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Carson: Four is the ideal number

| Monday, December 7, 2015

Well, that was easy.

As No. 1 Clemson and No. 2 Alabama won Saturday, the College Football Playoff Selection Committee had a stress-free Sunday morning, selecting a clear top four to comprise this year’s playoff field. A year after drama dominated proceedings, it was a calm, serene gathering Sunday afternoon when the semifinal matchups were selected.

Twelve months ago, that drama caused some to speak out in favor of a six- or eight-team playoff, but if 2014 was the argument against a four-team field, 2015 made the perfect argument in favor of it.

Because here’s the thing: there’s no perfect number.

Let’s look at this season. Iowa finished the year No. 5 and, quite honestly, had a fantastic season. They ran the table in the regular season, an impressive task, and hung tight with No. 3 Michigan State until the final seconds Saturday in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis.

But for everything the Hawkeyes did throughout the year, when the green and white confetti rained down Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium, we knew one thing: Iowa had its chance. And lost.

Or look at No. 6 Stanford, who may well be one of the four “best” teams in the country. It has a litany of good wins, highlighted by a triumph over No. 8 Notre Dame, but it also has two pesky losses to good teams. Over the course of the season, Stanford had every opportunity to stake a claim to a spot. But it didn’t.

Even a move to a six-team field would’ve rewarded two teams that, at the end of the year, had seasons a cut below No. 4 Oklahoma.

No. 7 Ohio State, who’s probably the most-talented team in college football and No. 8 Notre Dame each have similar stories. The Buckeyes played Michigan State, the Irish battled Clemson.

Both lost.

For either team, a win would have meant a spot in the playoff. And to be frank, it’s very fair that neither team gets a chance to redeem itself in an eight-team playoff field.

Think about why college football is, well, so incredibly special. Look at the passion each weekend across the country, from dejected fans in Charlottesville, Virginia, to ever-rabid ones in Baton Rouge, Louisiana — you see the picture painted each fall Saturday, that the game on the field is supremely important.

For fans that prefer college football to its professional counterpart, it’s likely a decision of passion, one that directly stems from the importance of that regular season.

I’d hate to see that go away because we suddenly wanted to move to an eight-team playoff.

When it comes to the argument for an eight-team field, last year paints a similar story: Mississippi State and Michigan State, who finished No. 7 and No. 8 respectively, were both very good two-loss teams. But both had the opportunity to show they were one of the best — and both fell short.

The four-team playoff should be here to stay for a little while and, quite honestly, that’s not a bad thing. To have existential discussions about its fit after two years is a little premature and as we gain more years of data, we’ll get a better understanding of how strong a four-team field really is.

And, of course, we can all play the “what if” game. What if Stanford beat No. 15 Oregon, winning the Pac-12 at 12-1? Would Oklahoma have been left out, leaving the Big 12 on the outside looking in once more?

Or what if that bizarre fourth-and-25 conversion from Arkansas that helped it beat No. 13 Ole Miss never happened? The Rebels win that game and, consequently, the SEC West. Do they make the playoff as a two-loss team with a win Saturday? Would two-loss Stanford have slipped in ahead of Alabama and Ohio State, two 11-1 teams without a conference title?

But, of course, those things didn’t happen.

Things worked themselves out this year. So maybe it’s a sign we should pump our brakes for a few more on larger, existential questions about a four-team playoff.

Sit back, relax and enjoy the football. Because for one year, four is the perfect number.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Alex Carson

Alex Carson graduated from Notre Dame in 2017 after majoring in Applied and Computational Mathematics and Statistics and living in O’Neill Hall. Hailing from the Indianapolis area, but born in Youngstown, Ohio, Carson is a Cleveland sports fan convinced that he’s already lived the “best day of his life.” At The Observer, Carson was first a Sports Writer, then served as an Associate Sports Editor (2015/16) and an Assistant Managing Editor (2016/17), before finishing his tenure as a Senior Sports Writer. A man of strong convictions, he ardently believes that Carly Rae Jepsen's 2015 release E•MO•TION is the greatest album of his generation, and wakes up early on Saturday mornings to listen, or occasionally watch, his favorite least-favorite sports team, Aston Villa. When he isn’t writing, Carson spends his time counting down the days to the next running of the Indianapolis 500 and reminding people that the Victory March starts with the lyric, “Rally sons of Notre Dame,” not “Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame.”

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