Florida State back on top after thrilling BCS championship victory
PASADENA, Calif. -- It looked eerily familiar. It was every bit as exhilarating. With the clock ticking down on another BCS National Championship Game, a transcendent quarterback drove his team toward the south end zone of the Rose Bowl.
Eight years earlier, Vince Young ran for a score with 19 seconds remaining to lift Texas past USC, 41-38. On Monday night, Jameis Winston threw a two-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds left to give Florida State a 34-31 victory over Auburn.
Both games were thrilling, down-to-the-wire classics. Both marked seminal moments in college football history. Young's scramble ended the Trojans' 34-game winning streak. Winston's pass ended the SEC's vaunted seven-year BCS stranglehold.
But as the Seminoles' band belted out "We Are the Champions," Florida State players weren't thinking of an ending. They were celebrating a rebirth. As the headline from the commemorative newspaper many held proclaimed: CHAMPS AGAIN!
Fourteen years after the Seminoles' last national title, it's finally true. Florida State is back.
"We put Florida State back on the map," said Benjamin, a Belle Glade, Fla., native whose catch capped the victory. "I had a lot of SEC [scholarship] offers, but I liked the direction this program was going. I knew Florida State was going to be back on top."
Fourteen years ago, the 'Noles last captured college football's ultimate prize near the tail end of one of the sport's most dynastic runs. From 1987 to 2000, Florida State finished in the top four of the AP Poll. It won two national titles (in '93 and '99) and played for several others. In fact, beginning in '98, the program competed in the first three BCS title games before falling into more than a decade of mediocrity, during which it endured the end of legendary coach Bobby Bowden's tenure.
On Monday, in the 16th and final edition of the sport's controversial postseason system, a coach who worked at Auburn when the BCS began and a quarterback who was five years old the last time Florida State hoisted the crystal football engineered the biggest comeback in BCS title game history. The Seminoles -- who had beaten their first 13 opponents in 2013 by an average margin of 42.3 points -- needed all 60 minutes to beat their final adversary. But when they did, they looked a lot like those teams from Florida State's heyday -- cold-blooded and confident.
The Tigers, the so-called team of destiny given their penchant for improbable last-second victories, initially seemed as if they might win without drama. Auburn raced to a 21-3 lead thanks largely to its unheralded defense -- which pressured and frazzled Winston -- and its punter, Steven Clark, who kept pinning the 'Noles deep in their own territory. If not for a successful fake punt late in the second quarter that seemed to jolt Florida State awake, the Tigers may well have run away with the championship.
At one point in the third quarter, Winston had completed just 11-of-25 passes for 120 yards, taken four sacks (including two from standout Auburn defensive end Dee Ford) and lost a fumble on a quarterback keeper. "Throughout the whole game I was uncomfortable, but Auburn wasn't the cause of that," said Winston. "It was myself. It was me trying to do too much instead of doing what I needed to do."
But even though Tigers coach Gus Malzahn's offense frequently caught the Seminoles' normally stingy defense out of alignment, and even with Auburn tailback Tre Mason carrying 34 times for 195 yards and a touchdown, Florida State inched back. The Seminoles forced punts on four consecutive Tigers possessions, and after cornerback P.J. Williams picked off Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall early in the fourth quarter, Winston promptly led the Florida State on a touchdown drive to cut the score to 21-19 with 10:55 remaining. The Seminoles were set to attempt a game-tying two-point conversion.
Yet a questionable unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on running back Devonta Freeman -- purportedly for making a taunting gesture across the field from where fullback Chad Abram reached the end zone -- pushed the 'Noles back 15 yards. That forced them to settle for an extra point, cutting the deficit to 21-20.
The Tigers countered with a relentless onslaught of Mason, who carried the ball on 10 of 11 plays during a clock-draining drive. Auburn faced a pivotal third-and-four from Florida State's six-yard line. After Marshall's pass to Sammie Coates fell incomplete, they settled for a Cody Parkey field goal to go up 24-20 with 4:42 left.
The 'Noles finally had an opportunity to pounce -- which they did in the span of 11 seconds behind a 100-yard kick-return touchdown from freshman Kermit Whitfield.
Things would get even crazier. This was an Auburn game, after all. It couldn't possibly be decided with more than four minutes remaining. When Mason countered with a punishing 37-yard touchdown run to put the Tigers ahead 31-27 with just 1:19 to play, doubt set in on the Florida State sideline. "I started to think about that destiny thing [Auburn] had in their games," admitted Seminoles linebacker Telvin Smith. "How could you not?"
Instead, Winston made sure that the Seminoles did what he had been talking about all week leading up to the game -- "control [their] own destiny." Despite lacking critical fourth-quarter experience, the Heisman Trophy winner led the Florida State to victory. "It was as calm as could possibly be," said Benjamin. "It was like the score was 0-0."
The Seminoles won their first national title under Bowden after kicking a game-winning field goal against Nebraska with 21 seconds remaining in the Orange Bowl. Florida State trailed Virginia Tech at the start of the fourth quarter of the Sugar Bowl, but came back to win its second championship. This one will be remembered for Winston calmly leading the 'Noles 80 yards in seven plays, hitting Rashad Greene for a 49-yard gain early on, checking down when necessary and getting a bit of help in the form of a pass interference penalty on Auburn cornerback Chris Davis that gave the Florida State a first-and-goal at the Tigers' two-yard line.
It was the perfect spot to target a freakishly athletic 6-foot-5 receiver.
"I ain't going to tell you what the play call was, but I knew it was going to be a touchdown as soon as I stepped up to the line of scrimmage," said Winston. "Any time you see KB one-on-one, it's a dream come true."
Dreams came true for a lot of people on Monday night, many of whom walked around the field afterward in noticeable dazes. Former Seminoles standouts Andre Wadsworth, Charlie Ward and EJ Manuel watched the confetti rain down on the victors. Assistant coaches looked for someone to hug. Redshirt senior center Bryan Stork, a hulking 6-4, 300-pounder with a beard, had tears running down his face.
"It's a fairy tale," Stork said in the locker room.
Stork was a freshman in 2009 when Bowden -- Florida State's coach of 34 years -- was forced out on the heels of a 6-6 regular season. Fisher, Bowden's handpicked successor, ascended from offensive coordinator to the top job. Stork watched as the former Nick Saban protégé began stockpiling NFL-caliber talent, but he still had to endure the climb from the Chick-fil-A and Champs Sports bowls to last year's Orange Bowl and this year's run for the roses.
"It's been a four-year evolution to put ourselves in this opportunity," said Fisher. "This is a group that when I went to recruit them as a first-time head coach who never had anything out there, they believed in me and this staff to come here and believe in the dream which we were telling them we had an opportunity to do."
They fulfilled the dream on Monday night. And now that the Seminoles are back on top, they may stick around a while. After all, a certain quarterback will come back to campus for at least one more season.
"I guess it's going to be good," said Winston.
The final BCS championship game could not have been any better.