With just a couple of weeks left in the regular season of high school football, it?s time to check out the North Coast Section?s new playoff system.

To better assimilate the state bowl games ? expanded to five games at Carson?s Home Depot Center on Dec. 19-20 ? the NCS did away with Class 3A, 2A, A and B formats and replaced them with five divisions.

Each division has an enrollment limit ? Division I is 2,001 and above, Division II is 1,401-2,000, Division III is 701-1,400, Division IV is 401-700 and Division V is 400 and below ? and the football teams fit one of the five divisions.

Schools can still petition the NCS to ?play up,? which Cardinal Newman has done. Its enrollment places Newman in Division III, but the Cardinals will play in Division II because most of the North Bay League teams it plays are Division II schools. Newman petitioned to play up before the start of the season.

The biggest difference in the NCS playoff format is the mixture of East Bay schools with the usual Redwood Empire field of schools from Sonoma County, Marin County, Mendocino County and Humboldt-Del Norte regions.

It doesn?t look like many schools with winning records will get bumped from the playoffs, because the biggest division ? Division III ? has 31 schools and the biggest playoff field, a 16-team bracket.

Division II, with schools like Newman, Rancho Cotate, Ukiah, Casa Grande, Maria Carrillo and Petaluma, has 26 schools and a 12-team playoff bracket.

Healdsburg and Analy are Division III teams, Middletown, Fort Bragg, Clear Lake and Cloverdale are Division IV, and St. Vincent, Tomales, Anderson Valley and Rincon Valley Christian are Division V. There are eight-team playoff brackets in Division IV (17 schools) and Division V (19 schools).

Probably the biggest difference between this year?s playoffs and last year?s are the logistics. Teams have to travel farther outside their areas for games, although don?t tell Analy that after back-to-back playoff trips to Crescent City to play Del Norte.

In the 1980s and ?90s, when Empire teams played East Bay schools in the playoffs ? remember Montgomery playing De La Salle? ? there was always the presumption of superiority by the East Bay. Seeding meetings regularly had Empire schools playing no home games and playing the best of the East Bay early on.

That really shouldn?t be the case in the 2000s. Various publications not only have Newman ranked No.1 in Division II, but Rancho Cotate is the third-ranked school, and Ukiah fits in the top six.

Between Newman and Rancho is Clayton Valley; Campolindo and Las Lomas follow the top three. Casa Grande gets honorable mention votes as well. And that?s not even close to filling out the 12-team field, which would indicate there may be room for a .500 or slightly better team such as Petaluma or Sonoma, if the Dragons win their last two games.

Healdsburg, at 7-1, ranks among the best NCS Division III schools. The No.1-ranked team appears to be Novato, which played in a state bowl last year, followed by Encinal and Bishop O?Dowd. Analy (5-3) still has a good chance of making the Division III field.

Middletown and Fort Bragg should be among the best Division IV playoff teams. Middletown won Class A section titles in 2001, 1999 and 1997. Fort Bragg won four consecutive Class A championships from 1993-1996 and a Class 2A championship in 1999.

Another school opting to play up that continues to impress everyone they play is Ferndale, a school of only 158 students. Ferndale is 8-0 and is playing in Division IV. Clear Lake, Cloverdale and St. Helena are also Division IV schools, as is St. Patrick-St. Vincent (6-2) of Vallejo and Salesian.

St. Vincent of Petaluma (7-1) is the only other Empire school besides Newman to receive a state ranking by Cal-Hi Sports, a No.5 spot on the small-schools Northern California list.

St. Vincent, Tomales and Anderson Valley could make the Division V playoffs. The best of the rest of Division V includes St. Elizabeth of Oakland, St. Bernard of Eureka and South Fork of Miranda.

You can reach Staff Writer Rich Rupprecht at 521-5275 or rich.rupprecht@pressdemocrat.com. For more high school sports coverage, read Rupe?s blog at prepsports.pressdemocrat.com.