Posted: 1:41 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014
By Brandon Larrabee
The SEC's streak ends at seven as Florida State survives against Auburn. What does that mean for the Tigers, for the league and for college football?
Streaks end. As do seasons.
That's part of the beauty of sports, really. If you won every game -- and even Alabama doesn't win every game -- it would be too easy to start to take it for granted. And while the national title streak perhaps isn't as important to the individual fan as their own teams' fortunes are, perhaps SEC fans had started to take the national title a little for granted. No SEC Champion has been locked out of the BCS National Championship Game in eight years. No SEC Champion has lost the BCS National Champions Game in eight years.
It had to happen sometime. So why not now?
Why not when the BCS is on its way out, and features as the final game a performance for the ages? One with three lead changes in the last 4:31. A game where the winning team jumped out to a 21-3 lead, only to endure a crash landing in the final few minutes. A game that reminded us just why we all love college football despite the flaws that all of us can list without thinking about it.
The irony is that Auburn did most of the things that everyone said they had to do to get the improbable win. The Tigers' ground game churned out 232 yards on 53 carries, or 4.4 yards a rush. Nick Marshall had one of his most prolific days through the air, going 14-of-27 for 217 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. And the beleaguered Auburn defense held the Seminoles to their second-lowest yardage total of the season (by a large margin) and lowest point total of the year.
But in the moments when Auburn was supposed to shine, Florida State did instead. The one advantage that Auburn supposedly had in this game was that the Tigers had been in tight games, and the Seminoles had not. Auburn had shone that it could win in the final moments, sometimes in improbable fashion. Could FSU?
Yes. Jameis Winston was magnificent in the fourth quarter, going 9-of-11 passing for 117 yards and two touchdowns. Florida State got the big special-teams play, a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Levonte Whitfield. The Seminoles scored 21 points in the fourth quarter -- more than they had in the rest of the game combined -- to win. And the final touchdown happened with 13 seconds left, just about the time when Auburn fans usually started to look for this team to find some way out of its hole.
There was no way out this time, no last-second Hail Mary or returned field goal or anything else to boost Auburn to the win. If there was one team that could pull off a series of laterals and get the winning touchdown, it was Auburn -- but just as Tre Mason seemed to be gaining some steam, the FSU defense closed and he was brought down before he even reached midfield. Game over.
For Auburn, the loss should mean nothing but probably means everything. After all, the Tigers had no business being in this game. They were coming off a 3-9 season, playing in perhaps the toughest division in college football, with a former defensive back running their offense. A bowl bid seemed like a lofty goal. The BCS would be a miracle. A national title was impossible.
Until it wasn't. And for 59 minutes and 47 seconds on Monday night, it seemed like the Tigers might just do it. To get a win taken away from them like that -- well, Auburn fans aren't going to get much sympathy from the fans in Athens and Tuscaloosa. But it's got to hurt.
The SEC's claim to being the best conference in football, meanwhile, isn't fatally wounded by this. It's never been about one game, at least to those who paid attention. The national title streak was a symbol of the SEC's strength, not the only argument. The conference won more bowl games than any other league this year, and more than any other conference ever has.
And the SEC will be back. Barring an almost unimaginable implosion next year, at least one team from the conference will be among the four selected for the inaugural college football playoffs. With a little more time and perhaps a dash of luck, that team might even be Auburn. Fifteen years ago, the SEC brought home the first national title of the BCS era; there's nothing that says it can't do the same thing in the first year of the playoffs.
That's the thing about streaks. The end of one provides an opportunity to begin another.