Prep Football

New Class 4A Iowa high school football system explained: Out with districts, in with tiers and groups

Still 16 playoff teams in all classes, all 4A qualifiers determined by RPI

Kennedy players run onto the field before the start of a high school football game between Cedar Rapids Kennedy and West
Kennedy players run onto the field before the start of a high school football game between Cedar Rapids Kennedy and West Des Moines Valley at Kingston Stadium in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Sept. 13, 2019. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Turns out it’s status quo. With the exception of Class 4A.

It’s anything but status quo there.

The Iowa High School Athletic Association finally announced its regular-season and postseason structure for prep football Thursday. It remains a district format in the lower five classes and a 16-team playoff field in each.

It’s 16 playoff teams in 4A as well, though the largest class has been reduced from 42 to 40 schools. Districts are kaput in favor of a tiered system designed to address competitive concerns.

“We have solicited lots of feedback from our membership and a one-year cycle gives us more time to evaluate that feedback and work on making classifications better,” IHSAA Board of Control Chairperson Rod Earleywine said in an IHSAA press release. “It’s never going to be perfect, but we acknowledge that there are problems with our current classification system, and we need to see what kind of improvements we can make.”

Introducing tiers and groups

The tiered system takes into account each 4A school’s regular season and playoff performances over the previous four seasons. Tier 1 consists of the seven strongest schools that way, Tier 2 consists of Nos. 8 through 13, Tier 3 consists of the 14th through 20th-ranked schools, Tier 4 is 21 through 27, Tier 5 is 28 through 34 and Tier 6 is 35 through 40.

Schools were then assigned to groups, with five of the seven groups containing schools from each tier. The other two groups consist of only five schools, omitting one Tier 2 and one Tier 6 team, respectively.

Five regular-season games were then set. Schools were given three group games in most cases, then two other assigned games against teams from similar tiers.

Tier 1 schools are not scheduled to play against schools from Tiers 5 and 6. The idea is to schedule as many games against similarly tiered teams.

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All 16 of the playoff berths will be based on RPI, which factors a team’s record, its opponents’ record and its opponents’ opponents’ record and was used for at-large berths the last two years. There are no district or group standings or champions.

“This process took longer than usual because of the focus football has received from our classification committee, and our ongoing conversations with Class 4A programs over their competitive concerns,” IHSAA Executive Director Tom Keating said. “Through this new model, we believe we’ve increased the opportunities for schools to play football against schools like their own. Programs experiencing participation challenges believe this is a way to encourage more students to play.”

“I would definitely say this is a step in the right direction,” said Iowa City High Coach Dan Sabers, who has been championing class models not just based on enrollment of schools but the economics of each school, such as percentage of students on free and reduced lunch. “Obviously they are taking a look at having more alike teams play each other. So I think that’s a real positive. You and I both know, we’ve been at this awhile, that’s the kind of change we didn’t think we’d ever see. So this is pretty significant. I commend them for taking a good look at what they are doing, and I commend a lot of superintendents around the state who have said ‘Hey, we have got to look at this.’ That’s what I think has really driven it.”

All 4A schools were assigned five of their nine regular-season games Thursday.

For example, Cedar Rapids Kennedy (a 4A semifinalist last season) is a Tier 2 school that will play group games against Tier 1 Bettendorf, Tier 3 Pleasant Valley and Tier 4 Davenport North. Its other assigned games were against Tier 1 Cedar Falls and Tier 2 Cedar Rapids Prairie.

That’s a tough five games.

“I understand the state wanted to do something to create some parity and try to avoid lopsided scores,” said Kennedy Coach Brian White. “But I guess I don’t know how this process went because when you look at it, the seven-time defending 4A champs from (West Des Moines) Dowling has, by the numbers, an easier schedule than us. We’re going to play whoever. I think we have proven that in the past. But if we’re going to have parity, I would hope that we’ll have parity. And I’m not so sure that happens.”

The IHSAA will allow schools to request opponents for their other four games. You’d have to believe, for instance, Kennedy will play longtime city rivals Cedar Rapids Washington and Cedar Rapids Jefferson.

All of this is on a one-year cycle.

“I commend the committee for the work it has done to this point, and we look forward to the continued work it will do to develop the best competition systems for Iowa,” Earleywine said, referring to a combined IHSAA/Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union committee that has and will continue to study competition models. “Now that we have a model for Class 4A football, the committee can consider the possibilities and how they may apply to other sports and other classes.”

All classes remain at 16 playoff qualifiers

Districts for the other five classes also were announced Thursday.

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The most notable things were perennial area powers Iowa City Regina and Solon each dropping a class, to Class A and 2A, respectively, next season. The Iowa Football Coaches Association’s two official proposals to the IHSAA were both rejected.

The IFCA sought 32 playoff qualifiers in each of the smallest five classes instead of 16.

“Hearing so much conversation about moving to 32 teams, and the IFCA recommending that to the IHSAA, it is disappointing that we didn’t go that route,” said Maquoketa Valley Coach and Activities Director Trevor Arnold. “I had fully prepared myself as an AD and head coach to move to eight (regular-season) games and 32 playoff teams.

“I am not disappointed we are still guaranteeing our kids nine games each year, but an expanded playoff format was wanted by a majority of coaches, myself included. With the IHSAA saying this will be a one-year cycle, I am interpreting that as we know this isn’t correct but we are going to go one more year and allow the new 4A format to play out before we move that format to all classes. My hope is that one day all classes, not just 4A, will be able to get a seat at the table when these discussions happen. Hopefully that happens before 2021 and another new cycle.”

Class 4A football 2020 tiers

Schools ordered by ranking

Tier 1: West Des Moines Dowling, West Des Moines Valley, Bettendorf, Ankeny Centennial, Cedar Falls, Iowa City West, Waukee

Tier 2: Southeast Polk, Cedar Rapids Prairie, Johnston, Ankeny, Urbandale, Cedar Rapids Kennedy

Tier 3: Cedar Rapids Washington, Fort Dodge, Pleasant Valley, Indianola, Dubuque Senior, Linn-Mar, Iowa City Liberty

Tier 4: Iowa City High, Sioux City East, Waterloo West, Ames, Davenport Central, Muscatine, Des Moines Roosevelt

Tier 5: Des Moines Lincoln, Cedar Rapids Jefferson, Dubuque Hempstead, Davenport North, Council Bluffs Jefferson, Marshalltown, Council Bluffs Lincoln

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Tier 6: Des Moines East, Ottumwa, Davenport West, Sioux City West, Sioux City North, Des Moines North

Class 4A football 2020 groups

Schools ordered by tier

Group 1: West Des Moines Dowling, Urbandale, Fort Dodge, Des Moines Roosevelt, Council Bluffs Lincoln, Sioux City North

Group 2: Ankeny Centennial, Iowa City Liberty, Ames, Marshalltown, Des Moines East

Group 3: West Des Moines Valley, Ankeny, Indianola, Sioux City East, Council Bluffs Jefferson, Sioux City West

Group 4: Iowa City West, Southeast Polk, Cedar Rapids Washington, Iowa City High, Des Moines Lincoln, Des Moines North

Group 5: Cedar Falls, Cedar Rapids Prairie, Dubuque Senior, Davenport Central, Dubuque Hempstead, Davenport West

Group 6: Waukee, Johnston, Linn-Mar, Waterloo West, Cedar Rapids Jefferson

Group 7: Bettendorf, Cedar Rapids Kennedy, Pleasant Valley, Muscatine, Davenport North, Ottumwa

Class 4A football 2020 partial schedules

Games in no particular order

Ames

Tier 4, Group 2

Marshalltown

Des Moines East

Ankeny Centennial

Waterloo West

Indianola

 

Ankeny

Tier 2, Group 3

West Des Moines Valley

Council Bluffs Jefferson

Indianola

Cedar Rapids Prairie

Iowa City Liberty

 

Ankeny Centennial

Tier 1, Group 2

Iowa City Liberty

Ames

Johnston

West Des Moines Valley

West Des Moines Dowling

 

Bettendorf

Tier 1, Group 7

Cedar Rapids Kennedy

Pleasant Valley

Muscatine

Cedar Falls

Iowa City West

 

Cedar Falls

Tier 1, Group 5

Cedar Rapids Prairie

Dubuque Senior

Davenport Central

Bettendorf

Cedar Rapids Kennedy

 

Cedar Rapids Jefferson

Tier 5, Group 6

Waterloo West

Johnston

Des Moines East

Dubuque Hempstead

Davenport West

 

Cedar Rapids Kennedy

Tier 2, Group 7

Bettendorf

Davenport North

Pleasant Valley

Cedar Rapids Prairie

Cedar Falls

 

Cedar Rapids Prairie

Tier 2, Group 5

Cedar Falls

Dubuque Hempstead

Dubuque Senior

Cedar Rapids Kennedy

Ankeny

 

Cedar Rapids Washington

Tier 3, Group 4

Des Moines North

Iowa City West

Southeast Polk

Linn-Mar

Dubuque Senior

 

Council Bluffs Jefferson

Tier 5, Group 3

Sioux City East

Ankeny

Sioux City West

Sioux City North

Council Bluffs Lincoln

 

Council Bluffs Lincoln

Tier 5, Group 1

Des Moines Roosevelt

Urbandale

Sioux City North

Sioux City West

Council Bluffs Jefferson

 

Davenport Central

Tier 4, Group 5

Dubuque Hempstead

Davenport West

Cedar Falls

Iowa City High

Muscatine

 

Davenport North

Tier 5, Group 7

Muscatine

Cedar Rapids Kennedy

Ottumwa

Davenport West

Dubuque Hempstead

 

Davenport West

Tier 6, Group 5

Dubuque Senior

Davenport Central

Dubuque Hempstead

Davenport North

Cedar Rapids Jefferson

 

Des Moines East

Tier 6, Group 2

Iowa City Liberty

Ames

Marshalltown

Sioux City West

Cedar Rapids Jefferson

 

Des Moines Lincoln

Tier 5, Group 4

Iowa City High

Southeast Polk

Des Moines North

Marshalltown

Ottumwa

 

Des Moines North

Tier 6, Group 4

Cedar Rapids Washington

Iowa City High

Des Moines Lincoln

Ottumwa

Sioux City North

 

Des Moines Roosevelt

Tier 4, Group 1

Council Bluffs Lincoln

Sioux City North

West Des Moines Dowling

Indianola

Sioux City East

 

Dubuque Hempstead

Tier 5, Group 5

Davenport Central

Cedar Rapids Prairie

Davenport West

Cedar Rapids Jefferson

Davenport North

 

Dubuque Senior

Tier 3, Group 5

Davenport West

Cedar Falls

Cedar Rapids Prairie

Pleasant Valley

Cedar Rapids Washington

 

Fort Dodge

Tier 3, Group 1

Sioux City North

West Des Moines Dowling

Urbandale

Sioux City East

Waterloo West

 

Indianola

Tier 3, Group 3

Sioux City West

West Des Moines Valley

Ankeny

Des Moines Roosevelt

Ames

 

Iowa City High

Tier 4, Group 4

Des Moines Lincoln

Des Moines North

Iowa City West

Davenport Central

Pleasant Valley

 

Iowa City Liberty

Tier 3, Group 2

Des Moines East

Ankeny Centennial

Ankeny

Muscatine

Linn-Mar

 

Iowa City West

Tier 1, Group 4

Southeast Polk

Cedar Rapids Washington

Iowa City High

Urbandale

Bettendorf

 

Johnston

Tier 2, Group 6

Waukee

Cedar Rapids Jefferson

Linn-Mar

Southeast Polk

Ankeny Centennial

 

Linn-Mar

Tier 3, Group 6

Waukee

Johnston

Marshalltown

Cedar Rapids Washington

Iowa City Liberty

 

Marshalltown

Tier 5, Group 2

Ames

Des Moines East

Waterloo West

Des Moines Lincoln

Linn-Mar

 

Muscatine

Tier 4, Group 7

Davenport North

Ottumwa

Bettendorf

Iowa City Liberty

Davenport Central

 

Ottumwa

Tier 6, Group 7

Pleasant Valley

Muscatine

Davenport North

Des Moines North

Des Moines Lincoln

 

Pleasant Valley

Tier 3, Group 7

Ottumwa

Bettendorf

Cedar Rapids Kennedy

Dubuque Senior

Iowa City High

 

Sioux City East

Tier 4, Group 3

Council Bluffs Jefferson

Sioux City West

West Des Moines Valley

Fort Dodge

Des Moines Roosevelt

 

Sioux City North

Tier 6, Group 1

Fort Dodge

Des Moines Roosevelt

Council Bluffs Lincoln

Council Bluffs Jefferson

Des Moines North

 

Sioux City West

Tier 6, Group 3

Indianola

Sioux City East

Council Bluffs Jefferson

Council Bluffs Lincoln

Des Moines East

 

Southeast Polk

Tier 2, Group 4

Iowa City West

Des Moines Lincoln

Cedar Rapids Washington

Johnston

West Des Moines Valley

 

Urbandale

Tier 2, Group 1

West Des Moines Dowling

Council Bluffs Lincoln

Fort Dodge

Iowa City West

Waukee

 

Waterloo West

Tier 4, Group 6

Cedar Rapids Jefferson

Waukee

Marshalltown

Ames

Fort Dodge

 

Waukee

Tier 1, Group 6

Johnston

Linn-Mar

Waterloo West

West Des Moines Dowling

Urbandale

 

West Des Moines Dowling

Tier 1, Group 1

Urbandale

Fort Dodge

Des Moines Roosevelt

Waukee

Ankeny Centennial

 

West Des Moines Valley

Tier 1, Group 3

Ankeny

Indianola

Sioux City East

Ankeny Centennial

Southeast Polk

 

Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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