We didn't know if Jameis Winston and Florida State could do it. That's not an impugnment of their talent, only a fact: These Seminoles, dominant on both sides of the ball, hadn't trailed in a game since September. But that's what practice is for, and every week, FSU runs a drill. The first-team offense takes the ball at their own 20 and 1:15 on the clock, and tries to score. Last night must've looked mighty familiar—Winston and co. took the ball on their own 20 with 1:19 left.
It was a classic, one of those games that explains why you put up with all of college football's bullshit. The best championship game since 2005, and with no trace of morning-after hyperbole, given the setting, one of the best games of all-time. Undefeated Florida State and unlikely Auburn, counting down the very last moments of the BCS era. The first three quarters were surprising—FSU hadn't yet been tested, and it was apparent. Auburn's maligned defense was holding strong. But come the fourth quarter, be it because of fatigue or pressure or the stars rising to the moment, the slugfest was on. Over the final 11 minutes, the Seminoles and Tigers went back and forth for five scores, each one more fantastic than the last.
A questionable unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Devonta Freeman denied FSU a chance at a game-tying two-point conversion, and right then you knew it would be on Winston. Auburn countered with a field goal to extend the lead to four, and we assumed this was it: with five minutes remaining, the drive that would define the college football season and the Heisman winner's year.
Kermit Whitfield is a fast man. He's the reigning state high school 100m champ, and his 40-yard dash time of 4.37 seconds ("I just ran it. I didn't train for it.") makes him the fastest player in the class of 2013. He wasn't touched on his 100-yard return. He wasn't close to being touched.
And we thought Winston was off the hook. Now it was Auburn's ball with four-and-a-half minutes left, seemingly just enough time for one last drive. It would come down to the predicted marquee matchup, the Seminole defense against the Tiger offense, and if Nick Marshall and Tre Mason could get it done, it'd be ballgame.
It was a lurching drive, featuring two tackles for loss along the way, but a pair of longish completions to Sammie Coates over the middle put Auburn on the edge of field goal range. With 1:28 left, everyone knew what was coming. A series of handoffs to Mason, an NFL first-rounder if he declares, to chew up both yards and clock. He needed just the one:
This was a spectacular run, and if Jameis Winston didn't turn around and do his thing, this was the defining moment of the BCS title game. Mason is short and thick for a running back, built a bit like Marshawn Lynch, right up to the dreads. He moves like Lynch too—unlike many smaller backs, he keeps his dance moves to a minimum, usually taking just one cut, then off. He's not afraid of contact, either. It was all on display in this 37-yard run to paydirt, with only Jalen Ramsey in his way. He gave a subtle shimmy without breaking stride, just enough to throw Ramsey off balance the slightest bit, while Mason's own low center of gravity meant Ramsey would just bounce off his hip.
So then, finally, it was Winston's time. Eighty yards to go, 1:19 left, and a pair of timeouts. If Jameis wasn't famous before, this handy bit of clutch shorthand should do the trick: 6 of 7 for 77 yards.
"I wanted to be in that situation because that's what great quarterbacks do," Winston said. "That's what the Tom Bradys, Peyton Mannings, Drew Breeses, that's what they do."
The passes were short, and perfectly placed for yards after the catch. The first dagger came when Rashad Greene took off on a seven-yard dump to scramble for 49 of his season-high 147 yards. The second was a high throw to Kelvin Benjamin in the end zone, placed where only the 6'5" receiver could come down with it.
Auburn couldn't conjure up another miracle, and that was that for the BCS. It seems kind of pointless to eulogize the era, a misguided-but-goodhearted attempt at objectiveness, fatally flawed by its resistance to a playoff, an actual meritocracy. What will people say about the BCS in decades to come, other than that no one ever truly understood it? That its selections generally accorded with those of human observers. That aside from a very few glaring exceptions, it generally crowned the best team in football. That given the randomness of football, you can't give it too much credit or blame for the quality of its championship games—sometimes two titans will combine for a stinker, and sometimes we get last night, one of the greats.
Maybe the BCS was just too easy to win. One game isn't enough to weed out the strength-of-schedule noisemakers. Two games, a four-team playoff, isn't enough either, but it's a start. There's no mourning for the BCS title game, because a championship game isn't going anywhere. It'll just be harder to get to, and mean that much more because of it.