This weekend is the equivalent of Christmas and New Year's Day for high school football fans in Illinois.
There is anticipation and excitement for those associated with programs that will be in the 256-team field, which will be announced by the IHSA starting at 8 p.m. Saturday. It has turned into a major event similar to the NCAA men's basketball tournament with television coverage of the pairings, newspaper analysis and no shortage of Internet chatter. (TV coverage on Comcast SportsNet Chicago and streamed live on IHSA.TV)
For some teams, there will be the surprise gift of a playoff berth that may not have seemed likely just a few days ago. For some who were left out, there will be the bitter disappointment similar to a kid who doesn't get the present he or she truly wanted.
It's all part of what makes high school football in Illinois unique and special. Even as the fields have expanded since 1974 to include more teams with 7, 6 and now 5 victories, a football playoff berth is still something that is earned. But as the playoff system has evolved there are also a couple of ways it could be enhanced.
These would be combined -- eliminating the geographical brackets, returning to having each class seeded from 1 through 32 and having the coaches in each class do the seeding.
One aspect that used to make the football playoffs truly unique was the opportunity to play unfamiliar teams from different areas. One thing coaches dislike as much as anything is playing a conference opponent right away. Those matchups would never be totally eliminated, but they wouldn't happen as frequently with a 1 through 32 seed system in which geography is taken out of the equation.
And having a true 1 through 32 would lead to better matchups when they matter most in the later rounds and Champaign.
OK, so how would the seeding be handled by coaches when the field usually isn't set until late Saturday afternoon? Start with the schedule, since the number of schools that play under the lights has increased significantly from 20 and even 10 years ago. This Saturday there are only 18 games scheduled in the state, according to the IHSA.
So, here's what you try to do. Have conferences make every effort to set up their schedules to avoid games on the final Saturday of the regular season. If someone has to play on the last Saturday, tell them they can start no later than 11 a.m.
That would allow for plenty of time to determine every team that is in the field and in what class. Then give the coaches a two-to-three-hour window to examine their class and submit their seeds to the IHSA. With the technologically nimble age we live in, it shouldn't be a major issue to accomplish this, and then have the IHSA staff examine them and put together the matchups within a couple of hours.
The vast majority of coaches should be able to make a fair assessment of how teams in their class should be seeded. And we know there are cases in which some 6-3 teams are better than others at 9-0, and we also know that playoff points aren't a completely accurate formula to determine strength of schedule.
The natural concern would be with coaches trying to play games with the seeding to set themselves up with better matchups. The IHSA can put the issue back squarely on the coaches and let them know if they want to have more of a say in the process, don't screw it up or we'll go back to the old way.
We understand there will always be detractors and complaints no matter how the IHSA sets up its football playoff system.
But nothing can take away from the excitement this weekend brings to 256 schools and fans all over the state.
• Marty Maciaszek is a freelance columnist for the Daily Herald who can be contacted at email@example.com.