PASADENA, Calif. - No team gets to the National Championship game without being a pretty good squad. Actually better than that. So when Auburn and FSU were matched up in the final BCS Championship game, nobody should have expected anything but a close game.
It's never a mismatch unless the pollsters fall in love with one team (see Alabama vs. Notre Dame). But as the weeks wore on between their final games and their meeting in California, FSU became more and more of a favorite. Their quarterback won the Heisman Trophy and charmed the media with his easy, glib manner. Their coach gave an unfiltered view of what he thought of just about anything you asked him. And the fans loved it.
Meanwhile, Auburn toiled in relative obscurity, highlights of their heart-stopping two final wins representing their entire season to most fans. In Pasadena, both teams said all the right things and looked poised to provide a great contest.
Once they kicked it off though, Auburn proved to be less effected by the big stage and played the kind of game that was expected: strong running game, some out-of-the-box offensive formations and quarterback Nick Marshall calmly hitting wide open receivers.
Florida State looked lost. Physically they were a match for the Tigers. Big across both lines and fast everywhere, the ‘Noles had the look of a contender. But instead, they were rattled. Jameis Winston was rushing just about everything, from handoffs to checkdowns to throws, the All-American seemed to fall victim to the Heisman curse.
Quarterbacks winning the Heisman and playing in the National Championship game had gone 2-5 coming into this game. Between nervous execution, unlikely penalties and dubious clock management, FSU gave up yards and points, trailing 21-10 at halftime.
In a nutshell, Auburn was playing as expected: FSU was not.
As the second half unfolded, Winston found a little rhythm and the ‘Noles defense started to get the stops they needed. A couple of solid drives led to a field goal and a TD and cut the deficit to 21-20. But Auburn is nothing if not resilient. They pounded the ball down the field, chewing up clock to kick a field goal and a 24-20 lead. And that's when lightning struck for the ‘Noles.
Levonte Whitfield returned a kickoff 100-yards to give the Noles a 27-24 lead. But again, Auburn got to this game by playing to the final whistle, scoring a TD of their own on a Tre Mason 37-yard blistering run to lead 31-27.
So it's over right? Not exactly.
With just over a minute to go, Jameis Winston lead the FSU offense down the field, 80 yards for a TD of their own, for a 34-31 lead. Winston's arm was the difference. His toss to Rashad Greene chewed up a bunch of yardage and stopped the clock, putting the ‘Noles in position to score. This is where Winston was tested. As a 20-year old, it would be very easy to make a mistake and throw an interception at this point but he was patient, taking no chances and hit Kelvin Benjamin on a high toss for the TD.
For all of their problems in the first half and at the beginning of the 3rd quarter, FSU stuck together. They regained their poise when it looked like things could go in the wrong direction quickly.
Credit Jimbo Fisher for whatever he said to Winston at halftime. I saw him grab Jameis' facemask during a timeout in Gainesville against Florida and asked him if that was part of their regular relationship.
"Absolutely," he said with a steely-eyed glare. "It's how we communicate." However that kind of communication translated during the National Championship game obviously worked as the ‘Noles finish the season at No. 1.
And with everybody who's coming back, they could stay there for a while.
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