PASADENA, Calif . — The Southeastern Conference had one championship ring-bedecked hand around yet another BCS trophy.
Jameis Winston was playing like he had one hand around his neck.
The Famous One and his mighty Florida State Seminoles were in serious trouble Monday night in the first half of the last BCS National Championship Game ever.
The Heisman Trophy winner was getting outquarterbacked by Auburn’s Nick Marshall of all people, a former defensive back. Auburn’s defense, which got shoved all over the field by LSU and Texas A&M and Georgia and Alabama and Missouri, suddenly found a way to play sticky, physical, in-your-face SEC defense, and it was gumming up the gears of Florida State’s souped-up offense.
At halftime, the Seminoles retreated beneath the Rose Bowl’s stands and did something they hadn’t been forced to do all season long: They had to figure out how to rally from behind. They trailed Auburn 21-10 and were as lucky as well, Auburn, to be that close. It took a gambler’s cool by FSU coach Jimbo Fisher to call for the fake punt play it took to keep the Seminoles’ only touchdown drive alive.
Heck, the Seminoles hadn’t trailed anyone at all since their Sept. 28 game at Boston College. That’s incredibly impressive. But that kind of dominance can work against you when the pressure is constricting your lungs and turning your knees to guacamole.
At times like this, it’s good to be tested. At times like this, it’s good to have survived the wars, as Auburn did against Mississippi State, Ole Miss, A&M, Georgia, Bama and Mizzou. Lucky maybe the Tigers were, but they earned their way here after winning the toughest college football conference the world has ever known.
But there would be drama. It’s Auburn. There had to be drama. Runaways and routs are not allowed.
It was probably the best drama we’ve ever seen in a BCS National Championship Game.
Perhaps all the BCS haters have been too hasty. Can you promise, College Football Playoff, that you’ll give us a game, a fourth quarter, a finish like this one?
The best BCS championship game ever? Before Monday night it was right here in the Rose Bowl eight Januarys ago, when Vince Young’s 8-yard, fourth-down keeper for a touchdown with 19 seconds left allowed Texas to nip Southern California 41-38.
This perhaps topped that. Or it was at least as good.
Let’s rewind the drama a bit. Auburn extended its once 21-3 lead to 24-20 with 4:42 left on a Cody Parkey field goal. On the ensuing kickoff Kermit Whitfield, a name for the ages of college football if there ever was one, returned it 100 yards.
Somewhere back home in Alabama, Crimson Tide fans were going, “Uh huh.” It looked like the college football gods re-leveling the playing field after Chris Davis’ field goal miss return in the Iron Bowl.
Once again, karma covers the spread.
But Auburn wouldn’t fold. This was the team that came so far, a dead-in-the-water 3-9 a year ago, to the cusp of a second BCS championship in four years. Back the Tigers marched 75 yards with Tre Mason covering the last 37 all by himself.
Mason is the kind of player Tony Stark would envy. Auburn’s iron man carried the ball 80 times — EIGHTY times — the last two games for Auburn. His last carry, the touchdown run on which he ran flat over Florida State free safety Jalen Ramsey with 1:19 left, looked like a game-winner.
But the Heisman winner and the Seminoles wouldn’t be denied. At long last, Auburn’s defense looked like the defense it was most of the season. Winston was 6-of-7 on the final drive, covering the final 2 precious yards on a touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin with a scant 13 ticks left.
Auburn needed one more miracle. It couldn’t find one. After a few laterals it was done, and the Seminoles rushed onto the field in screaming euphoria to claim their prize, a third national championship and their first since beating Virginia Tech in the 2000 Sugar Bowl.
So the BCS era is done, and so is the SEC’s era of dominance. LSU, Florida, Alabama and Auburn built a dynasty that would have made Egyptian pharaohs and Chinese emperors envious. Block by block, they turned the BCS title game into Fortress SEC, the likes of which college football had never seen before and never will see again.
Care to know what was the most consecutive national championships by one conference before this? Three, by the Big Ten from 1940-42 and the SEC from 1978-80. Combined that doesn’t equal what the SEC has done.
In the end, it took an SEC-like team with SEC-like depth and speed and size to beat the baddest conference on the BCS block. It took every bit of determination the Seminoles had.
It took us all to the breathtaking BCS brink one last time.
Thank you, sir. Can we have another?