PASADENA, Calif. — The Bowl Championship Series ended its 16-year run deciding college football’s national championship with a spectacular display of firepower at the Rose Bowl on Monday night.
No. 1 Florida State, which had not trailed in a game since a September encounter against Boston College, had to come from behind in the final seconds to post a pulsating 34-31 victory over No. 2 Auburn as freshman quarterback Jameis Winston threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds left.
The wild finish by FSU, which won its first national championship since 1999, ended the Southeastern Conference’s seven-year championship streak.
Auburn (12-2) fought from beginning to end. From the start, coach Gus Malzahn’s team, which trailed in eight of its 13 games this season, tried a different strategy, stunning FSU and surprising the sold-out Rose Bowl crowd of 94,208 by jumping to a 21-3 second-quarter lead.
Led by quarterback Nick Marshall (14 of 27, 2 TDs, 1 interception) and running back Tre Mason (34 carries, 195 yards, 1 TD), Auburn displayed the characteristics necessary to win its second national championship in four seasons.
But Florida State (14-0), which overcame a 17-3 first-quarter deficit against BC before pulling away for a 48-34 win in September, did not panic because Winston, the Heisman Trophy winner, refused to let his team lose.
After a pedestrian first half in which Winston completed only 6 of 15 passes for 62 yards and no TDs, he was spectacular down the stretch, completing 14 of 20 passes and a pair of fourth-quarter TDs.
FSU slowly got back into the mix, turning a yawner — a 21-10 halftime deficit — into a 21-20 thriller following Winston’s 11-yard TD pass to fullback Chad Abram with 10:55 remaining in the fourth quarter.
As if a switch was pulled, both teams went into a different offensive gear, which turned the game into a scoring derby.
After Auburn’s Cody Parkey extended Auburn’s lead to 24-20 with a 22-yard field goal with 4:42 remaining, FSU grabbed its first lead in spectacular fashion — Levonte Whitfield’s 100-yard kickoff return with 4:31 left gave the Seminoles a 27-24 lead.
Auburn beat Alabama on a 100-yard return of a missed field goal in the final seconds of the Iron Bowl meeting in November.
But Auburn, which pulled out final-second wins over Georgia and Alabama to reach the SEC title game, was far from finished.
The Tigers took the lead back with 1:19 left when Mason broke through a hole on the right side and raced 37 yards for a TD.
Auburn led, 31-27 with 1:19 left.
Game over? Hardly.
Winston never flinched. Nor did the Seminoles, as they moved 80 yards in less than a minute, making their statement with a 2-yard TD pass from Winston to Benjamin after a pass interference call in the end zone gave FSU a first and goal at the 2.
This time there was no miracle comeback for Auburn.
“They drove the field and they scored toward the end and found a way to win,’’’ said Malzahn, who guided Auburn from a 3-9 season a year ago. “Give them credit.’’
“I said this from Day 1 in spring ball, this is special,’’ Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “They wanted to be an elite team.’’
FSU was very much that through a regular season in which it beat all comers with relative ease.
Auburn was a different profile, with SEC speed and SEC history.
“It’s been a four-year evolution,’’ said Fisher, who vowed to bring FSU back to the glory days of Bobby Bowden when Fisher took over the program four years ago. “We got to an elite level that we don’t want to go below now.’’
As for Winston, Fisher said it was his best performance.
“It was his best game because he fought his way through things,’’ said Fisher. “He fought his way through adversity. They got pressure on him, and we dropped some balls. And we were pressing.’’
Fisher said his team had a sense of confidence despite its slow start. “We didn’t feel bad,’’ said Fisher, “because we didn’t play that well and were only behind, 21-10.’’
Winston, ending a spectacular season, was celebrating his 20th birthday. “I’m just excited about my guys,’’ said Winston, named the game’s offensive MVP. “This championship means so much to me.’’
As for the final drive, Winston said it was his time. “I was ready,’’ he said. “That’s what great quarterbacks do.’’
Great quarterbacks, good or great team. All part of the BCS legacy.
The circle is now complete. FSU was on the losing end to an SEC team (Tennessee) in the first BCS game in 1998. The Seminoles end the BCS era with a spectacular win against another SEC team.