NJCAA football expands postseason by adding four-team playoff format

Charles Chaney
Butler County Times Gazette
War Memorial Stadium will be the host of the first ever NJCAA Playoff Championship Game

With all of the talk of the NCAA expanding their 4-team football playoff into a 12-team playoff, the NJCAA decided they were going to get in on the idea of expansion.

The NJCAA approved a 4-team football playoff for the upcoming 2021-22 season, giving more than two teams the opportunity of competing for the always tough NJCAA national championship.

Previously, the NJCAA had only a No. 1 vs. No. 2 team meet in a neutral location, most recently in Little Rock, Arkansas this season and Pittsburg, Kansas previously. Now, they are going to have a four-team playoff, where the top seeds host and the winners would move onto Little Rock for the national championship game. 

How it happened

The original playoff plan came to fruition at the 2019 NJCAA national championship game between Mississippi Gulf Coast and Lackawanna College. The original 12-team proposal came up that night. 

"I knew were weren't getting 12 teams but you have to ask for it," Jake Ripple, the NJCAA football committee chair and Dodge City Community Athletic Director said. "If we don't ask for enough we're not going to get anything."

So, discussions were being had but by the spring of 2020 it had been tabled and brought back to the spring meetings of 2021 where the playoff idea was formally approved. 

The first draft of the plans of the 12-team playoff and other editions were regionally based to cut down on costs. The NJCAA football committee went back to work, talking to folks and hashing out a plan that would fit most of the NJCAA.

"We had come to an agreement that was was going to be for the 2022 season and a few weeks later, Dr. [Christopher] Parker came to me and said 'How would you like to do this in the fall?,'" Ripple said. 

So, they went back to work, figuring out the logistics of moving the playoff up a year to generate some excited for NJCAA football. One of those logistics is creating a Division III level and championship game. Currently, Division III in the NJCAA is defined by "Colleges are not permitted to offer any athletic scholarships."

The Creation of Division III

There, teams who do not offer scholarships could opt for the Division III level and would have their own championship game.

"We've seen already a lot of schools reach out on potentially creating a football team with no scholarships," Ripple said. "They worry about the amount of money of startup plus scholarship and everything else.

"This D-III might give them an avenue into starting a program with the idea of being able to move to a scholarship program later on."

The Division III championship game will be a single game, unlike the three-game feature at the Division I level.

The playoff comes at the right time as three teams (see below) were unbeaten headed into the postseason. With limited bowl games due to COVID-19, two of the three would finish the season unbeaten. only Snow, who would fall in the national championship game, would fall from the ranks of the unbeaten.

Going by the 2020 season, No. 1 Hutchinson (7-0) would host No. 4 Iowa Western (7-1) in the semifinals. Then, No. 2 Snow College (UT) 8-0) would host No. 3 Cisco College (TX) (7-0) in the other semifinal. 

The two winners would meet at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock a week later for the national championship. 

The Hutchinson Blue Dragons defeated Snow 29-27 in the national title game in Little Rock on June 5 for their first ever football championship.

Over the last few seasons, there have been other seasons where there were more than one team who were more than qualified to compete for a national championship. In 2016 when Garden City won the national title, East Mississippi was well deserved. 

In 2017, the top four teams were all 1-loss teams, with Iowa Western and Snow being the odd teams out. Plus, unbeaten Louisburg (NC) sat in the middle of the rankings unbeaten at 7-0. East Mississippi (EMCC) defeated Arizona Western, 31-28.

In 2018, EMCC was unbeaten but Garden City and Iowa Western split with a 10-1 record. While Lackawanna was unbeaten and didn't get a shot. EMCC defeated Garden City 10-9.

In 2019, the only two unbeaten teams played for the national title (Miss. Gulf Coast defeated Lackawanna 24-13).

There were some controversies before then as well. 

Issues that may arrise

One issue that has plagued the polls and something you could see in maybe the 4-5 spot in this year's playoff selections is the lack of national play.

"We don't have a lot of national play," Ripple said. "Unfortunately, most teams are landlocked in their conference because we don't have the money to travel all over the country and play each other.

"Of course you're going to have issues with that No. 5 team thinking they were left out as well."

Teams that come to mind are Snow College and Lackawanna College. During Lackawanna's run to the 2019 championship game, while they went unbeaten they played an NJCAA JV team and a prep school. The previous year they played three non-NJCAA schools as they went unbeaten.

Then, there are the monetary issues that could overtake some teams. There is a provision within the playoff system that would allow any team to vacate their playoff spot if they feel they are not able to attend due to financial reasons. 

Unlike the NCAA, most NJCAA teams aren't printing money left and right and traveling, potentially twice in two weeks, can put a real financial strain on any school's budget.

"You try to budget for those things in May and June," Ripple said. "That's why when we moved this up, that was one of our main concerns. 

There are other potential issues within the playoff as there are no conference provisions limiting participants. You could see two Mississippi JUCO teams play two teams from the KJCCC. However, with both conferences now supporting conference tournaments, you would hope that would eliminate most of the potentially doubling up issues.

The KJCCC once had a Region VI playoff, with four teams vying for the regional crown. This time, same format, but it's the conference tournament, much like the MACJC does. It'll be No. 4 at No. 1 and No. 3 at No. 2, with the higher seeds hosting throughout the playoffs.

"That's the hope the conference tournament will help sort some of that out," Ripple said.

The Fall 2021 season is set to start on schedule according to the NJCAA with games kicking off the last week of August and into September.

Charles Chaney has been the Sports Editor for the Butler County Times-Gazette since Aug. 2019. You can reach him at cchaney@butlercountytimesgazette.com or on Twitter at @ChuckChaneyBCTG.