Rota's Ray Reyes tries to break a tackle in Baumholder, Germany, on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016.

Rota's Ray Reyes tries to break a tackle in Baumholder, Germany, on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016. (Michael B. Keller/Stars and Stripes)

After years of tinkering and realignment, the 2016 DODEA-Europe Division II football regular season has produced a clear and uncontroversial set of eight playoff qualifiers.

Seven of the available quarterfinal spots were already determined before last weekend’s set of regular-season finales, and the last was settled decisively.

Even more remarkably, there’s not even a tie for seeding in either the North or South region. Undefeated Rota tops the North at 5-0, while Bitburg (4-1), International School of Brussels (3-2) and SHAPE (2-3) fall in place one game behind the team ahead of them. The same is true in the South as Naples (3-1), Vicenza (2-2) and Hohenfels (1-3) line up under two-time defending champion Ansbach (4-0).

This appealing level of order is likely the product of the division’s latest realignment. Alconbury’s exit from the gridiron ranks dropped the Division II field from 12 to 11, making it impossible to duplicate last season’s arrangement of three regions featuring four teams each. Instead, DODEA-Europe sorted the remaining 11 into two divisions, the North and South.

That streamlining move also balanced the process of qualifying for the playoffs.

In years past, teams had various out-of-region schedules, and those games counted towards the playoffs. In 2015, that created a situation where all four teams from the Central region made the playoffs, while only two each from the North and South qualified; the last-place Central team was ISB, which went winless in region play but advanced to the playoffs on the strength of two non-region wins.

This year’s system featured no such quirks.

Only regional games counted towards playoff qualification, meaning every team in each region was measured against the same set of opponents. Of the three teams to miss the playoffs, none had a legitimate gripe: two went winless in their regions, while the third enjoyed only a win over one of those winless teams.

While this year’s system appears to approach the ideal possible setup for such a geographically disparate league, DODEA-Europe plans to continue to steadfastly review the process for football, the only team sport in the organization that doesn’t automatically invite all of its participating teams to the postseason.

“I don’t think (DODEA-Europe Athletic Director) Karen Seadore is ever content,” Naples coach Jim Davis said. “She asks for our input and I believe we are always looking for ways to do things better.”

Now that the field has been assembled, the time has arrived to thin it.

This weekend’s four Saturday afternoon quarterfinals will produce four losers, some possibly by substantial margins. But entering the postseason, it’s hard to identify a truly weak link.

Hohenfels visits returning European runner-up Rota saddled with the worst regional and overall record of any playoff team. But the young Tigers have markedly improved in October, hanging with No. 2 seed Naples in an 18-10 loss and taking a respectable 20-12 loss to powerhouse Ansbach a week later. Rota, meanwhile, hasn’t been tested since a 34-29 defeat of Bitburg in the second game of its season.

To that end, Rota coach Ken Walter isn’t taking victory for granted.

“Hohenfels has some very good athletes. They run a lot of different looks,” Walter said. “We need to stay disciplined and play within our schemes.”

South No. 4 seed SHAPE has a similar opportunity against Ansbach. While the Cougars are undefeated, they’ve haven’t matched the level of dominance they attained in recent seasons. Ansbach’s average margin of victory over playoff teams this fall is a mere eight and a half points.

Suitably, the middle matchups of second and third seeds offer even more intrigue.

Vicenza’s costly 17-6 loss to Naples on Sept. 24 cost it a winning divisional record and the No. 2 seed. But the Cougars can still threaten North No. 2 Bitburg if they can finally eradicate the mistakes that have kept them from greater success this fall.

“What we are not doing well is taking care of the ball, which we should have cleaned up by now,” Vicenza coach Jesse Woods said. “We would like to execute our offense better.”

Naples, the second seed in the South, hosts a gritty ISB team that stormed its way into the playoffs over the last two weeks of the season with a hard-won 25-22 win over SHAPE and a clinching 42-22 rout of AFNORTH/Brussels.

That’s about as much intel as Naples itself has on its quarterfinal opponent.

“ISB is an unknown to us, so that is a challenge,” Davis said.

As game day approaches in southern Italy, the senior-heavy Wildcats are simply thrilled that a season’s worth of long road trips has been rewarded.

“Having a first-round playoff home game makes the regular season meaningful,” Davis said.

Twitter: @broomestripes

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