High school football: Explaining the nuts and bolts of the upcoming season

There will be prep football in Illinois this school year.

For months, as the state’s COVID-19 fortunes ebbed and flowed, no one knew if we’d get to this point.

But teams began practice in early March, and the first games of a delayed, abbreviated season are scheduled for this weekend.

Here’s a few questions and answers to get you up to speed for the strangest high school football season in state history.

How did we get here?

As with most questions during the past year, the short answer is: the pandemic.

Last year’s boys basketball playoffs were abruptly canceled on the eve of the small-school state tournaments and during the big-school sectionals as the gravity of COVID-19 became apparent.

From March till August, there were no high school sports in Illinois, with the entire spring 2020 season canceled.

Last fall, state health officials gave the green light to lower-risk fall sports to compete: boys and girls cross country, boys and girls golf, girls swimming and girls tennis.

Other traditional fall sports like football, boys soccer and girls volleyball were punted to the spring in hopes the pandemic would be on the wane by then. Then, IHSA officials projected a Feb. 15 start date for practice with games to begin March 5.

That didn’t happen, and a good thing too, in light of the 1-2 punch of extreme cold and heavy snow most of Illinois experienced through much of February.

A late fall COVID surge again put all prep sports on hold. That led to rallies and at least one failed lawsuit as athletes and parents pushed the IHSA and state officials to allow a return to play.

Finally, in late January, state officials announced sports could resume, first with an abbreviated basketball season followed by a similarly shortened football schedule with games starting in mid-March.

So how long is the season?

It’s six weeks, beginning the weekend of March 19-20. The last day for games will be Saturday, April 24.

As it did for basketball, the Public League will start a week later. But while the IHSA granted Public League basketball teams an extra week of play after the rest of the state wraps up, it did not grant the same exemption for football.

That means CPS football teams will play a five-game schedule.

Will there be state playoffs?

No. That’s been the standard so far this school year, though traditional spring sports such as baseball, softball and track and field will have state series including state finals.

Is every football team participating in the spring season?

Not quite, but almost all are. Joliet Herald-News sports editor Steve Soucie, who has been tracking schedules, says only six schools have opted out: Back of the Yards, Christ the King, Urban Prep Englewood, Litchfield, Pinckneyville and Rockford Christian.

Some schools have elected not to play a full schedule for a variety of reasons, including concern about stretching athletes too thin during the transitions from basketball to football and from football to spring sports.

What will schedules look like? Will we have any of the marquee nonconference games that traditionally highlight the first two weeks of the season?

Almost all teams will play exclusively within their conference, or crossing over with opponents in other divisions of their conference.

There are a few nonconference matchups. Some are the result of leagues like the Southland having an odd number of schools, and some are the result of schools needing a new opponent after the original one opted not to play a full schedule.

One of the more interesting nonconference games will be on March 27 when Marian Catholic hosts Crete-Monee in a matchup of returning playoff qualifiers.

Without playoffs, what is there to play for?

Different conferences are attacking this question in different ways.

Some like the Central Suburban, Mid-Suburban and Fox Valley are playing five conference games, with Week 6 reserved for crossovers between division champs, runners-up, third-place finishers and so on.

DuPage Valley teams will play five league games followed by final week matchups pitting the No. 1 and 2 teams, the No. 3 and 4 teams and the No. 5 and 6 teams.

Then there is the DuKane, which will play three conference games followed by a three-week, bracketed tournament.

It’s not like the usual five weeks of playoffs culminating in a weekend of state finals in Champaign or DeKalb. But in a pandemic year, football teams — and fans — will take what they can get.

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