Football Preview: Copycat, in a good way: NJCAA sets final four playoff

Aug. 25—EDITOR’S NOTE — This story originally ran when the NJCAA made this decision earlier this summer.

At the end of the regular football season, if Kilgore College can be ranked in the NJCAA’s top four, the Rangers stand a great chance of playing for the national championship, after the organization’s leaders voted to adopt a new four-team playoff format earlier this week.

The NJCAA, the governing body of junior college and community college sports in the United States, announced Wednesday that they will implement a playoff system very similar to the one used by major college football, where at the end of the regular season, the No. 1-ranked team will face the fourth-ranked team, and the second-ranked team will face the third-ranked team. The winners will meet in a nationally-televised national championship game at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, Ark., that will likely air on the CBS Sports Network.

The top two teams will host that semifinal round in the new format, then the winners of those games go to Little Rock to play for it all. The new plan will be in effect for this fall season.

Last season, which was played in spring due to COVID-19, Hutchinson (Kan.) faced Snow (Utah) in the national title game at War Memorial, with Hutch winning, 29-27. If the top-four system had been in place, Hutch would have had to have played fourth-ranked Iowa Western first, while Snow would have had to face third-ranked Cisco.

Kilgore College, coached by Willie Gooden, had been ranked in the top four the entire season until losing to Cisco late in the year.

Junior college football’s 2021 season will begin on time, in August. The Rangers will open the season Sept. 4, at Rose Stadium against Tyler Junior College.

A story by Charles Chaney in the Butler County (Kan.) Times-Gazette earlier this week talked about when the NJCAA began discussing a potential four-team playoff, or at least changes to the previous 1-vs-2 set-up.

The ball began rolling in favor of some sort of playoff, Chaney’s story said, at the 2019 NJCAA national championship game between Mississippi Gulf Coast and Lackawanna College. The original 12-team proposal came up the night of the game.

Chaney quotes Jake Ripple, the athletic director at Dodge City (Kan.) Community College and the NJCAA football committee chair.

“I knew we weren’t getting 12 teams but you have to ask for it,” Ripple told Chaney. “If we don’t ask for enough, we’re not going to get anything.”

Discussions began, stalled, and then were revived this spring, where the playoff idea was eventually approved.

“We had come to an agreement that 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.

The NJCAA also announced the creation of Division I and Division III, addition of a Division III national championship, and separate division rankings. Currently, NJCAA football is a non-divisional sport with over 40 participating teams across the association.

“Two divisions of football within the association increases the availability of competition for our student-athletes while issuing fair matchups throughout the season,” stated Dr. Christopher Parker, NJCAA President and CEO. “The NJCAA prides itself in providing a premiere educational and athletic experience to our student-athletes in addition to an opportunity to play at the next level.”

The addition of Division I and Division III football was voted on at the June NJCAA Board of Regents meeting and passed to best support and serve the student-athletes competing.

“The NJCAA Football Committee has the student-athletes’ best interest at the forefront of every decision,” said Jake Ripple, NJCAA Football Committee Chair. “I look forward to seeing the positive impact of newly created divisions and playoffs as our student-athletes experience competitive play like no other.”

The NJCAA Division III Football Championship will be held at the College of DuPage, in Glen Ellyn, IL, where the Red Grange Bowl game has been hosted since 2016.

During the regular season, the NJCAA will recognize separate rankings for each division. The top-15 teams in Division I will be recognized each week, while Division III will rank the top-5 teams. More information regarding each division’s championship will be released in the coming months.

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