Florida State and Auburn: Two magical seasons, but only one champion
PASADENA, Calif. -- There they were, with just a few seconds left in the national championship game, one story of this college football season attacking another. "I knew it was going to be a touchdown," Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston said later. But how could he know? Didn't he see Auburn cornerback Chris Davis beat Alabama with a 109-yard missed field goal return for a touchdown in November?
"We believe what coach [Gus] Malzahn tells us," Davis said. "He tells us if the game is close at the end, we'll win."
As Winston readied for the snap, this was the battle for the moment, and for the championship. Belief versus belief.
Officials had flagged the 5-foot-11 Davis for pass interference the play before. He was giving up six inches to Seminoles wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. Florida State had a first-and-goal on the two-yard line. And still, Davis expected to triumph.
Earlier in the evening, Benjamin had pleaded with coach Jimbo Fisher: They are expecting the fade. Benjamin wanted to dart inside instead of running his route toward the corner of the end zone. Sure enough, Davis cut off the fade. Benjamin ran the other way.
Winston found Benjamin, and the taller player outjumped the shorter one, a simple play to win an incredible game. In the last minute, Winston was too good, and Davis, a folk hero for weeks, couldn't do a thing about it. This is how legends are built. This is not how fairy-tale seasons are supposed to end.
Florida State players had said it for months: Winston was a different kind of football player. It wasn't just his arm, his size, his legs or his ability to read defenses. He was just so sure of himself, so cool. But thanks to his arm, his size, his legs, his ability to read defenses and the Seminoles' schedule, Winston had not really been able to prove that. He won every fight by knockout. He had dominated, but he hadn't battled.
The Tigers made him battle. Winston was tentative and ineffective for much of the first half. He completed only six of his first 16 passes. Auburn took a 21-3 lead. Slowly, Winston led Florida State back ... 21-10 ... 21-13 ... 21-19. A 15-yard taunting penalty robbed the Seminoles of a chance to attempt a two-point conversion that might have tied the game.
Winston had more work to do. He craved it. We only get to see a slice of a person's character and personality on the playing field, and we often make too much of what we see there. But what we see is real. Some athletes are made for moments like this.
"I wanted to be in that situation because that's what great quarterbacks do," Winston said after Florida State's 34-31 win. "That's what the Tom Bradys, Peyton Mannings, Drew Brees, Cam Newtons, that's what they do. Any quarterback can go out there and perform when he's up 50-0 in the second quarter."
As the best college football games unfold, fans get a sense that no matter what happens at any moment, they will remember what happens last. This was one of those games. The Tigers extended their lead to 24-20. The Seminoles responded by scoring on a 100-yard kickoff return. Auburn star Tre Mason ran for a 37-yard touchdown. One minute and 19 seconds remained. Thanks to that taunting penalty, Florida State could not tie the game with a field goal. It was touchdown or lose.
Was Winston ready? He thought he was. Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher tried to make sure he was. In one practice for this game, Fisher yanked Winston out of a two-minute drill, and the reason is not as important as the fact that Fisher did it.
"Coach just does stuff," Benjamin said. "He tries to make it so hostile until you can't even focus. He wants to see how you react under pressure. [Winston] probably didn't even do nothing wrong. Coach Fisher, he plays all kinds of mind games with you."
This time, Winston completed six of seven passes for 72 yards and that winning touchdown. Even when Florida State committed a delay of game penalty, turning third-and-3 into third-and-8, Winston was poised, begging his teammates to hurry up as the play clock wound down.
"I'm pretty sure I got more respect from my teammates and the people around me on that last drive than I got the whole year," Winston said.
Even after the Seminoles had celebrated, Davis still wanted to be the hero. Wouldn't you? Maybe that is why he said, as cornerbacks so often do, "I didn't think it was pass interference, but the ref called it, so it is what it is." It was. The replay was clear. But sometimes, belief ignores evidence.
Davis kept talking about the big broken play on Florida State's game-winning drive, a 49-yard pass from Winston to Rashad Greene, when the Tigers failed to tackle Greene after his catch. That one was not his fault. Davis wasn't blaming anybody else. He just didn't want to blame himself.
"Oh my goodness," Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs said. "He's one of the best guys ever. He's an exceptional young man and he plays with his heart and is compassionate and loves people. He's the kind of guy I'd want my daughters to marry. I've got three of them right here."
Nobody was in the mood for a wedding proposal on Monday night. Outside the Tigers' locker room, family members sat in stunned silence. At least two children bawled. On a pedestrian walkway overhead, Auburn fans looked down and chanted: "It's great ... to be ... an Auburn Tiger!" The family members did not join in. One woman walked around, hugged everybody she saw and told them: "This is part of it, I guess." Her name is Kristi Malzahn. She is the wife of Gus, the Tigers head coach.
"It was a great run," she said, her lip quivering. "Our boys fought all the way through to the very last second. That's all we can ask of them."
It is. All they can ask. Strip away the TV lights and the corporate dollars and the recruiting battles and the NCAA rules and the academic scandals, and the players are why the game remains irresistible.
Does Davis understand now how those Crimson Tide players felt when he stunned them with the greatest play of his life?
"You could say that," he said. "Because I'm feeling really bad now, that we didn't come away with the W. I think we outplayed them, especially on the defensive side of the ball."
For much of the game, that was true. But in the huddle on that last drive, Winston told his teammates, "This is our time," and the Seminoles believed him. They have believed him for months.
"I ain't no king," Winston said later. "I'm a champion, though."
Davis had been feted like a king. After the victory over Alabama, he got a standing ovation when he walked into his geology class. Davis' kick return will be part of Auburn lore for the rest of his life and beyond, but the Tigers finally ran out of the juice that had fueled all of their miracles. One magical season had finally, barely, eclipsed the other.
Pete Thamel contributed to this report.