As October is knocking, it is time to separate the playoff contenders from the playoff pretenders in New Mexico high school football.
What do we know so far with five weeks left in the regular season and nearly everyone about to start their district schedule?
We know that in Class 6A, there appears to be one clear-cut lock for a top-4 seed, that being La Cueva. Cleveland is the next closest thing. Centennial, Hobbs, Volcano Vista, Rio Rancho and Cibola will all be pursuing one of those top four seeds.
Could District 3 have two top-4 seeds in Centennial and Hobbs? Yes, it could. Much will depend, obviously, on the result of their head-to-head game Oct. 7 in Hobbs, and how other districts shake out.
Could someone besides Cleveland make an October push and challenge for a coveted first-round playoff bye from District 1-6A? Sure. Volcano Vista could. Cibola could. Rio Rancho could, although the Rams really need to get fully healthy on offense, I would posit, in order to do that.
Beyond earning a top-four seed, there is the race to earn a seed in the top eight, which guarantees a home game in the first round of the postseason.
This secondary chase should be equally compelling as the battle at the top. District 1 could get four of the top eight by itself — District 1 is a combined 23-6, and two of those six losses came to La Cueva — and if you were to add in Centennial, Hobbs and La Cueva, that may leave just one other slot available.
Here is where Los Lunas enters the picture. The Tigers, at 2-4, remain a strong favorite in their district, but will the district champ in that league automatically get a first-round home game? No. And this district seems relatively certain to send only one team to the playoffs.
Consider that Los Lunas has head-to-head losses to Farmington and Cibola, and that could very much influence the seeding list. (Also, consider that Farmington has losses to Cibola and Rio Rancho. That could influence the seeding list, too).
There might be a lively debate on selection weekend if we are comparing a district champion — hypothetically, Los Lunas — to teams that may not win their district, but who have decent or above-average records and who don’t win their own district. Like, possibly, the Scorpions in District 2 and the Cougars or Rio Rancho in District 1, for example. It’s just one of many scenarios that could unfold.
The race for second place in District 2 ought to be compelling. (And yes, no one is touching La Cueva.) Farmington, Sandia and West Mesa could all eventually be that team. The Mustangs and Matadors meet on Thursday night to get league play started. West Mesa is hamstrung, since it already has losses to Cibola, Volcano Vista and Atrisco Heritage from District 1. This is a potential criteria nightmare for the Mustangs. More than Farmington or Sandia, West Mesa needs to show well in league play if it hopes to gain a playoff berth. I would venture to say the Scorpions are the second-best team in 2-6A, but the margin is slim.
District 3/4-6A has the potential to get crazy, too, with Organ Mountain, Carlsbad, Alamogordo and Las Cruces needing to prove themselves against the big two of Centennial and Hobbs. Will be interesting to see if one or two from that second tier emerge — just about everyone will be rooting for Organ Mountain — or if one of them can upset Hobbs or Centennial during the next five weeks. How many teams qualify for state from this league?
My educated guess: the eight at-large playoff bids in 6A will come from Districts 1, 2 and 3/4 only. Meaning, we could easily see a scenario where the fifth-place team (i.e. the last-place team) from District 1 is among the playoff participants. At this point, everyone in 1-6A belongs.
- From the 5A ranks, Piedra Vista so far has become the team to watch outside of the Roswell/Goddard/Artesia/Mayfield district. The Panthers, ranked No. 1, visit No. 2 Roswell on Friday. Deming and Santa Teresa — and Valley — remain outliers among that crowd, for the time being.
Highland could squeeze into the top eight, but the Hornets are going to have to show well against Belen and Miyamura. (Piedra Vista is the favorite in that district.)
- Class 4A, as we expected, has incredible depth at the top. Bloomfield, Silver, Portales, Albuquerque Academy, Moriarty, a dangerous Valencia bunch, plus perhaps also Taos and Aztec … all these schools are good bets for a first-round home game.
Two-time defending state champion Lovington is the mystery in the entire class.
The Wildcats are 0-6, but you know what? I would say if you put any of the top 4A teams — specifically Bloomfield, Silver and Portales — up against the schedule that Lovington has played, not a single one of them would finish better than, say, 1-5. So keep the Wildcats in mind during October, even in their brutal district that includes Portales, Academy and Bernalillo.
The narratives, of course, are bound to be redirected — even detoured — from week to week from now until the end of the regular season, but the proverbial game of bumper cars that awaits us is sure to be a blast.