PASADENA, Calif. -- Auburn snatched defeat from the jaws of victory as Florida State, battered and seemingly on its heels with only 1:11 remaining in the fourth quarter, drove 80 yards in 10 plays to drive a stake into the heart of SEC country, ending the conference’s seven-year reign as national champions and capping the 15-year history of the Bowl Championship Series.
Auburn stuck to its game plan and ran into the teeth of the Florida State defense -- and it worked, from the Tigers’ first possession to their final scoring drive. Nonetheless, the loss is a bitter pill for Auburn, which led 21-3 with 5 minutes to go in the first half.
“Our defense, the first half, they played their tail off,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. “As a matter of fact they did a good job.
“The third quarter, offensively [we] sputtered and [the defense] kept us in the game right there.”
Auburn limited Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston to six completions and registered two sacks on the Heisman Trophy winner.
“We were able to execute pretty early, and that's what we really wanted to do,” Auburn defensive end Dee Ford said. “We affected him early and often the entire game.
“He started holding the ball. He started second guessing his decisions. That's exactly what I knew: At the end of the day, he's a freshman. I think [Monday night] we kind of exposed that, and we just wasn't able to finish in that last drive. Very early, I saw that he was a little hesitant.”
The top-ranked Noles scored the next 10 points to pull within 21-20. With less than 11 minutes remaining, neither team was conceding. Both teams continued to take the other’s haymakers off the chin and came back for another body blow.
The Tigers (12-2) tried to deliver the knockout punch inside 5 minutes to play when Cody Parkey booted a 22-yard field goal to give Auburn a 24-20 lead.
However, Florida State’s Levonte Whitfield fielded the kickoff and raced up the left sideline for a 100-yard return to silence War Eagle chants as the Noles took a 27-24 lead with 4:31 to play.
But the Tigers were not finished. Auburn responded with an eight-play, 75-yard drive. Tre Mason scampered into the end zone from 37 yards out, breaking away and running through would-be Florida State tacklers who were on their last legs.
At that point, it seemed Auburn was going to finish the improbable run to its second title in four years. And after the Tigers’ miracle wins against Georgia and Alabama, who could argue with grabbing a roll of toilet paper and heading to Toomer’s Corner?
With the season on the line, Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston – who celebrated his 20th birthday on Monday -- went to work. Ten plays later, Kelvin Benjamin leaped into the Pasadena air to haul in a 2-yard pass for the game-winning score.
Relying on a bend-but-don’t break defense, Auburn was put on its heels almost immediately. Rashad Greene had a 49-yard catch-and-run on second-and-2 that set up the Seminoles at the Tigers’ 23. Then, facing third-and-3 from the Auburn 5, Florida State was penalized five yards and the tension was ratcheted up.
On the next play, Chris Davis -- Auburn’s hero in the Iron Bowl -- was flagged for interference in the end zone. The penalty gave Florida State first-and-goal from the 2 to set up Benjamin’s title-clinching grab.
“We were on the brink of making it one of those magical seasons,” Malzahn said, “but there's so many great things that we'll take. I just told the seniors they laid the groundwork for our program moving forward, and our program is very bright right now.
“The experience that we had and we got most of our guys coming back, recruiting is going great, and our goal is to get back here, and I really believe we'll do it.”
With that, the state of Alabama relinquished its four-year hold on the coaches’ trophy crystal ball. The ACC now holds bragging rights -- chants of “We want Bama!” rang through the Rose Bowl as fans made their way toward the exits -- and will begin the College Football Playoff era with the team to beat.