Monday, January 6, 2014

BCS Goes Out in a Blaze of Glory

PASADENA, Calif. — After 16 years, the BCS is finally dead. But it did not go away quietly.

And for that, college football is grateful.

Jameis Winston's 2-yard TD pass to Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds remaining capped the biggest comeback in the history of BCS' 16 championship games. On the same Rose Bowl field and in the same south end zone where Vince Young made his epic dash to immortality in 2006, Florida State's precocious Heisman-winning quarterback claimed his own place in college football lore—on his 20th birthday, no less.

Florida State's 34-31 victory over Auburn brought down the curtain on the BCS era, which began in the 1998 season when an SEC team (Tennessee) defeated the Seminoles for the first crystal ball. FSU would lose two of the first three BCS title games, but gained more than a measure of redemption Monday night for the rest of college football universe by ending the SEC's seven-year championship dominance.

It was fitting that the BCS era—and the SEC's reign—ended in the spiritual home of college football. In a brilliant evening at the Rose Bowl—home of the Granddaddy of 'Em All—the much-maligned BCS had the ultimate setting, with game-time temperature of 69 degrees, against the backdrop of San Gabriel Mountains at dusk and a packed house of 94,208.

Early on, though, the game threatened to be a runaway and another SEC romp. Auburn took a 21-3 lead with five minutes left in the first half and was on the verge to break it open as a flustered Winston was unable to move the ball. Florida State's defense also had trouble with Auburn's no-huddle pace, giving up eight of 12 third-down conversion opportunities.

But as FSU's defense stiffened in the second half, Winston and the Seminoles clawed back.

After cutting Auburn's lead to 21-20 early in the fourth quarter, the game reached a glorious crescendo in the final five minutes. The teams traded four scores in the final 4:42, featuring a 105-yard kickoff return by FSU's Kermit Whitfield and a 37-yard scamper by Auburn's Tre Mason that looked like the game-winner before Winston led the Noles' actual winning drive in a mere 58 seconds.

FSU's victory is a vindication that there is more to college football than the SEC. But ironically, it was the vision that came from the SEC that helped forge the BCS and remake college football into the spectacle it is today.

Before the BCS, college football was mostly a regional affair, with each major conference having its respective bowl tie-ins. Media members and coaches would vote on the national champion at the end of each season, divining the superiority of one team over another purely on speculation, since many of the top contenders never met each other on the field.

From the end of World War II until the advent of the BCS in 1998, the Rose Bowl never featured a team not coming from either the Big Ten or Pac-10 (now Pac-12) conference.

It took former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer, the godfather of the BCS, to finally persuade the Big Ten, Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl—the most venerable and prestigious bowl game—to loosen their alliance to allow the top two ranked teams to play for the title annually.

In the 1998 Rose Bowl, the final one played before the BCS' creation, Michigan won a split national championship, the fourth consecutive split winner produced in Pasadena. After the advent of the BCS, there had been just one split championship, in 2003, when USC won the Rose Bowl and the AP title while LSU took the BCS title at the Sugar Bowl.

In the 2006 Rose Bowl, which remains the highest-rated game in college football history, Texas ended two-time defending champion USC's dynasty when it overcame a 12-point deficit as Vince Young scored from five yards out with 19 seconds remaining to snap the Trojans' 34-game winning streak.

Eight years later, the Seminoles dug themselves out of an 18-point hole and broke the SEC's seven-year stranglehold—and the state of Alabama's four-year ownership—on the crystal ball.

"The ACC is good football, folks," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher spoke up for his conference in particular and non-SEC football in general after the game. "It's a great football conference. We have a great commissioner, we have great coaches, we've got great players. We had 11 teams in bowl games. 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."

That sentiment will be put to test again next year when college football moves into the next phase with the four-team College Football Playoff. The two semifinal games will be played at the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl, with the winners advancing to the championship game at the Dallas Cowboys' palace in Arlington, Texas.

But thank heavens there was no need for another game this year. The season ended in spectacular fashion and in the right place. The BCS might be dead, but it bequeathed college football an unforgettable parting gift.

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