The much-maligned Bowl Championship Series (BCS) era is now officially over. But the final championship game before college football shifts to a playoff system left even its most vocal detractors with little to complain about.
The game in Pasedena Monday night was all a college football fan could hope for, with the Florida State Seminoles narrowly edging out the Auburn Tigers, 34 to 31, to cap off an undefeated season and bringing a seemingly endless string of national titles for the vaunted Southeastern Conference to a close.
The two teams’ paths to the title game could hardly be more different. While Auburn rode an improbable streak of miracle plays and close finishes to Pasadena, Florida State’s fans scarcely remembered what suspense felt like (before Monday, anyway). The Noles didn’t trail at halftime once during the entire season, and they had to beat Duke (really, Duke), to capture the ACC title and a title berth.
The SEC has dominated the BCS landscape for the better part of a decade, with the national championship representative – Auburn, or Alabama, or Florida, or LSU – routinely scraping through a gauntlet of tough conference matchups to reach the national title game and promptly embarrass the non-SEC team (Oregon, Notre Dame, etc.)
For much of the first half Monday night, that cycle looked to be repeating itself. The Seminoles, who cruised through the ACC and had an average 42-point margin of victory over their opponents, looked hurried and confused at the hands of a swarming Auburn defense. Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston spent most of 2013 nestled behind a brick wall of an offensive line, throwing to an all-star cast of gargantuan wide receivers with little disturbance. But Auburn finally made him look like a freshman, taking away his receivers, sacking him three times, and forcing a costly fumble in the second quarter that led to the Tigers’ third touchdown.
On offense, much to just about everyone’s surprise (and Nole fans’ panic), Auburn revealed a heretofore unknown passing attack to go along with the more known terror of Tre Mason and its running game. ESPN announcer Brent Musburger even went so far as to call FSU’s early play “a meltdown.”
But shortly before the second half, FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher found some headway with the running game and having Winston (not known for his speed but a slippery scrambler) create plays with his legs. After a late Seminole touchdown in the first half, the defense got going in the second half, holding the Tigers to a field goal until the final two minutes.
Even when FSU scored a touchdown with 13 seconds left, capping the biggest comeback in BCS Championship history, no one counted Auburn out of it. They’d managed crazier, after all, and the SEC doesn’t lose these things. But FSU, with its Southeastern location, NFL-caliber starters, and now, an improbable comeback and three titles all its own, has a little bit of SEC in it, too. Not that the ACC would ever admit it.