Joseph Goodman: FSU lives, BCS dies, and heroes find their footing in stunning comeback

01/07/2014 12:01 AM

01/08/2014 3:13 PM

It was a brilliant send off for the Bowl Championship Series.

The Florida State Seminoles came from behind twice in the final five minutes, including a game-winning drive in the last pressure-packed seconds, to defeat the Auburn Tigers 34-31 in the national championship and, afterwards, the BCS was retired after 16 years of service in determining college football’s best team.

The College Football Playoff begins next season, but before college football upgrades its postseason, the sport gave us one final classic BCS finish.

The Southeastern Conference won the last seven BCS national championships before Monday night’s game at the beautiful Rose Bowl, but a pair of Florida State freshmen — one everyone knows, and one new star — saved the storybook season for the Noles and ended the SEC’s run of dominance.

It was almost eight in a row for the SEC, but a freshman for FSU not named Jameis Winston gave the Seminoles a late lead with a stunning 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. The first FSU hero on this night was Kermit Whitfield, who at 5-7, 178 pounds was literally the smallest player on FSU’s roster of behemoths and maulers.

The second hero was Winston himself, who orchestrated the game-winning drive. It was a drive of redemption for Winston, who struggled for much of the game after playing so wonderfully all year.

“It’s the best football game he played all year, and I’ll tell you why, because for three quarters he was up and down, and he fought,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “And just like any great player, some nights you don’t have it…Anybody can do it when it’s their ‘A’ game night. A lot of guys can do that. Very few can do it when it’s not their night.”

Before the glowing sunset at the Rose Bowl had a chance to fade on the mountains that frame this iconic stadium, it was clear the Seminoles had forgotten how to play football during the four weeks between the conference championship games and the national title.

Or, maybe, FSU just wasn’t playing Duke.

Winston, FSU’s redshirt freshman Heisman Trophy winner, was an unstoppable torrent of bravado and talent during the regular season — his ordeal with the Tallahassee State Attorney’s office didn’t even seem to faze him — but all that confidence dried before the biggest game of his life. And then he found it at just the right moment, after Auburn took the lead with 90 seconds to play.

“I was ready,” Winston said. “I wanted to be in that situation because that’s what great quarterbacks do. 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.

“That’s what you’re judged by, especially by your teammates. I’m pretty sure I got more respect from my teammates and the people around new on that last drive than I got the whole year.”

After breezing through the regular season, Winston was finally put to the test in his sport’s biggest stage and he earned his place in history.

His 80-yard touchdown drive will go down as the best ending to a college-football championship game since quarterback Vince Young won it for Texas in similar fashion in 2006. Receiver Kelvin Benjamin of Belle Glade had the game-winning touchdown catch and receiver Rashad Greene, who attended Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas, broke the long gain to set the stage.

FSU’s touchdown drive came after Auburn took the lead with 90 seconds to play on a 37-yard rush by Tigers running back Tre Mason of Palm Beach. Before that, Whitfield streaked down the left side of the field for the kickoff return that kick-started the exciting finish.

It was Winston’s 20th birthday, and, after playing beyond his years for so many weeks, he looked every bit his age for most of the first half. Heck, Winston was so edgy before the game that he couldn’t even complete a pass during warm-ups.

His throws sailed high and wide one after another in the first half like he was just seeing a pass rush for the first time in his career, because, well, he was just seeing a pass rush for the first time in his career. FSU needed a desperation call by Fisher to keep the game close. The fake punt in the second quarter led to the Noles’ first touchdown of the game and salvaged a horrendous first half for FSU.

“We lost momentum in the game, it was 21-3,” Fisher said. “I knew with five minutes to go if they got it back and scored, the game could be over right there before half.”

The fake punt kept FSU in the game and allowed Winston time to find himself after halftime. Meanwhile, FSU’s defense figured out Auburn’s tricky offense, and, after trailing at halftime for the first time this season, the Noles stormed back to do the BCS proud.

The BCS has been a controversial thing, but it would be silly for a sportswriter from Florida to complain too much about it. Say what you want about the smoke and mirrors, but the convoluted system by which college football has determined its champion for the last 16 years was very good to the Sunshine State. Between the Seminoles, Hurricanes and Gators, a team from Florida played in the BCS national championship game eight times.

With the late addition of the University of Central Florida to the party, the total number of BCS appearances for state schools stands at 20. That’s more than any other state and it’s not even really that close. California schools were in BCS bowls 12 times. Texas teams played in BCS games eight times.

Much to the chagrin of just about everyone in South Florida, save LeBron James, Ohio State, of course, was the biggest single beneficiary of the BCS. The Buckeyes played in 10 BCS bowl games, but, infamously in Coral Gables, only won one of its three BCS national championship appearances.

So, it was a pass interference call that ruined it for the Miami Hurricanes back in 2003 and it was a pass interference call that gave the Seminoles the ball on the two-yard line with 17 seconds to play. Winston did the rest, passing to Benjamin for the game-winning score.

It was the perfect ending to a perfect season, but Winston and FSU seem to be just getting started.

“We’re bringing that swag back,” Winston said. “You better believe it.”

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