Auburn running back Tre Mason scores on a 37-yard run with 1:19 left in the… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
They started the night with a barrage of pregame fireworks in the Rose Bowl. A few hours later, the rockets really went off.
This was not so much a game as a roller coaster. If you are a drama lover, an excitement junkie, you couldn't help but get high on this one.
The last 4 1/2 minutes were college football's Space Mountain.
There was a 100-yard kickoff return by a Florida State freshman, who is only 5 feet 7, who was a state champion sprinter and who goes by either Kermit Whitfield or Levonte Whitfield. That was with 4 minutes 31 seconds to play and put the Seminoles ahead for the first time, 27-24.
SUMMARY: Florida State 34, Auburn 31
Then there was an incredible, twisting, bouncing 37-yard scoring run three minutes later by Auburn's All-American, Tre Mason. That broke Bo Jackson's season rushing record for Auburn and put the Tigers back on top, 31-27.
But it didn't put Florida State away.
Down the field came the Seminoles, tops in the final polls and unbeaten at 13-0. Finally, with 13 seconds left, another Florida State freshman, Jameis Winston, threaded a pass into the hands of Kelvin Benjamin, who curled around it and cradled the ball in the end zone.
His jersey was No. 1, and, with just 13 seconds left in the game, he had made sure his team would stay that way too.
Florida State, 34, Auburn 31.
The final Bowl Championship Series title game, played in the Rose Bow,l had become the grandaddy of exclamation points.
Hearts may not have stopped pounding for an hour afterward, and that includes millions of TV watchers.
Even before the game had its final blastoff with an ending they'll be talking about for years, it had been a fascinating matchup between two quarterbacks with greatly contrasting back stories
The star of the show going in was Winston. He had started as an unheralded redshirt freshman, gave the country's national college football fans their first look at him in his first game, a televised Monday night matchup with Pittsburgh. And all he did in that game was complete 25 of 27 passes.
Twelve victories and a No. 1 BCS ranking later and Winston was the Heisman Trophy winner. He carried himself with a swagger, was an obvious fan favorite and seemed well beyond his age in both athletic ability and personality. Monday, on the day that his school won a national title on a touchdown pass that he threw, Jameis Winston turned 20.
But for the first three quarters, the one-day-past teenager acted like one. At halftime, Auburn led, 21-10, and Auburn was pressing him, containing him, controlling him.
Auburn defensive back Dee Ford said he could see the freshman for a while in Winston.
"He started second-guessing himself," Ford said. "He is a freshman, and we exposed that."
But in the end, Winston did the exposing. He ended up rushing for 26 yards and passing for 237 yards and two touchdowns, on 20 completions in 35 passes.
Winston's coach, Jimbo Fisher, called the game "the best Winston has played all season." He said that was because he was "up and down" and because great players figure out a way to succeed, even when they aren't having their best nights.
But on the other side, Auburn's quarterback, Nick Marshall, as quiet a force as Winston is a bombastic one, deserves much credit for this game being the thriller it turned out to be.
Marshall, a junior from Pineview, Ga., who was a cornerback at Georgia before getting in trouble at school, transferring to a junior college in Kansas, then transferring again to Auburn last fall, was a wizard in Coach Gus Malzahn's read-option offense.
He rushed for 1,024 yards for the Tigers this season, and ran Malzahn's "smoke and mirrors" multiple-option offense like somebody who had done it for three years, not somebody who hadn't even been around for spring football.
He passed for 217 yards and two touchdown against Florida State and rushed for 45 more.
Afterward, Malzahn said his team had been "just on the brink," and it was Marshall who led them there. He said several times in the leadup to this game that he and his staff were so unfamiliar with exactly what Marshall could do that the first four games were merely a study for them on his potential.
"We were doing a lot of Dr. Phil-ing," Malzahn said.
No need for that next season.
In a game where he was pretty much an afterthought, an unheralded figure in the large shadow of Winston, Marshall showed his best stuff.
Marshall was a quiet man who almost stole a national title from Winston, the player everybody expected would make most of the noise.
In the end, Winston did.
But so did the game itself, a masterpiece of the spectacular sort that may light the fuse for years to come for future college football playoffs.