Time runs out on Auburn’s magical run

By: Wally Hall
Published: Wednesday, January 8, 2014
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn before the NCAA BCS National Championship college football game against Florida State Monday, Jan. 6, 2014, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn before the NCAA BCS National Championship college football game against Florida State Monday, Jan. 6, 2014, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

It wasn’t so much that Auburn ran out of luck against undefeated Florida State in the BCS Championship Game as it was the Tigers ran out of time.

Much was made of the fortuitous way Auburn beat Georgia and Alabama on the final play in both games, but it was the team with the most athletes that won Monday night, not necessarily the best team.

It definitely wasn’t the best-coached team that won. That was a draw.

Every week of this past season Auburn improved, and the statistics show the Tigers were the better team in the BCS Championship Game, just not the luckiest.

The Tigers had more first downs (25-19) and more total yards (449-385). Before you say statistics are for losers, what sunk Auburn and led to the 34-31 loss was one breakdown on special teams.

Granted, Auburn’s offense was stopped in the third quarter after FSU made halftime adjustments. Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston, the self-proclaimed hero who said after the game he put his whole team on his back, also helped win the game, but Levonte Whitfield’s 100-yard kickoff return was the biggest play in the game for Florida State.

Auburn had just regained the lead, 24-20, on a 22-yard field goal with 4:42 to play when Whitfield returned the ensuing kickoff for a breathtaking touchdown that had the tiresome FSU chant echoing across the San Gabriel Mountains.

The Tigers came back, mixing their running game with just enough passing to drive 75 yards for another touchdown and a 31-27 lead with 1:19 to play.

Winston, the landslide winner of the Heisman Trophy, had struggled for three quarters, but with the game on the line the redshirt freshman completed 6 of 7 passes, including a 2-yard touchdown to Kelvin Benjamin, who has the size, speed and ability to become the next great receiver in the NFL.

For that drive, Winston was named the offensive MVP. Cornerback P.J. Williams earned the defensive honor, although his five unassisted tackles and two assists were far short of linebacker Telvin Smith’s 11 unassisted tackles and four assists.

Maybe for one drive Winston deserved the honor, but before that drive he was 14 of 28 for 160 yards, and there is no disputing the Seminole players around him - on both sides of the ball - were as valuable as anyone.

FSU Coach Jimbo Fisher has done an incredible job of recruiting outstanding athletes who fit his system.

It was a great game and an incredible way to end the 16-year run of the Bowl Championship Series, which may have been controversial at times - which included leaving an undefeated Auburn team out of the title game in 2005, a championship that had to be vacated later by Southern Cal - but managed to pit No. 1 against No. 2, something that happened only five times before the BCS.

No one can argue that Auburn belonged in the game and that Florida State being a 10-point favorite was a huge mistake by Las Vegas odds makers.

Yes, much of America breathed a sigh of relief that the SEC didn’t win its eighth consecutive championship, but the SEC appeared in 11 BCS Championships and won nine, and one of those two losses was when Alabama beat LSU in 2011.

The Big 12 had the next most appearances, but it was just 2-5 overall. The ACC was 2-2, and all four times it was Florida State representing the league.

This year college football goes to a four-team playoff, and there is nothing in the rules to prohibit two teams from the same conference being invited, so there is no reason to think there will be a falloff for the SEC.

The final game of the 2013 season was a great one, and the season will remain a storybook turnaround for Auburn and Gus Malzahn, who didn’t run out of luck, just out of time.

Sports, Pages 19 on 01/08/2014