RALPH D. RUSSO, AP College Football Writer
PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — After a regular season filled with blowout victories and easy fourth quarters, Jameis Winston and Florida State showed they could close like champions, too.
No. 2 Auburn wobbled the top-ranked Seminoles by jumping out to an 18-point lead in the first half, and then put Florida State on the brink of defeat for the first time this season.
Winston responded with the drive of his life and a game-winning touchdown pass with 13 seconds left that topped everything else he has done in one of the most sensational debut seasons a college quarterback has ever had.
The Heisman Trophy winner led the Seminoles 80 yards in the final 79 seconds, flicking a 2-yard TD pass to Kelvin Benjamin to give No. 1 Florida State a 34-31 victory against Auburn in the last BCS championship game Monday night.
“The last drive, that’s a great way to cap off our season,” Winston said. “That’s the way we wanted to cap off our season.”
The Bowl Championship Series went out with a bang, too, with one of the best title games in its 16-year history, right there with Texas 41, USC 38 at the Rose Bowl in 2006. That night it was Vince Young leading the Longhorns and capping a comeback by scooting into the end zone with 19 seconds left.
Now Winston is the Prince of Pasadena.
Next season the BCS will be replaced by a four-team playoff. Winston and the Seminoles should be contenders again after snapping the Southeastern Conference’s seven-year national title streak.
“The SEC is great football, I coached in that league for 13 years, I respect every bit of it,” coach Jimbo Fisher said, “but there’s some other folks in this country that can play some football, too.”
Florida State, which played in the first BCS championship games but had not been back since, was voted a unanimous No. 1 in the final AP Top 25. Auburn finished second.
Winston struggled much of the night but was near perfect when the Seminoles (14-0) needed it most, going 6 for 7 for 77 yards on the last drive.
“It was the best football game he’s played all year,” Fisher said of Winston, “and I’ll tell you why, because for three quarters he was up and down and he fought.”
Winston was 20 for 35 for 237 yards and two fourth-quarter touchdown passes on his 20th birthday. He zipped the Seminoles down the field on the final drive, with a 49-yard catch and run from Rashad Greene.
“I was ready,” Winston said. “I wanted to be in that situation because that’s what great quarterbacks do. That’s what the Tom Bradys, Peyton Mannings, Drew Brees, that’s what they do.”
Florida State also got help from Auburn. A pass interference penalty in the end zone on Chris Davis on third-and-8 from the 10 gave Florida State a first down at the 2.
“Thought it was great defense. That’s all I can say,” Davis said, adding, the officials “should have just let us play.”
On the next play Winston threw high to the 6-foot-5 Benjamin for the touchdown.
“Once the ball is in the air on that post route, I’ve got to go get it, and I did,” Benjamin said. “Simple as that.”
There was no miracle finish this time for the turnaround Tigers, who went from 3-9 to SEC champions in their first season under coach Gus Malzahn. They tossed the ball around on one final play, but it ended with Florida State jumping on a fumble, and the Seminoles sprinting onto the field under a storm of garnet and gold confetti.
Florida State scored 21 points in the fourth quarter, and the teams combined for 24 in a breathtaking last 4:42.
“It felt storybook again,” Auburn defensive tackle Gabe Wright said. “It really felt like we were going to bring it out again. We’re just on the other end of the stick. It’s usually us going out on the field and celebrating. It’s been a long time since we had an ‘L’ in this locker room.”
Auburn won nine straight to get here after starting the season unranked.
Tre Mason gave Auburn (12-2) a 31-27 lead with a 37-yard touchdown run with 1:19 left after Kermit Whitfield had put Florida State in the lead for the first time since the first quarter with a 100-yard kickoff return to make it 27-24 with 4:31 left.
Mason ran for 195 yards and scored two touchdowns, and Nick Marshall threw two touchdown passes for the Tigers.
“I told them in the locker room, we put together the biggest turnaround in the history of college football. We were on the brink of making it one of those magical seasons,” Malzahn said.
Florida State hadn’t been challenged like this all season, winning by an average of 42 points.
Florida State and Winston’s biggest problem this season came off the field. Winston was investigated for a year-old sexual assault complaint in November, but after three weeks the Florida state attorney’s office determined it did not have enough evidence to charge him.
The Seminoles were down 21-3 in the first half to Auburn. They hadn’t trailed in a game since Sept. 28.
“I knew we were fighters,” nose tackle Timmy Jernigan said.
And now Florida State is national champion for the first time since 1999, the first team to win the BCS title game after being down at halftime. The state of Alabama’s national championship run is over at four, stopped by a quarterback from Bessemer who never rooted for the Tigers or Tide.
“Only thing is we’re victorious and glad to say Florida State is the national champion again, and I guarantee you we’re bringing that swag back,” Winston said. “You’d better believe it.”
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAp
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