PASADENA, Calif. – The lasting memory of the Bowl Championship Series era in college football will be the Southeastern Conference’s seven-year run of national titles.
But the bookend games on either side of that run were the two best in the BCS’ 16-year existence: Texas 41, USC 38 in 2006; and Florida State 34, Auburn 31 in 2014. The similarities between those two classics are startling.
Same stadium. Same end zone for the climactic scenes and scores. Similar clutch, do-or-die winning drives. Similar transcendent quarterback talents making the winning plays in the final seconds.
What Vince Young and the Longhorns did in ’06, Jameis Winston and the Seminoles repeated in ‘14.
Winston needed more help than Young, but otherwise the parallels between two of the most dramatic endings in bowl history are profound. Into the same end zone where Young glided for the winning touchdown with 19 seconds left eight years ago, Winston arced a post pass high into the night for receiver Kelvin Benjamin to spear for the winning touchdown with 13 seconds left Monday night.
“I knew it was going to be a touchdown as soon as I stepped up to the line of scrimmage,” Winston said. “Any time you see KB one-on-one, it’s a dream come true.”
It was indeed a dream matchup for the Seminoles. Physically, Benjamin is the second coming of Larry Fitzgerald, right down to the long dreadlocks: he’s 6-foot-5, 234 pounds of chiseled specimen. Covering him was 5-11 Chris Davis – hero of the epic victory over Alabama on Nov. 30, but something of a goat here Monday night.
On the previous play, a third down from the Auburn 10-yard line, Davis was called for pass interference for draping himself on the back of FSU wideout Rashad Greene. With the ball placed on the 2, Davis was on the opposite side of the field covering Benjamin – the matchup that lit up Winston’s eyes.
The red-zone post route was called by head coach Jimbo Fisher himself, according to offensive coordinator Randy Sanders. He said they’ve run the play for Benjamin about four times this season.
“It’s scored all four times,” Sanders said. “It’s been good for us. It was a great call by Jimbo – the absolute perfect situation for it. Anytime you’ve got that size running that route, it’s a great advantage.”
Davis seemed to be guessing fade route to the corner for Benjamin, and when the wideout feinted that direction it gave him room to cut hard inside Davis to the middle of the field. Winston faked a pitch to running back Devonta Freeman, rolled slightly right, rose up and lobbed the ball way upstairs.
This was football Darwinism at work: bigger beats smaller. The coverage wasn’t bad, but Davis had no chance.
“Once that ball is in the air, I’ve got to go get it,” Benjamin said. “They trust me to go get it.”
He got it, in a play that will rank high in Florida State lore. The TD pass capped a free-for-all fourth quarter – 31 points, 24 of them in the last 4:42 – and an arduous comeback for the solidly favored Seminoles.
They hadn’t trailed in a game since Sept. 28, but found themselves behind for 44 minutes and 42 seconds against Auburn. A team that hadn’t faced much tension all season was suddenly simmering in it. For the longest time this looked not only like the eighth straight crown for the SEC, but yet another SEC romp.
The Tigers rattled Winston, the Heisman Trophy winner who finally played like a redshirt freshman for much of this game. And they completely bamboozled the Florida State defense on several pass plays, with receivers running wide open down the middle of the field.
“We let their receivers run butt-wide open,” said FSU defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt in an exasperated drawl. “They were wide open. They played a great game, but there were a lot of gimmes there.”
The result was a 21-3 Auburn lead late in the second quarter, and a feeling of dread for the Florida State faithful. That feeling only deepened when the Seminoles went three-and-out on the next possession, sending the punting team onto the field at the FSU 40-yard line.
But it wasn’t a three-and-out after all. Fisher made the call that changed the game – a fake punt reverse, with the ball being pitched to running back Karlos Williams, who sprinted around the left end for a first down. Seven plays later Florida State scored to make it 21-10, and Auburn’s momentum was gone for good.
“It was either that,” Fisher said of the fake punt call, “or get blowed out.”
Florida State would not be blowed out. It would come back, mounting the largest comeback in a title game in the BCS era.
But the 'Noles took their sweet time about it. Trailing 24-20, they finally regained the lead at the 4:31 mark on a lightning-strike play.
Freshman Kermit Whitfield, a little water bug of a player at 5-foot-7 and 178 pounds, broke a kickoff return 100 yards for a touchdown. Whitfield is a burner, a guy timed at 4.37 seconds in the 40-yard dash and 10.1 in the 100 meters. He’d scored on a 97-yard kickoff return and a 74-yard run already this season – and when he got a springing block by Williams on this return, he was gone.
The Florida State side of the Rose Bowl erupted, but Auburn is the hardest team to kill in America this season. The Tigers had been in much more dire circumstances than this, trailing Georgia and Alabama in the final minute. With more than 4 minutes left, Gus Malzahn’s team had all day to mount a drive.
Malzahn has made much of his rep with a no-huddle offense that taxes defenses’ stamina and ability to line up properly. But this drive was a methodical exercise in patience, draining the clock.
Alas, Auburn scored too fast. The brilliant and durable Tre Mason (34 carries, 194 yards) broke tackles on a 37-yard run for a 27-24 lead. He even tweaked Winston when he arrived in the end zone, striking the Heisman pose – something the Seminoles noted later when crowded around a TV in the locker room, watching postgame highlights.
But there was still 1:19 left on the clock. The real Heisman winner would get the last shot.
To that point, the national leader in pass efficiency had played a highly inefficient game. Winston was 14 of 28 for 160 yards, had been sacked four times and fumbled once. But a season of blowouts was coming down to now-or-never time, and he responded.
The biggest play was more of a Rashad Greene run than a heroic pass. Winston fired a slant to Greene, who flashed 49 yards downfield.
“I was able to run a great route, and he put it right on the money,” Greene said. “I was able to break two tackles, and I was off to the races.”
But Florida State still had to navigate the red zone, against a defense that was stubborn all season when backed against the wall. Winston hit four more short passes, going 6-for-7 for 77 yards on the final drive, and the one incompletion was a drop.
“I wanted to be in that position because that’s what great quarterbacks do,” Winston said. “That’s what the Tom Bradys, Peyton Mannings, Drew Brees, that’s what they do. Any quarterback can go out there and perform when they’re up 50-0 in the second quarter. … I’m pretty sure I got more respect from my teammates and the people around me now on that last drive than I got the whole year.”
Winston earned more than just respect with that final drive. He earned the chance to hold the crystal football aloft and plant a champion’s smooch on it.
A few minutes after that trophy presentation, as the celebration raged on the Rose Bowl floor, offensive coordinator Sanders hauled himself onto a Florida State equipment cart at the 20-yard line and sat down. Winston and Fisher were on the ESPN set, players were dancing in front of the FSU band, ex-players were milling around the field. Sanders took in the scene and smiled.
Speaking of BCS bookends, Randy Sanders is one. He was the offensive coordinator in the first BCS championship game, in 1999, helping Tennessee to the national title. He stayed with the Volunteers through 2005 and then went to Kentucky until this season, when he hooked on with the Seminoles for this final BCS championship run.
“Both of them are really special,” Sanders said. “Fact is, it’s been so long since the first one, you wonder if you’re going to ever get back here. It makes you appreciate it all the more.
“I didn’t celebrate the first one as much as I should have. I’m going to soak this one in.”
There was so much to soak in after another unforgettable national title game in the Rose Bowl. The BCS was a bad idea, but it went out with a beautiful bang Monday night.