The coronavirus pandemic led to Class A administrators trimming the field for the state football playoffs. Instead of 12 teams qualifying like usual, only eight teams are in the bracket.
That means the traditional first round is eliminated, and teams get started with quarterfinal matchups this weekend. It's hard to argue that fewer teams and games are good things, but the result should mean for better games throughout the playoffs. No. 1 seeds Billings Central (Eastern A) and Hamilton (Western A) still get to host No. 4 seeds Columbia Falls and Sidney, respectively, which -- on paper -- are favorable matchups for the favorites. The other two first-round games -- Frenchtown at Laurel and Miles City at Dillon -- offer intriguing matchups between Nos. 2 and 3 seeds. That's what playoff football should be about.
It was a bit of a slog to get to this point on the Class A football fields. The pandemic certainly affected the season, canceling and postponing a number of games in both divisions. Teams from the West had enough games canceled that they put last-resort tiebreakers into place. Fortunately -- at least for the teams that qualified for the playoffs -- the standings cleared up without much hand-wringing, and the bracket was easily set.
Now that we're here, Class A's shortened playoffs will take only three weeks, culminating with the state championship game the weekend of Nov. 13-14. For updated scores and pairings throughout, click here.
No. 1 seeds: Billings Central (East), Hamilton (West).
Billings Central had an uncharacteristic "down" year in 2019, struggling to the East's No. 3 seed after winning the 2018 state championship. Jim Stanton's crew is back on top of the East this year, as the Rams dispatched contenders Laurel (28-14) and Miles City (42-0) during the regular season. Like traditional powerhouse Central teams of years past, this year's Rams are built on a strong running game and stingy defense.
Hamilton made it through the Western A unscathed, winning every game it played by at least 15 points. The Broncs are rolling under coach Bryce Carver, playing for the state title in 2017 and 2018 and advancing to the semifinals last year. Even after graduating studs like Montana Gatorade player of the year Carson Rostad, the Broncs keep reloading, and they have another talented squad in 2020 with playmakers in both the passing and running games.
For what it's worth, Hamilton and Billings Central have met in the playoffs each of the past three seasons. Hamilton won the 2017 and 2019 matchups, but Billings Central got the 2018 win in the state championship game.
The Broncs have looked like Class A's team to beat since the start of the season when they opened with 53-6 and 63-0 wins over Corvallis and Stevensville. They solidified that standing the next two weeks with impressive wins over Dillon (37-14) and Frenchtown (21-6), but, like in Class AA, there were no non-conference games to measure teams or leagues against each other. Hamilton gets its first look at the Eastern A on Saturday when it hosts fourth-seeded Sidney.
Dark horse (No. 3 seed or lower): Frenchtown.
Frenchtown has shown to be a tough team under coach Ryne Nelson. The Broncs might not be the flashiest team and they may not wow with a lot of lopsided wins, but they're hard to beat. Their losses came against Dillon and Hamilton, and both of those teams needed 48-minute efforts to get those wins. Can Frenchtown grind out a win at Laurel in the first round? It'll be a challenge, as the Locomotives have put together another solid season (only Billings Central scored more than 10 points against Laurel) after last year's runner-up finish.
Best first-round matchup: Miles City at Dillon.
Montana football fans have to love when traditional powers like Miles City and Dillon meet. These are football towns through and through, even down to the simple yet iconic jerseys the Cowboys and Beavers don. Miles City and Dillon often play smash-mouth, hard-nosed football, but this year's squads are a little more explosive than their typical teams, and it wouldn't surprise if they lit up the scoreboard on Saturday. Of course, now that we've said that, they just might get back to their roots and play a 7-6 game. Either way, it doesn't get much better than Miles City and Dillon playing Halloween football.