To break three-way ties in conference play in 2019, the Wyoming High School Activities Association will use a new step in its tiebreaking procedures, one that incorporates scoring differential in games against the tied teams.
On paper, it’s a small change, one that’s deep down in the WHSAA’s tiebreaking procedures, just a step ahead of flipping a coin.
However, if we retroactively apply the new tiebreaking procedures to past three-way ties, some interesting results emerge.
Before we dive into that, it’s important to understand that the top two elements of Wyoming’s high school football tiebreaking procedures have remained unchanged for more than a decade.
Since 2009, when power ratings were fully eliminated from playoff seeding, the first two steps of the three-way tiebreaking procedure have been (1) head-to-head results of the tied teams, and (2) records of the tied teams against the highest-ranking non-tied team.
After that, though, the tiebreaking procedures have seen multiple iterations — including the new one to be introduced in 2019.
- In 2010, after the first two steps, tiebreaker steps included (3) overall record; (4) highest winning percentage in road conference games; (5) triangular playoff; (6) coin flip.
- From 2011-15, steps after the first two were simplified to include just these: (3) triangular playoff; (4) coin flip (skip 3 if qualifying isn’t involved).
- From 2016-18, triangulars were eliminated, and the third step was the only step after the first two: (3) coin flip.
In 2019, though, after years of stripping away options, the WHSAA is adding one to its procedures. Starting this season, the third step will be point differential among the tied teams in games between those teams (capped at 12 points per game). After that, the coin flip is the last option.
Although other states have used a similar tiebreaker, Wyoming has never used point differential as a tiebreaker for conference standings.
But what if the Equality State had decided to do this a decade ago?
What if we applied the tiebreaking rules to be used this year to break three-way ties in past seasons? Would the results be any different? Would different teams qualify for the playoffs?
That’s what we’re about to explore here.
THREE-WAY TIES, EXPLORED
Since 2009, Wyoming high school football has had 29 three-way conference ties that affected seeding or playoff qualifying.
Of those 29 ties, the new tiebreaker rules come into play in 24 cases — the other five were broken by one of the first two tiebreaker criteria, either the head-to-head tiebreaker or the record vs. higher teams in the conference tiebreaker.
However, in 17 of the remaining 24 cases, the playoff seedings would have been different with a point differential tiebreaker than whatever the previous tiebreaker created. And in six *and maybe seven* cases, the teams that would have qualified for the playoffs under the new tiebreaker rules were different from those who actually did qualify under old tiebreaker rules.
Let’s break down each one of these seven ties, looking at who would qualify for the playoffs with the new tiebreaking system and comparing it to who qualified under the systems in place at the time:
2018 1A 11-man East
Who would have qualified: Lusk
Who actually qualified: Wright
The most recent of the ties that would be settled differently happened last year, where Wright, Lusk and Tongue River tied for the final playoff spot out of the 1A 11-man East Conference. Last year, Wright won a coin flip to earn that last spot; if the exact same tie happened this year, Lusk would qualify for the playoffs with scoring differentials of Lusk +5, Wright +1 and Tongue River -6.
2014 1A 11-man West
Who would have qualified: Burlington
Who actually qualified: Riverside
In this case, Riverside, Burlington and Wind River all tied for the fourth and final playoff spot out of the West. In 2014, they played a triangular playoff for that spot, with Riverside topping Wind River after Burlington withdrew from the triangular altogether. Using a score differential system for the final spot, though, Burlington would have actually earned the last spot (Burlington +8, Riverside 0, Wind River -8).
2013 1A 11-man West
Who would have qualified: Shoshoni
Who actually qualified: Riverside
This season, Burlington, Riverside and Shoshoni all tied for the final two postseason spots. In real life, Burlington earned the third seed by winning a triangular playoff, and Riverside earned the fourth seed after that by virtue of a head-to-head regular-season win. Using a scoring differential, though, would have given Shoshoni the third spot, Burlington the fourth spot and Riverside a spot on the sidelines (Shoshoni +6, Burlington 0, Riverside -6).
2011 2A West
Who would have qualified: Greybull
Who actually qualified: Kemmerer
Thermopolis, Kemmerer and Greybull tied for the final two spots, and in a triangular playoff, Thermopolis emerged with the No. 3 seed and Kemmerer the No. 4 seed. With a scoring differential tiebreaker, though, Greybull would have been third, Thermopolis fourth and Kemmerer out (Greybull +5, Thermopolis 0, Kemmerer -5).
2011 1A 11-man East
Who would have qualified: Pine Bluffs
Who actually qualified: Lingle
This is perhaps the most famous failure of a tiebreaking system to actually break a tie. Lingle, Pine Bluffs and Sundance tied for the final two seeds from the East. After none of the tiebreakers worked, the teams staged a triangular playoff. After the triangular playoff, though, the teams were still tied. So they flipped coins in the parking lot, and Sundance finished third, Lingle fourth and Pine Bluffs out. However, using a scoring differential system, Pine Bluffs would have been third, Sundance fourth and Lingle out (Pine Bluffs +9, Sundance -3, Lingle -6). (By the way, after the 2011 season, the WHSAA added an overtime system to triangular tiebreaker playoffs in case this ever happened again. It didn’t.)
2010 2A East
Who would have qualified: Wright
Who actually qualified: Newcastle
In this case, Newcastle, Burns and Wright tied for two playoff spots out of the East. Newcastle finished third, Burns fourth and Wright out by virtue of a tiebreaker system that was in its last year — one where the “team with the highest winning percentage of away league games” is the highest seed. In this case, Newcastle’s 2-1 road league record beat Burns’ 2-2 and Wright’s 2-2 to earn the third seed, and Burns’ head-to-head victory over Wright got them the fourth seed. In a score differential system, though, Burns would have finished in the third seed, Wright the fourth seed and Newcastle out (Burns +3, Wright 0, Newcastle -3).
BONUS: 2009 1A 11-man West
Who would have qualified: ???
Who actually qualified: Rocky Mountain and Riverside
In 2009, Rocky Mountain, Riverside and Burlington finished tied for the final two playoff seeds. At the time, one of the tiebreakers was overall record. Burlington’s 4-4 was worse than Rocky’s and Riverside’s duplicate 5-3 marks, bumping them out of the playoffs, and Rocky’s victory against Riverside decided who got the third seed and who got the fourth. However, in a scoring differential system, it’s impossible to know how qualifying would go — the scoring differential for all three teams was 0, as each game between these three programs was decided by more than 12 points. In a case like this, were it to happen again in 2019, the spots would be decided by a coin flip.
In 11 other cases, new tiebreaking procedures in place for 2019 would have generated different seeding than what we saw using old tiebreakers. These changes often affected who was at home and who was on the road for the first round of the playoffs and matchups in the first round. Those ties included:
2018 1A 11-man West
How seeds would be under new tiebreaker: Wind River 2, Rocky Mountain 3, Shoshoni 4
How seeds actually went: Shoshoni 2, Rocky Mountain 3, Wind River 4
2017 3A East
How seeds would be under new tiebreaker: Rawlins 2, Buffalo 3, Douglas 4
How seeds actually went: Buffalo 2, Douglas 3, Rawlins 4
2017 1A six-man West
How seeds would be under new tiebreaker: Burlington 1, Snake River 2, Farson 3
How seeds actually went: Farson 1, Burlington 2, Snake River 3
2016 3A West
How seeds would be under new tiebreaker: Star Valley 1, Green River 2, Powell 3
How seeds actually went: Powell 1, Star Valley 2, Green River 3
2016 1A 11-man West
How seeds would be under new tiebreaker: Rocky Mountain 1, Cokeville 2, Shoshoni 3
How seeds actually went: Shoshoni 1, Rocky Mountain 2, Cokeville 3
2016 1A six-man West
How seeds would be under new tiebreaker: Burlington 2, Snake River 3, Meeteetse 4
How seeds actually went: Meeteetse 2, Snake River 3, Burlington 4
2015 1A 11-man West
How seeds would be under new tiebreaker: Rocky Mountain 2, Riverside 3, Cokeville 4
How seeds actually went: Cokeville 2, Rocky Mountain 3, Riverside 4
How seeds would be under new tiebreaker: Sheridan 2, Cheyenne East 3, Gillette 4
How seeds actually went: Cheyenne East 2, Gillette 3, Sheridan 4
2010 2A West
How seeds would be under new tiebreaker: Greybull 1, Lovell 2, Lyman 3
How seeds actually went: Lovell 1, Greybull 2, Lyman 3
2010 1A six-man
How seeds would be under new tiebreaker: Kaycee 2, Ten Sleep 3, Hanna 4
How seeds actually went: Hanna 2, Ten Sleep 3, Kaycee 4
2009 3A West
How seeds would be under new tiebreaker: Worland 1, Star Valley 2, Cody 3
How seeds actually went: Cody 1, Worland 2, Star Valley 3
Six three-way ties unaffected by the new tiebreaking procedures include:
2017 1A six-man East: Hanna, Midwest, Guernsey. Goes to coin flip, even with new tiebreaker.
2016 3A East: Lander, Rawlins, Buffalo. Lander won the coin flip in real life and would have won on scoring differential.
2015 4A: Kelly Walsh, Evanston, Laramie. Goes to coin flip, even with new tiebreaker.
2015 3A East: Buffalo, Douglas, Riverton. Goes to coin flip, even with new tiebreaker.
2015 2A East: Wheatland, Glenrock, Big Horn. Goes to coin flip, even with new tiebreaker.
2010 2A West: Big Piney, Mountain View, Pinedale. Big Piney won the overall record tiebreaker in real life and would have won on scoring differential.
And three-way ties that wouldn’t even reach the scoring differential tiebreaker, whether tied in the past or tied in 2019, are:
2018 4A: Cheyenne Central, Kelly Walsh, Rock Springs. Rock Springs beat both head-to-head.
2016 4A: Natrona, Laramie, Cheyenne East. Natrona beat both head-to-head.
2013 1A six-man East: Hulett, Kaycee, Saratoga. Hulett beat the highest-ranking non-tied team.
2011 4A: Cheyenne Central, Cheyenne East, Evanston. East beat both head-to-head.
2010 4A: Gillette, Evanston, Sheridan. Sheridan beat the highest-ranking non-tied team.
The WHSAA also includes language in its handbook about breaking a four-way tie. A four-way tie break would not include scoring differential. However, the WHSAA handbook does not have any language about breaking a five-way tie, or breaking a tie involving more than five teams.
A four-way, five-way or more-way tie in football conference standings has never happened in Wyoming. Yet.