Ken Jackson
The Sports Column

It still feels a little early, but it’s time to begin the immersion …

Time to go into full-on football mode.

NFL training camps are opening, college football fall practices are starting, and Monday (a date in July, which is throwing off my internal clock) is the first day of high school football practice.

It means it’s time to contemplate all the tough questions:

Can the Philadelphia Eagles win their second Super Bowl after waiting 52 years for their first, and is the Patriots’ dynasty done? Can UCF run the table again and be considered again as National Champions*? Will Alabama keep it up and again earn the title of Co-Champions*?

In this space, we’ll be mostly focused on the high schools. Our annual local preview section appeared in Thursday’s News-Gazette; go check it out if you have not yet. I want to thank Kissimmee’s Jeff Pon, a college-level football and basketball referee, for his help posing for the cover art. You may have seen Jeff on the basketball sidelines if you watched last season’s NAIA National Championship game on ESPN. He also works regular season ACC games. (“Cameron Arena at Duke is so loud! Those people are right on top of you!”)

Since I’ve gone over the teams, and the districts, and the schedules, and the coaches, and the top players … you’d think I be ready for a break rather than a beginning, but I’m still stuck a bit on the points system used to determine the postseason playoff field.

A team gets points based on a sliding scale, from high to low: beating a good to great team, beating a mediocre team, losing to a great team and beating an inferior team. The adjectives got based on opponent’s record at the end of the year.

When it was first introduced after the 2016 season for use last year, I was a big fan. In the bigger classes (Class 5A-8A), the district championship remained the holy grail, and teams could not rely on being a district runner-up to make the playoffs.

With home-field advantage, a blessing in the playoffs, on the line, every game would mean something for every team, including the Week 11 regular-season finale, which almost always turned into a prevent defense — and offense — for teams who locked up the playoffs with a 1st or 2nd finish in the district, as in, “Let’s prevent any key starter from getting injured.”

Last year, Osceola needed a win at the end against Lake Brantley, also a playoff team, to lock up an undefeated season. Aside from that, there’d been little buzz. But the Kowboys also needed the ‘W’ to get home-field advantage for at least three playoff games.

That same night, Gateway, who’d finished third in the district, still had life that they wouldn’t have had in prior years in its final game against Mount Dora. Both the Panthers and the Hurricanes needed “a win to get in”, and that game suddenly had a pulse rate — for four fun quarters.

The FHSAA got rid of districts in Class 1A-4A and let those teams schedule as they wished to get their regional playoff points. Since we don’t have any of those teams I don’t spend much time on that.

I’m starting to cool a little on this format, though.

The FHSAA tweaked the pay table for this upcoming season, increasing points for a loss by five points. That loss to an 8-2, 9-1 or 10-0 team is now worth 35 points — the same as beating a team that’s 3-7 or worse — instead of 30.

Losing to a Category 2, 3 or 4 team gets a team 30, 25 or 20 points. A win over them gets them 45, 40 or 35. So you show up against a Harmony (finished 6-4, a Category 2 team), and get 30 points for walking in the stadium.

When the game starts, there’s essentially 15 points on the line.

It’s a small bonus when you add in the extra credit: teams get an additional three points for playing a playoff team from as far back as 2015, or a team ranked in the Top 25 nationally by USA Today or MaxPreps that maybe doesn’t play in a district (think IMG Academy).

A decent team can become almost an automatic playoff team when the schedule comes out, and it holds together. This season, Osceola, based on the eight past playoff teams they’ll play, will bank 24 bonus points. The two non-playoff opponents are from District 8A-7 — George Jenkins and Haines City — who must be on the schedule.

Those playoff teams are going to continue seeking each other out for non-district games under this system, leaving fringe teams trying to make the playoffs and just miss — the Harmonys, St. Clouds and Mount Doras of the world — to fend for themselves a possibly create a high school version of the “Power 5 vs. Group of 5” struggle now present in college football.

Also, barring any Irmas this year, the playoff field will be set by total points, rather than a team’s average points, since the hurricane blew away many playing dates last year. What kind of effect will that have this year? We’ll find out …

… With all that said, let’s agree to talk about football, and just football. I’m so tired of the story about those who want to kneel for the National Anthem. They have their beliefs, and I have mine — I’m gonna stand and you probably should too — but those beliefs have nothing to do with throwing a block or making a tackle …

… And, no, I don’t really believe UCF was the FBS National Champion last year. Undefeated Champions? Absolutely. But, please folks, extinguish your torches, put down the pitchforks and disassemble the angry mob headed toward our office.

That’s not the way to score points. Apparently, scheduling Osceola is.