With the NFL in offseason mode and the latest version of the XFL in full swing, many eyes are turning to season No. 2 of the USFL. Let’s examine the USFL playoff format for 2023, how it compares to last year’s, and what wrinkles we might encounter during the regular season.
USFL Playoff Format for the 2023 Season
As with last season, the top two teams in each division (North and South) will compete in the playoffs. Moreover, in each division, the top two performers will face each other first in the semifinals. The winner will then face the winner of the semifinal matchup in the other division.
Last year, the playoff format went off without a hitch. Of the eight teams, four had winning records — two in the North division, and two in the South. The other four had losing records. So the playoffs featured the four “deserving” squads with winning records.
I write “deserving” because, of course, any playoff team is deserving if they reach the postseason. The rules are the rules. But no doubt, it was good for the league to have such clear-cut differences between their good/great teams and their not-so-good teams.
Of course, rules can change from year to year. The USFL might expand someday, and if/when it does, we might witness more stability between the league’s two divisions (or conferences).
Take the NFL, for example, where each conference has 16 teams. Last year, nine AFC squads had a winning regular-season record versus eight NFC squads. That signifies some degree of parity. With each team playing more of its games within their own conference, we can understand how usually every playoff team deserves to be there.
There are clear exceptions, such as an underwhelming winner of a weak division. The 2022 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are one of many examples.
But that’s the point. In a league where every winner of a four-team division makes the playoffs, there will be occasional outliers. And the same is possible for the still-nascent USFL. This season, the three best teams might be in the same division, meaning one “deserving” franchise will miss the postseason, while two “lesser” teams in the other division will reach the postseason.
The XFL, in fact, may have to deal with this reality this year. Through Week 6, three of the four teams with winning records are in the North division. The Seattle Sea Dragons or St. Louis Battlehawks could go 7-3 and still fall short of the playoffs. That would be like an NFL team missing out after going 12-5.
So the USFL’s playoff format is what it is, and it makes complete sense. At the same time, we should be prepared for the possibility that one division could be tangibly stronger than the other. In an eight-team league, that disparity can have dramatic effects.