The Auburn Tigers became the most exciting 60-minute team in college football this season, but they could hold the label for only 59 minutes Monday night.
Jameis Winston's 2-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds remaining catapulted Florida State to a riveting 34-31 victory over Auburn for the final national championship of the BCS era. Auburn had taken a 31-27 lead with 1:19 remaining on Tre Mason's 37-yard run, but the Seminoles rallied to halt the Southeastern Conference's streak of consecutive national championships at seven.
The Seminoles also prevented the Iron Bowl winner from capturing a fifth straight BCS crown.
"There will be a lot of great memories," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said early Tuesday morning at the BCS news conference. "We were on the brink of making it one of those magical seasons. There are so many great things we can take away, and I told our seniors that they laid the groundwork for our program moving forward."
Florida State (14-0) won its first national championship since 1999, while Auburn (12-2) finished No. 2 in the final Associated Press poll. Michigan State, the Rose Bowl champ, climbed to No. 3 and was followed by South Carolina, Missouri, Oklahoma, Alabama, Clemson, Oregon and Central Florida.
Auburn now has two No. 2 finishes in the AP poll (2004 and 2013) to go along with its two national championships (1957 and 2010).
"We worked hard to get to this point and played tough game after game after game," Tigers senior cornerback Chris Davis told reporters. "We had a lot of games come down to the end, and we pulled them out, but we came up short on this one. It's a hard feeling, because everybody gave their all and we expected to win."
Davis produced the season's most memorable play with his 100-yard return of a short Alabama field-goal attempt that gave the Tigers a 34-28 upset of top-ranked Alabama on Nov. 30, but his waning moments in the BCS championship weren't as enjoyable. He committed pass interference that set Florida State up at Auburn's 2-yard line and then gave up seven inches to the 6-foot-6 Benjamin on the deciding score.
The most detrimental play for the Tigers occurred two plays after Mason's go-ahead score, when Seminoles receiver Rashad Greene took a short pass from Winston and turned it into a 49-yard gain to Auburn's 23-yard line. Davis and safety Ryan Smith allowed Greene to break free down the right sideline.
"I had two guys in good shape," Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson told reporters. "We were playing zone, so everybody had their eyes. They just missed it. It looked like we could have had some fatigue at the end, because we weren't quite as sharp. I thought we would get him to the ground. He would have gotten the first down, but it would have been a big difference in field position.
"Instead they made a play that got them very relaxed in terms of play selection, and they had two timeouts left. That play put a whole different light on it."
Davis and Smith were among Auburn's five defensive senior starters Monday night, joining linebacker Jake Holland and ends Dee Ford and Nose Egaue. The only offensive senior starter was fullback Jay Prosch, but redshirt sophomore left tackle Greg Robinson announced Tuesday afternoon that he is leaving early for the NFL and Mason could soon do the same.
Mason rushed for 195 yards to finish the season with 1,816 yards, eclipsing Bo Jackson's single-season record of 1,786 in 11 games in 1985. The Tigers had 232 rushing yards against the Seminoles and led the nation this season with 4,596 rushing yards, the first time an SEC program has led the land in that category.
Quarterback Nick Marshall said Monday's loss left a sour taste but that there is a lot of reason for excitement ahead, and his coach agreed.
"We're going up," Malzahn said. "The experience we had. We've got most of our guys coming back. Recruiting is going great.
"Our goal is to get back here, and I really believe we'll do it."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.