By Mark Lamport-Stokes
PASADENA, California (Reuters) - The top-ranked Florida State Seminoles completed the biggest ever comeback to win college football's national championship with a wild 34-31 victory over No. 2 Auburn in the title game on Monday.
The Seminoles were outplayed by the Tigers early on and trailed 21-3 late in the second quarter before capping a stunning rally with a two-yard touchdown by wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin with only 13 seconds remaining.
There were three changes of lead in the dizzying last four-and-a-half minutes, each one appearing to be the decisive score in an epic finale to the BCS National Championship, one of the showpiece events in U.S. sport.
Florida State, a perfect 13-0 in the regular season, appeared to have the game won after wide receiver Kermit Whitfield surged down the left sideline for a 100-yard kick return, his touchdown putting his team ahead 27-24.
However, Auburn regained control with just 79 seconds remaining when running back Tre Mason rushed for a 37-yard touchdown and the Tigers defense initially held firm under intense pressure from the Seminoles.
Again, though, Florida State countered, Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston finding Benjamin in the end zone for his decisive touchdown after a seven-play drive over 80 yards.
"I said this from Day One in spring ball, these kids are special," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said after his team had claimed the winners' crystal football at a packed Rose Bowl Stadium.
"This group never faltered. They wanted to be elite. They wanted to go to the top and there's so much character in this group."
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, who inherited a team that struggled 3-9 last season, said: "I'm very proud of my team... how far they've come from the very first game to getting here, and just being on the brink of winning the whole thing.
"At the same time we've got a lot of competitors in our locker room. They're disappointed. It went back and forth... but you've got to give them guys (Florida State) credit. They scored towards the end and found a way to win."
Winston, who made a nightmarish start, was sacked four times while completing 20-of-35 passes for 237 yards and two touchdowns as the Seminoles ended a run of seven straight national titles by Southeastern Conference Championship teams.
Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall completed 14 of 27 passes for 217 yards and two touchdowns, and darted in for one of his own, while Mason had two scores and ran for 195 yards on 34 carries in front of a sellout crowd of 94,208.
College sport in the United States is a passionate affair with strong emotional ties for its fans and, with football at the pinnacle, huge crowds have always attended BCS title games.
"College football is really big because it's big in states where they didn't have pro sports," Nick Geary, a Seminoles fan who lives in upstate New York, told Reuters during Monday's game.
"Alabama and Florida didn't have pro sports for a long time so college football is religion and NFL (National Football League) is pastime. College football is much bigger than pro football in my life."
Tim Hamilton, an Auburn fan who lives in Las Vegas, agreed.
"This is the Super Bowl of college football, and of college sport in general," Hamilton said. "There are more than a 100 college football teams and there's like only 30 NFL teams, so it's a lot harder to get here into the BCS title game."
Florida State opened the scoring with a 35-yard field goal by Roberto Aguayo but Auburn hit back when running back Mason powered across for a 12-yard touchdown, on a superb screen pass from Marshall, to end the first quarter with a 7-3 lead.
It was the first time the Seminoles, wearing their traditional colors of garnet and gold, had trailed in a game since September 28 at Boston College, where they went on seal a 48-34 victory.
Florida State's defense again crumbled early in the second quarter, their coverage nowhere to be seen as wide receiver Melvin Ray latched on to a precise pass from Marshall for a 50-yard touchdown.
Though Auburn's Cory Parkey narrowly missed a 33-yard field goal, Marshall rushed for four yards to score a touchdown and put the Tigers up 21-3 with 5.01 left in the second quarter in their bid for a second BCS title in four years.
Florida State finally found a way past the Auburn defense, Winston rushing for 21 yards to give them ideal field position before running back Devonta Freeman burrowed over from three yards for a touchdown to trail 21-10 at the half.
A 41-yard field goal by Aguayo trimmed Auburn's lead to 21-13 late in the third and the Seminoles put the game on a knife edge when Winston picked out fullback Chad Abram for an 11-yard touchdown to make it 21-20 with 10:55 in the fourth.
A Parkey field goal from 22 yards put Auburn ahead 24-20 with 4.42 left on the clock, but Florida State then delivered what appeared to be their dagger blow with Whitfield's stunning 100-yard kick return to set up the heart-stopping finale.
Monday's clash was the final Bowl Championship Series title game with a new system to be introduced later this year when four teams, picked by a selection committee, will battle it out for the crown at the end of the regular season.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by John O'Brien)