FOOTBALL

Answering 5 big playoff questions for Springfield-area high school football teams

Lincoln football coach Matt Silkowski, left, talks with Isaac Decker between drills during football practice on Wednesday, August 17, 2022.
Bill Welt Ryan Mahan
State Journal-Register

A few big questions linger heading into the final week of the high school football regular season in the Springfield area.  

Unbeaten and Class 4A No. 1 Sacred Heart-Griffin undoubtedly tops the list, while several teams will vie for a spot in the playoffs with a 4-4 overall record. The IHSA will reveal the playoff brackets on Saturday at 8 p.m. airing on WCIX

Here are some of the biggest questions ahead of Week 9:

Where will Sacred Heart-Griffin fall in the playoffs? 

The Cyclones (8-0) claimed state runner-up in Class 4A last season and virtually returned all of their key contributors. They additionally come into the season finale against Southeast (1-7) as the top-ranked team in 4A by The Associated Press. That doesn’t necessarily mean they will be slated for the 4A playoffs this season.  

SHG is projected to be in the 4A bracket, but the school hovers just above the cutoff line and could slide back into 3A with an enrollment of 607. Macomb enters Week 9 with the smallest enrollment at 606, according to Steve Soucie of the Joliet Herald-News.  

A number of variables could tilt SHG in any direction but the Cyclones seem headed for 4A — for now.  

IHSA football:Predicting every Illinois high school football game in the Springfield area for Week 9

What about Rochester and one more Leonard Bowl showdown? 

Rochester and SHG have split their two playoff clashes.  

Ken Leonard’s Cyclones won the last playoff meeting 49-42 in the 4A state semifinals after falling to son Derek Leonard’s Rockets 49-35 in the 5A state quarterfinals in 2019.  

Rochester turned out to be the largest 4A school last postseason but appears firmly projected to be in 4A this year. 

That sets up the prospect of one last Leonard Bowl in the playoffs if both teams return to 4A. SHG topped the currently No. 4-ranked Rockets Rochester 62-27 in Week 1 to begin Ken’s final season as head coach.

What Week 9 games may signal a deep playoff run? 

Class 2A No. 8 Pana (7-1) claimed its seventh straight victory of the season, 42-21 over No. 9 North Mac last week for a share of the South Central Conference lead.  

The Panthers next welcome perennial playoff rival Carlinville. The Cavaliers (5-3) claimed their fifth straight victory after a grueling 0-3 start that included narrow losses to Vandalia and Hillsboro by a combined 11 points.  

Pana, led by senior 2A all-state QB Max Lynch, could add to its momentum with another win and further prime itself for another postseason run.  

Lynch previously led the Panthers to the 2A state quarterfinals last season.  

More football coverage:Carlinville football started 0-3. Now the Cavs are likely headed to the IHSA playoffs

Elsewhere, Class 1A No. 5 Athens (7-1) hosts 2A No. 2 Maroa-Forsyth (8-0). 

The Warriors may prove their playoff mettle if they challenge Sangamo Conference leader Maroa. Something to keep an eye on is Athens’ trio of running backs: Cory Craig, Jr., Camden Austin and Camren Bigard.  

Austin had been limited by an injury at the start of the season but has reeled off consecutive 100-plus rushing yard games in recent weeks.

A win — or a Williamsville (7-1) loss to 6-2 Auburn — gives the Trojans the outright Sangamo Conference title.

How likely are the area’s 4-4 teams to make the playoffs? 

Beardstown has the clearest path to the playoffs.  

The Tigers host 1-7 Pleasant Hill. The Wolves picked up their only win, 50-26, over White Hall North Greene in Week 5 and are coming off a 34-30 loss to Concord Triopia — the Trojans' first win of the season.

Nokomis seems to have the next best chance. NHS welcomes 4-4 Dupo and dominated last year’s meeting 47-0 but seems destined to be a dogfight. 

Lincoln and Havana each face a robust challenge. 

Lincoln last reached the playoffs in 1984 and has a chance to end the dry spell at 6-2 Troy Triad. The Railsplitters lost last year’s nonconference meeting 46-28. The defense has been a high point this season and allowed Lincoln to build a 38-6 halftime advantage en route to a 52-19 Apollo Conference win over Taylorville (that offensive output was the third most for the Railers since 1930: Lincoln beat Clinton 58-6 to open the 2021 season and beat Southeast 56-20 in 2011).

Havana, lastly, welcomes 5-3 Elmwood/Brimfield, which has 16 playoff appearances under its belt since 2003. 

Will any 4-win teams enjoy a playoff berth?

While five wins is playoff eligible, it's not always been a lock to make the IHSA's postseason. To fill out the 256-team field, all conference champions (in a league with six or more teams) are automatically entered, followed by the teams with the best records: 8-1 then 7-2, followed by 6-3. Whatever number is left to get to 256 is picked from the 5-4 teams in descending order by playoff points (opponents' wins).

Through eight weeks, 147 teams have clinched a playoff spot with 109 berths still up for grabs.

Last season, only Warrensburg-Latham missed out on the playoffs with five wins. The Cardinals' 31 playoff points was the lowest of all nonconference winning 5-4 teams.

What we learned:What we learned: Takeaways from Week 8 in Springfield-area high school football

According to Steve Soucie, who heads fridaynightdrive.com, there were 494 teams playoff eligible last season — the first time there have been fewer than 500 teams. This year, there are 491 teams. Consolidations, eight-player football and forfeited seasons — like Urbana in the Big 12 Conference — have reduced the number of teams eligible for the playoffs to a new record low.

If a four-win team does receive an at-large bid into the 2022 playoffs, it will have to have a lot of playoff points. Among teams that would be on the four-win bubble, Buffalo Grove (4-4) has 50 playoff points, followed by both Chicago St. Patrick and LaGrange Park Nazareth, both with 46. Bloomington (3-5) also has 46 playoff points but faces 8-0 Mahomet-Seymour.

Of The State Journal-Register's area four-win hopefuls, Beardstown has the most playoff points with 42, followed by Lincoln's 35, Havana's 32 and Nokomis' 26.

Contact Bill Welt: (217) 788-1545, bill.welt@sj-r.com, Twitter.com/BillWelt. Staff writer Ryan Mahan contributed to this report. Contact him: 788-1546, ryan.mahan@sj-r.com, Twitter.com/RyanMahanSJR.