High school playoff football in October? Can it really be?

Well, yes. Thanks to an early starting date and re-vamped district system, the 2018 playoffs are here. Week 9, once reserved for hashing out the final qualifiers, now begins postseason play in all classes.

I admit, it’s a little weird seeing every Class 1A team make the playoffs to keep the new system uniform for all classes. But I also admit, I thought the new six-team district format adopted by Class 3A and 2A also were effective.

Honestly, I can look at the qualifiers and non-qualifiers and think that only Wellsville came up on the true short end of the stick, stuck in a district with four other strong foes.

I’d still like to see all classes work under the same points system being used in 6A, 5A and 4A — in part to allow teams to continue to try and play full league schedules. And I’d also like a little tweak in how the playoff brackets shape up so that a district champion wouldn’t potentailly have to play a district team in the second round of the playoffs.

But all in all, I’ll give a thumbs up to the new format.

So how will the postseason shake out? Here’s my thoughts.

CLASS 6A

Championship game — Blue Valley North (5-3) vs. Derby (8-0).

Champion — Derby. Last year’s championship game between North and Derby was a dandy with the Mustangs ending Derby’s two-year reign with a final-minute touchdown in a 49-42 victory. Derby has reloaded this year and would be plenty motivated in a rematch with North, which has won five straight since an 0-3 start and has the state’s top quarterback in Wisconsin-commit Graham Mertz.

Contenders — The west is loaded with them to make Derby’s bid for a fourth straight championship-game appearance a tough road to navigate. Free State (8-0) has been as impressive as the Panthers, outscoring its foes 348-70. Topeka High (7-1) boasts an offensive trio in Ky Thomas, Jacqez Barksdale and Davonshai Harden that stack up with anyone in the state and Manhattan (7-1) is a three-point loss from also being undefeated. In the east, SM East (6-2) is 11 points away from an 8-0 mark and Olathe North (6-2) has a dynamic duo in Daymonn Sanchez and Arland Bruce IV. Gardner-Edegerton (8-0) has been the surprise of 6A all season.

CLASS 5A

Championship game — Aquinas (7-0) vs. Wichita Northwest (8-0).

Champion — Aquinas. As impressive as Wichita Northwest has been this year, averaging 54.2 points per game, the wins on Aquinas’ resume just stick out. A 41-21 win over Miege. 30-14 over Blue Valley. 24-13 over Mill Valley. The Saints have an emerging star in sophomore tailback Tank Young and a powerful offensive line. Northwest’s defense has been a little suspect this year, allowing just under 21 points a contest, but the Grizzlies are equipped to win a shootout with Breece Hall and Co.

Contenders — Northwest needed a last-second field goal to beat Carroll (6-2) in the season opener and the Golden Eagles are the defending champions. They won’t be an easy out in the west. Neither will Maize (7-1) which just suffered its first loss to 6A No. 1 Derby in a game where the Eagles were within a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Maize’s defense has been stellar. Great Bend (5-2) pushed Carroll to the final minute and Salina Central (6-2) has enjoyed a bounce-back season. Aquinas’ top challenge in the east should come from league rival Mill Valley (5-3) with DeSoto (6-2) looking to make the state semifinals for the second straight year.

CLASS 4A

Championship game — Miege (6-2) vs. McPherson (8-0).

Champion — Miege. Sure the Stags have two losses this year, the most they’ve suffered in a season since going 9-2 in 2013. But until someone proves otherwise, Miege is still the king in 4A, having won four straight state titles. McPherson has been untouchable this year in the west with no game closer than 21 points. But it’s hard to picture them hanging with the Stags in the title game, something nobody has done since Hayden in 2014.

Contenders — Pittsburg (7-1) and Goddard (6-2) made the drop from Class 5A to 4A this year and should be factors, though Pittsburg will run into Miege in the second round. Louisburg (8-0) finished the regular season with a huge win over Frontier League rival Paola (7-1), but is also on the same side of the bracket at Miege. Paola could have a nice path to the semifinals with Basehor-Linwood (7-1) also in the mix. Mulvane (6-2) and Wellington (6-2) played to a one-point game last week and will be the top challengers to McPherson and Goddard in the west.

CLASS 3A

Championship game — Sabetha (8-0) vs. Andale (8-0).

Champion — Andale. It’s hard to go against the defending champions, particularly with Sabetha having put together an undefeated record against a very tough schedule. The Bluejays are built for the postseason with a punishing ground game and defense and have shown the ability to throw it a little as well. But the same holds true for Andale, which has annihilated its opponents and pitched five straight shutouts.

Contenders — As weak as Class 4A Division II always seemed to be, Class 3A has maybe the most depth of any class in the state. Pratt (8-0) has outscored its foes 360-45 and has a stud back in Travis Theis. Scott City (8-0) has been equally dominating (356-51 scoring edge) and has a stud in Wyatt Hayes. Galena (8-0) has yet to be tested and has been a perennial power from the southeast, while Smoky Valley (8-0) has as good of a ground game as anyone. And that’s just the unbeatens. Count out the likes of Hayden (6-2), Perry-Lecompton (6-2), Colby (7-1), Marysville (6-2), Chapman (6-2) and Prairie View (7-1) and you could get surprised.

CLASS 2A

State championship — Silver Lake (8-0) vs. Phillipsburg (8-0).

Champion — Phillipsburg. The Panthers were upset on the way to last year’s state title game by Marysville and that loss has stuck as a huge motivator for this year’s Phillipsburg squad. And it’s showed as the Panthers have run roughshod over a good schedule, including a 42-14 whipping of 1A No. 1 Smith Center. Silver Lake has only been tested once and has an easier path to the title game and would love to add another trophy to C.J. Hamilton’s resume.

Contenders — Conway Springs has held down the No. 1 spot in the Best of Kansas Preps rankings all year and posted impressive wins over Chaparral (6-2), Hutchinson Trinity (7-1) and Garden Plain (5-3), all of whom could be considered contenders in the west. Cimarron (7-1) lost the star power off last year’s team, but is a weather-shortened loss to Elkhart away from being undefeated. In the east, could we see another Silver Lake-Rossville (6-2) showdown to get to the title game? Perhaps, but Humboldt (8-0) has yet to be challenged and is looking to make a statement, while Riley County (6-2), Maur Hill (7-1), Nemaha Central (5-3), Southeast-Saline (7-1) and Osage City (7-1) all are capable of making a run.

CLASS 1A

State championship — Centralia (6-2) vs. Smith Center (7-1).

Champion — Smith Center. The last time these two teams played, Centralia was ending Smith Center’s state-record run with a 20-12 overtime victory in the 2009 Class 2-1A state title game. The Redmen may not necessarily be seeking payback, but they no doubt don’t forget and would love to get revenge against a Centralia team which has come on strong since an 0-2 start.

Contenders — Olpe (8-0) has survived a couple close calls on its way to an undefeated record and the Eagles always show up in the postseason. Same for Colgan (6-2) which suffered one of its losses to Centralia. Elkhart (7-0) has a dynamic playmaker in quarterback Lane Whisennand and Sedgwick (7-1) has a lethal passing game behind Hooper Schroeder. Smith Center needed a final-minute score to beat Ell-Saline (6-2) last week, while Jackson Heights (7-1) is a two-point loss to Olpe away from being undefeated. Plainville (6-2) and Troy (5-3) are also dangerous.

EIGHT-MAN DIVISION I

Championship game — South Central (7-1) vs. Central Plains (8-0).

Champion — Central Plains has feasted on a relatively weak schedule this year, which normally would be concerning at the eight-man level. But given the Oilers’ track record, it’s not. Central Plains will have a rugged path to the title game in a loaded west bracket, but if it can survive, the Oilers should be too much for a South Central team which must love getting shipped east this year.

Contenders — How will the west be won? It’s really anyone’s guess with so many good teams on that side of the bracket. St. Francis (8-0) handed defending champion Hoxie (7-1) its only loss and both should challenge. Hoxie showed last year it could lose to St. Francis and still win a title and has the power to do it a gain. Clifton-Clyde (8-0) has been as good as anyone defensively. Ness City (6-2) is healthy and just handed Hodgeman County (7-1) its first loss. Madison (8-0) has enjoyed a revival this year behind a smothering defense and could have to beat Lyon County League rival Burlingame (7-1) again after a great regular-season battle.

EIGHT-MAN DIVISION II

Championship game — Hanover (9-0) vs. Osborne (7-1)

Champion — Hanover. The Wildcats have won two straight Division II titles and there’s no reason to think they won’t make it a three-peat. Hanover survived its biggest regular-season challenge in years by outlasting Axtell and may have to get by the Eagles again in the semifinals. Osborne’s only loss came to defending Division I champion Hoxie and the Bulldogs were Division I champions two years ago.

Contenders — Axtell (7-1) did indeed give Hanover all it wanted in a 50-42 loss, leading in the second half of the contest before Hanover scored three straight TDs. Quinn Buessing and Hunter Koch will be a record-setting pass-catch combo before it’s over with and that makes the Eagles the most dangerous team out there. Otis-Bison (6-1-1-) and South Barber (7-0-1) played to a halftime tie before weather canceled the remainder of the game and both will be a handful for Osborne. St. Paul (7-1) was the Division I runner-up last year and has only lost to Axtell, while Waverly (7-1) suffered its only loss to Division I unbeaten Madison. Hutch Central Christian (6-2) can score with just about anyone and Rock Hills (7-1) only lost to Hanover.