsom and Oak Ridge? Your thoughts please. BTW, it was good to see you on the field for the St. Mary’s vs Clovis West game (I’m on the Rams chain gang and have talked to you on the field before. Sorry I didn’t say hi. I didn’t recall it was you until after the game.).

    • Mark Tennis
      Posted August 31, 2023 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

      St. Mary’s is D2 according to the Sac-Joaquin Section itself. It was talked about during media day with Will DeBoard. I believe SM is D2 because it lost in the quarterfinals last year to Turlock. Also lost in the first round in 2019 to Monterey Trail. Central Catholic, for example, won D2 in 2021 so it was moved up to D1. You can ask the section office but those divisions are locked in.

      • Bulldogmgc
        Posted August 31, 2023 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

        Yet, St. Mary’s was a semifinalist in 2021, losing to Rocklin. In the span between 2015-2018, St. Mary’s accomplished demonstrating Continued Success in D1 with 4 years of success (4 years of at least semifinal appearances, 2 of which were finalist, and one section championship in 2016). According to the playoff bylaw ( article 2207.8 4.f St. Mary’s should remain in D1 until it fails to be a semifinalist in 2 consecutive years or fails to make the playoffs in any year. Because St. Mary’s did not fail either of these criterias, by making the playoffs in 2019 losing to Monterey Trail, 2021 (semifinalist losing to Rocklin), and last year losing to Turlock, and excluding 2020 (Covid year – no playoffs), and NOT failing to be a semifinalist 2 years in a row (2021 caused it not to be consecutive), the Rams should remain in D1. Instead, Monterey Trail has an asterisk in the Enrollment document to remain in D1 even though they were in D2 for playoffs in 2021. So much for SJS section following its bylaws. As a result, yes there will be parity and competition in D2, but D1 outside of Folsom, Oak Ridge, and Central Catholic, which St. Mary’s beat, will be watered down without St. Mary’s in it. Considered #2 behind Folsom in SJS, the Rams will not have the opportunity to challenge #1 Folsom to be the true champion of the SJS section, not have the opportunity to be considered for the Open, nor have the opportunity to compete in the NorCal D1AA regional/state championship, should the Rams continue to win and finish undefeated. Sure, a loss tomorrow vs Manteca or a loss to De La Salle (assuming Folsom beats De La Salle) mutes St. Mary’s deserving to challenge Folsom (or Oak Ridge) in D1. I still have hope the SJS section will reconsider placing St. Mary’s in D1 should they finish undefeated. They were pretty much all juniors last year going undefeated yet losing to Turlock. Now as seniors it feels like they don’t get a chance at the championship, but instead the consolation prize of a D2 section championship. But, I get it. Like your article shares, this is an opportunity to spread the best teams in SJS to have a stronger representation at the regional/state championships, similar to why we don’t have a NorCal Open playoff because we don’t want to send the second best team (at the time Folsom with De La Salle #1) home. In this scenario if Folsom and St Mary’s are #1 and #2 and they are both in SJS D1, one of them goes home. Looks like the Folsom rule (many on NorCalPreps talk about) is turning into the St. Mary’s rule (or maybe it’s still the Folsom rule should Folsom lose to St. Mary’s ).

        Anyways, appreciate your response and I hope I don’t jinx St. Mary’s in challenging this decision. It is what it is. St. Mary’s will focus on playing and winning at whichever division they get assigned. Thank you!

        P.S. Next time I see you on the field at a St. Mary’s game (probably won’t be until playoffs), I’ll be sure to stop and say “hi”. I’ll be missing tomorrow’s game vs Manteca due to celebrating my 2yr old granddaughter’s birthday away from home.

      • Mark Tennis
        Posted September 1, 2023 at 9:22 am | Permalink

        Winning D2 wouldn’t be a consolation prize for St. Mary’s at all. That will not be some cakewalk for them to win. And the CIF could very easily match the SJS D1 and SJS D2 champions in a NorCal game if those very easily could turn out to be for example the No. 2 and No. 3 teams after Serra takes the Open. And why does anyone want the Open anyway? The NorCal team is going to get slaughtered 45-0 or 50-0 and there’s no end in sight of MD or Bosco slipping down any time soon. It would be a huge victory for a NorCal team just to score once against those defenses.

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