PASADENA, Calif. — Florida State Coach Jimbo Fisher told his team at halftime that the first half wouldn’t be what everyone remembered. It was the comeback they’d talk about.
The Seminoles, major college football’s only unbeaten team, were gasping. Auburn had built a 21-10 first-half lead in the Bowl Championship Series national title game, and Florida State hadn’t even trailed since a Sept. 28 game against Boston College. But he told his players to see in their minds what was possible, unlikely as it seemed.
Two quarters later, Fisher watched from the sideline as quarterback Jameis Winston, the Heisman Trophy winner, lobbed a play-action pass toward the end zone for wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. When Benjamin came down with the ball for the go-ahead touchdown with 13 seconds remaining, Florida State was again in front, 34-31, and a few minutes later it was the national champion.
Before the touchdown, there were so many story lines unfinished. Was the Southeastern Conference destined to win its eighth consecutive championship, even following a season without a dominant team? Was Tigers Coach Gus Malzahn, in his first season as a head coach in a power conference, really able to win a title so quickly? And had Florida State and Winston paid its way to Pasadena with fool’s gold, cruising through its Atlantic Coast Conference schedule not because of its own ability but because of inferior competition?
In the locker room at halftime, the Seminoles saw how they wanted those questions answered, and making adjustments to Winston’s game and how it defended Auburn’s rushing attack swayed the conversation. Winston’s first season was historic, not unfulfilled and perhaps misleading; Malzahn’s SEC debut was impressive but still leaves things to prove; and perhaps most important for balance in the football universe, since Texas’s championship after the 2005 season, a non-SEC representative owns the Coaches’ Trophy.
“I'm happy for these players and coaches and fans to hold their heads high. I'm happy for our conference. The ACC is good football, folks,” Fisher said. “. . . The SEC is great football. I coached in that league 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, a longtime coordinator who succeeded Bobby Bowden in 2010 and almost immediately began filling the Seminoles’ roster with blue-chip prospects, was for much of the first half overshadowed by Malzahn, who less than a decade ago was a high-school coach in Arkansas. Auburn hired him in December 2012, after firing Gene Chizik following a 3-9 season — and a winless trip through the SEC schedule — two years after winning the BCS title.
His uptempo offense kept Florida State off balance, as it had in the SEC championship game against Missouri, and Auburn’s pass rush challenged Winston as he hadn’t been in his previous 13 games. Defensive end Dee Ford sacked Winston twice, and the redshirt freshman — one of college football’s most accurate passers — saw many of his throws land far from their targets. Winston completed 20 of 35 passes for 237 yards and two touchdowns, but he completed only 40 percent of them in the first half. “He's a freshman,” Ford said, “and I think tonight we kind of exposed that.”
Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall and running back Tre Mason kept the rhythm in their team’s favor, and by halftime, it was clear Florida State and Fisher needed to re-evaluate how the Seminoles were playing — and, considering his halftime message, how they were thinking.
Rather than attempt deep, high-risk passes, Winston instead was asked in the second half to keep things simple. Play calls were made to get the ball from his hand quickly, which helped neutralize Auburn’s pass rush, and to re-install confidence in the quarterback who would win a national championship on his 20th birthday.
“Any quarterback can go out there and perform when they're up 50-0 in the second quarter,” Winston said. “That's what you're judged by, especially by your teammates. 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.”
Still, the Tigers kept pressure on Florida State, which made mistakes it hadn’t made in previous games — because it hadn’t been tested like this. Receivers dropped Winston’s passes, defenders allowed Marshall to scurry away from pressure, and after fullback Chad Abram’s touchdown reception cut Auburn’s lead to 21-19, a 15-yard taunting penalty by Devonta Freeman curtailed a chance to try for a tying two-point conversion.
A game that, through three quarters, had been defined by defense and missed chances — even with the victory, Florida State scored its fewest points this season — turned into a slugfest. Florida State’s Levonte Whitfield, a high-school sprinter who once ran a 4.37-second 40-yard dash, returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, and three minutes later, Auburn’s Mason broke former Heisman winner Bo Jackson’s single-season rushing record with a 37-yard touchdown run.
Mason believed a win would’ve been poetic, and more than that it would’ve been restitution for 2012’s disappointment.
“We told them we'd have the biggest turnaround in college football, and the biggest turnaround would be winning that crystal ball,” said Mason, whose 195 rushing yards pushed his season total to 1,816. “We owed them that because of the season last year. I just want them to know that I gave it all I got.”
Mason finished sixth in last month’s Heisman voting, and if he returns to Auburn for his senior season, he’ll likely be a preseason favorite — alongside Winston — to return to New York in December.
But the Florida State quarterback beat out Mason for the second time in less than a month, this time for college football’s greatest team honor. Winston completed six of his seven pass attempts — not including an incompletion nullified by a critical pass-interference flag against Auburn’s Chris Davis — during the Seminoles’ final, desperate possession. Needing a touchdown to see Fisher’s halftime vision through, quiet the critics during a football-free seven months, and grow Winston’s legend, he took a short drop, faking a handoff to Freeman and lobbing his pass toward Benjamin.
“That's a storybook moment right there,” Winston said afterward. “I mean, I'm just so excited for our guys, man. It's not really about me. It's about them, and all I can say now is that we're champions.”