(Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect Big Sandy and Wibaux moving their game to Friday afternoon.)
The 6-Man state football playoffs are going to look a lot different this year than years past.
The classification moved to five conferences prior to the 2020 season, adding a Central Division to try to balance the number of teams in each league. Then the coronavirus pandemic forced some teams to cancel their seasons and others to go to conference-only schedules. Because of the schedule changes and game cancellations, some teams will enter the playoffs having played only four games this season. Others have already played seven games.
6-Man administrators also opted to move the playoffs up one week, so the first round starts on Friday rather than on Oct. 30 with the rest of Montana's high school football classifications. The quarterfinal round will be the weekend of Oct. 30-31, the semifinals Nov. 6-7 and the championship on the weekend of Nov. 13-14.
Mother Nature has decided to add another element of change, as well. The game between Richey-Lambert and Shields Valley, originally scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday, has been moved to 1 p.m. Friday due to incoming inclement weather. There will now be four first-round 6-Man games on Friday, as Sunburst and White Sulphur Springs will also kick off at 1 p.m. and Noxon and Harlowton-Ryegate are scheduled for a 7 p.m. kick.
Big Sandy and Wibaux announced on Thursday they will also kick off at 1 p.m. on Friday.
The other four games -- Broadview-Lavina at Froid-Medicine Lake, Bridger at Hot Springs, Denton-Geyser-Stanford at Power-Dutton-Brady and Hobson-Moore-Judith Gap at Savage -- are set for kickoffs at 1 p.m. Saturday.
The reigning champion is not in the bracket this year, as Jordan stumbled to a 1-4 record this season after making a historic run in 2019. The Mustangs saw Froid-Medicine Lake, Savage, Richey-Lambert and Wibaux finish ahead of them in the conference standings, and one of those four teams will look to continue the East's playoff success. A team from the 6-Man East has won the past three 6-Man state championships -- Jordan in 2019, Wibaux in 2018 and Westby-Grenora in 2017. Westby-Grenora added a runner-up finish in 2016 when it lost to Hot Springs in the championship game.
No. 1 seeds: Froid-Medicine Lake (East), Shields Valley (South), Harlowton-Ryegate (Central), Big Sandy (North) and White Sulphur Springs Springs (West).
Shields Valley and Big Sandy are the only repeat conference champions from a year ago, as Froid-Medicine Lake and White Sulphur Springs climbed to the top of their respective conferences. Harlowton-Ryegate became the first team to win a conference title in the newly formed Central Division this year, adding a fifth No. 1 seed to the 6-Man state playoffs.
Though all five of these teams have their standouts -- guys like Aidan Jenkins at Shields Valley and Kade Strutz at Big Sandy -- they earned No. 1 seeds with depth and talent. Froid-Medicine Lake, Harlowton-Ryegate and White Sulphur Springs have all been building toward these successful seasons in recent years, and they've arrived now that their underclassmen are upperclassmen.
Favorite: Big Sandy.
Here's what we wrote about Big Sandy prior to the 2019 6-Man state playoffs:
"The Pioneers started the season with a championship-or-bust mentality and ended the regular season with the top spot in the MontanaSports.com power rankings. Big Sandy boasts everything a championship contender needs: size, speed, talent, depth and experience."
While we didn't do MontanaSports.com power rankings during this coronavirus-affected season, the rest of last year's outlook holds true for the 2020 Pioneers. But you can add one more trait to this year's team: motivation. Big Sandy felt itself a championship contender in 2019 only to lose to eventual champion Jordan in the semifinal round. This year's Pioneers haven't forgotten that feeling, and they're even hungrier this year than last. They've been nothing short of dominant this season and bring a 5-0 mark into the playoffs.
Dark horse (No. 3 seed or lower): Denton-Geyser-Stanford.
With the new conference structure, there are 10 teams with Nos. 1 or 2 seeds, five teams as No. 3 seeds and Wibaux is the only No. 4 seed, so the pool of potential dark horse contenders is a bit shallower than its been in years past.
Denton-Geyser-Stanford, which finished as the third seed out of the Central Division, came out guns blazing to start the season, opening with impressive wins over Roy-Winifred, Geraldine-Highwood and Centerville. The Bearcats then lost a hard-fought game on a blocked point-after attempt to Harlowton-Ryegate. Injuries, forfeits and cancellations derailed the second half of their season, which included on-field losses to Hobson-Moore-Judith Gap and Richey-Lambert and a forfeit loss to Shields Valley. If healthy -- or as close to healthy as possible -- the Bearcats could be a handful for Power-Dutton-Brady in the first round.
Best first-round matchup: Bridger at Hot Springs.
An interesting playoff quirk with expanding to five conferences is that the bracket now includes two games pitting No. 2 seeds against each other -- Bridger (South No. 2) at Hot Springs (West No. 2) and Hobson-Moore-Judith Gap (Central No. 2) at Savage (East No. 2). Those should be among the best first-round games this weekend.
Hot Springs and Bridger are two programs that have tasted recent playoff success -- Hot Springs won the 2016 state title and Bridger finished runner-up in 2017 -- so they know what it takes to win in late October and November. Both teams won playoff games last year and returned a wealth of talent this season, including plenty of players who share last names with standouts from those championship contenders of recent years.