High school football in New Jersey will take on an entirely different look and feel this season as playoff expansion has resulted in the re-shaping of classifications, schedules and so many other things.
As stated on the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) website, the first official day of practice, still without pads, is Monday, Aug. 6. The first official day with is Wednesday, Aug. 8.
At present time it’s being reported that some schools have been found to have started too soon, which is never a good thing for everyone involved.
In Union County, here is where the 16 football playing schools are situated:
NORTH 5: Elizabeth, Plainfield, Westfield, Union.
NORTH 4: Cranford, Linden, Scotch Plains.
NORTH 3: Gov. Livingston, Rahway, Summit.
SOUTH 2: Hillside, Johnson, Roselle.
NORTH 1: Brearley, Dayton, New Providence.
There are no more North 1, North 2, Central and South sections for the public schools. Schools are placed in sections North 5, North 4, North 3, North 2 and North 1 and South 5, South 4, South 3, South 2 and South 1.
For example, there are 31 teams situated in North 5, including schools from Hudson, Bergen, Passaic, Morris, Essex, Union, Middlesex and Somerset counties.
The first three weeks of the playoffs will be the first three weekends in November, with sectional championship games to be played the weekend before Thanksgiving for the first time.
Bowl games – which will result in overall North and South state champions in each of the five public school group sizes – will be played – according to the NJSIAA – either Thanksgiving weekend or the first weekend in December.
Non-Public teams will remain in three sections and the top 12 teams in each group will make the playoffs.
For the publics, 16-team playoff sections in each group classification will then be split geographically back into their original eight-team fields once playoff teams are decided.
The winners of those four sectional championships will be paired for their bowl games – North vs. North and South vs. Central – thus for the first time high school football in the garden state will be played down to five group state champions in the North and five in the South.
Many football followers predict that this will be the first step toward having just one state champion in each group – which would be going one step further and having the North champ face the South champ in the very near future.
So, for the first time this year there will be only 10 public school state champions – five in the North and five in the South.
Pretty soon it will be only five state champions – just one in each group.
Sectional championship games will be played at the higher seed this season – state championship games back at the high school fields, which is a very good thing. The bowl games will be played at neutral sites.
Another change affecting many schools this year is that quite a few will be opening the weekend before school begins – Labor Day weekend.
In Union County, eight of its 16 schools will open the early weekend, with games scheduled to be played on Thursday, Aug. 30 and Friday, Aug. 31. No Union County team will open Saturday, Sept. 1.
The Union County schedule for the first weekend – Week Zero – includes:
Thursday, Aug. 30:
Johnson at Governor Livingston, 3 p.m.
Plainfield at Voorhees, 7 p.m.
New Providence at Middlesex, 7 p.m.
Friday, Aug. 31:
Linden at Union, 7 p.m.
Bridgewater-Raritan at Elizabeth, 7 p.m.
Roselle at Bishop Ahr, 7 p.m.
Corey Tucker, in his third year as the head coach at his alma mater Plainfeld, must have his Cardinals ready to go for an Aug. 30 opener at Voorhees.
“It will be tough having everything a lot earlier,” Tucker said. “They didn’t really push up the starting time period that much. We’re all starting practice, essentially, at the same time.”
Plainfield will be facing two Middlesex County foes this season, including at J.P. Stevens on Sept. 28 and Edison at home on Oct. 27.
“I’m excited that we’re playing some new teams,” Tucker said. “They’re also a little closer in proximity and some (J.P. Stevens) are in our section. Hopefully we can build up rivalries. It should be fun.”
With Roselle Park opting to go junior varsity only this season and Union and Linden moving up their game to Week Zero – Thanksgiving Day football in Union County went from five games to three.
We still have Gov. Livingston vs. New Providence, Johnson vs. Rahway and Plainfield vs. Westfield, which is the oldest holiday rivalry in the county and one of the oldest in the state.
“As a Plainfield alumnus, for me, it’s the only way to do it,” Tucker said. “Hundreds of people come back for the Plainfield-Westfield game on Thanksgiving. As an alumnus, I couldn’t see any other way to play the game.”