The Bowl Championship Series ranked with the belly putter and designated hitter among sports’ most mocked creations, and often deservedly so. But talk about indelible walk-offs.
As closing scenes go, this was Kirk Gibson taking Dennis Eckersley deep, Springsteen encoring with “Backstreets,” Bogart gazing into Bergman’s baby blues and saying, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
And the BCS’ farewell after 16 seasons wasn’t just Florida State’s enduring, 34-31 national title conquest of Auburn. This was a five-game epic that began New Year’s afternoon at the Rose Bowl and ended late Monday night in the same postcard setting at the foot of Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains.
Michigan State surprised Stanford in the Rose Bowl, and hours later Central Florida shocked Baylor in the Fiesta. Oklahoma rolled Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, and Clemson nudged Ohio State in the Orange.
From Kyle Elsworth’s game-saving tackle for Michigan State — is anyone else old enough to remember Barry Krauss in the 1979 Sugar Bowl? — to Sammy Watkins’ 16 receptions for Clemson, the games riveted even casual viewers and set the bar impossibly high for Florida State and Auburn.
But the Seminoles and Tigers cleared that bar with a 31-point fourth quarter that included, in the final five minutes alone, a 100-yard kickoff return by Florida State’s Levonte Whitfield, a 37-yard touchdown sprint by Auburn’s Tre Mason and, finally, Jameis Winston affirming his Heisman Trophy with a 2-yard scoring pass to Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds remaining.
The Tigers worked the Seminoles’ acclaimed offensive line. Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall shrugged off Florida State’s relentless pressure. Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher, his team down 18, went all-in with a fake punt that led to a second-quarter touchdown and surely made his former boss, Bobby Bowden, Mr. Puntrooskie himself, smile.
Lost amid the mayhem: memories of the BCS’ mathematical madness (take a bow, computer programmers), ethical lapses (thanks, Fiesta Bowl executives), and the occasional controversy about its No. 1-versus-No. 2 matchups.
Florida State’s victory not only ended the Southeastern Conference’s unprecedented run of seven consecutive national titles — Charlton Heston never clutched a gun as tightly as the SEC did that crystal football — but also capped a historic season for the ACC.
Without a national champion since FSU in 1999 and a top-five team since the Seminoles in 2000, the conference needed a football revival in a large way. Enter Winston and Florida State, not to mention Watkins, Tajh Boyd and Clemson, the combination of which made the ACC only the second conference to win the national title game and another BCS contest in the same season — the SEC cashed that daily double in 1998, 2007 and ’09.
The ACC sent a record 11 teams to bowls, and six lost. But consider that nine of the 11 were underdogs, with Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Clemson winning as pups, Florida State and North Carolina as favorites.
Granted, New Year’s Eve was especially bleak for the conference as Boston College and Virginia Tech lost to the Pacific 12’s Arizona and UCLA by 53 points combined, and Duke squandered a 38-17 halftime lead against Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel, college football’s most electric quarterback since Virginia Tech’s Michael Vick in 1999 and 2000. So no one should suggest the ACC approaches SEC or Pac-12 depth.
But a national championship, accompanying Orange Bowl victory and beaucoup individual honors for the likes of Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald, Boston College running back Andre Williams, Florida State cornerback Lamarcus Joyner and Duke coach David Cutcliffe make this the best of the ACC’s 61 football seasons.
And make no mistake: Conference affiliation and pride was a major subplot Monday.
Once-beaten and twice blessed by miracles, Auburn had survived the SEC gauntlet, dethroning two-time reigning national champion Alabama along the way. Undefeated Florida State had ransacked the ACC, trouncing then-national No. 3 Clemson by 37 — on the road!
The Seminoles’ closest game had been a 48-34 victory at Boston College, and their average margin was a silly 42.3 points. But Florida State had not trailed since that late September afternoon at BC. Had the ACC left the Seminoles ill-prepared for a 15-round title fight? How would they respond to the fourth-quarter tension that was so foreign to them and routine to Auburn?
Vegas favored Florida State by 10.5 points, and most liked Fisher’s bunch to cover. But, blood-pressure issues for coaches, players and fans aside, if the Seminoles were to slay the SEC beast, wasn’t it best to earn it in a searing fourth quarter that validated both teams and offered so much promise for the four-team playoff (imagine three bowls, instead of one, with championship stakes) that debuts next season?
“The SEC is great football,” Fisher said during his postgame news conference. “I coached in that league (as an assistant) for 13 years, I respect every bit of it, but there’s some other folks in this country that can play some football, too.”
Fisher was a touch less refined on the field immediately after the game, using one of Bowden’s favorite words.
“The ACC’s a dadgum good football conference,” he told ESPN’s Heather Cox.
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