PASADENA, Calif. -- Maybe the best thing you can say is a raging brush fire of an idea didn't deserve an ending like this. Maybe anything so wrinkled and ugly and pointedly absurdist would have been better off buried without any kind of funeral at all, but only in college football is a flawed idea, formed out of a worse idea, formed out of a century of utter chaos, somehow considered a slow train to progress.
And so the BCS -- the best postseason the sport's braintrust could up with, until the right corporate arms were finally twisted in favor of a playoff -- perished last night. And it surely deserved to be unceremoniously buried alive in an unmarked grave, but two very good football teams would not allow that to happen. Say this for the BCS: It clawed. It did not let go until it had to. Not until Gus Malzahn appeared to dust off some sort of Cal-Stanford special he'd probably drawn up on a cocktail napkin in a Northwest Arkansas sports bar in 1998, and not until Auburn lateraled it around a few times and Tre Mason churned up the sideline in search of one final miracle for the Team Full of Miracles, and not until Mason went down and they started rolling the trophy platform out to the 50-yard-line and handing out those phony national championship newspapers and the national championship hats marking Florida State's 34-31 win.
And not until Jameis Winston stood tall on that platform, an unwitting proxy for everything that is unpredictable and great and everything that is seamy and opaque about a sport that can be pretty spectacular, if you do your damndest to compartmentalize the bad things.
"THE KING OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL," someone kept shouting at Winston in the Florida State locker room, and it's true now, whether you like it or not, whether it makes you downright uncomfortable or not. Last drive of the game, 71 seconds remaining, Florida State down four points, and it fell to Winston, who'd already experienced perhaps the most awkward two months any redshirt freshman quarterback ever has, going from the potential of a long stretch in prison to a Heisman Trophy win and a national championship game on this, his 20th birthday. He'd been shaky all night, had been sacked four times, had fallen behind 21-3, but he insisted panic was not in his makeup. He insisted he had us all the way, and whether you believe him or not is up to you.
"When you've got a team like this," Winston said, "you can be chill all the time."
And it's kind of true: Florida State is so absurdly talented that when the Seminoles needed a lift, they got it from a freshman named Kermit Whitfield, who fielded a kickoff after an Auburn field goal, got the one block he needed, and then was gone, giving Florida State a 27-24 lead with 4:31 to play. Whitfield had caught five passes all season; he was not good enough to immediately break into the Seminoles' wide-receiver depth chart, but he happens to run a 4.37 40-yard dash -- "I just ran it," he said, "I didn't train for it." -- and a 10.15 in the 100, and may be one of the fastest humans in the country.
For most of the night up to that point, Auburn seemed a single play from breaking this game open. They are a fascinating team to watch, all misdirections and sleight of hand and Malzahn-ian counterintuitive wisdom, powerful up front and clever in every possible way. They would have been a worthy umpteenth straight national champion from the SEC; they still completed one of the greatest single-season turnarounds in the history of the sport. We may have officially entered the wonk-football era, what with ESPNU's well-received coaches' breakdown of this game as it was played, and I don't think anyone epitomizes that movement quite like Malzahn, who no doubt saw a different color of Rose Bowl sunset than the rest of us. But Auburn fell back toward conservatism at what seemed in retrospect like the worst possible times: Up 14-3 and facing a fourth-and-two, it tried a field goal instead of running a power sweep and missed. Up 21-3, it allowed a confidence-building touchdown to Florida State off a fake punt before halftime, and then burned away the final minute-and-a-half of the second quarter without trying anything except a heave-ho in the final seconds.
"Any time you lose, you always look back," Malzahn said. "But really, I felt pretty good."
Back in the Florida State locker room, they pulled off their jerseys to reveal T-shirts that said, "Be Elite," and if you're wondering how one manages to just exist in such a perpetual state, all you need to do is stand next to Kelvin Benjamin, the receiver who caught the game-winning touchdown pass. The dude is a specimen of ridiculosity: 6-foot-5 and 234 pounds and fast and graceful and long-haired and handsome. In those final seconds, Florida State worked it down to the 10, then got a pass interference penalty, and then Benjamin, realizing his defender was expecting a fade pattern, cut toward the inside of the field, and he was open, and Auburn's Chris Davis -- who will live forever in our hearts for the way he relegated Nick Saban to a color-commentator's role Monday night -- could not tear the ball away from him.
"They talked about Auburn being a team of destiny," said Florida State's quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders. "Well, we're a team of something, though I don't know what it is."
Over in the far corner of the locker room, his quarterback was talking about the season, and all he'd been through, and all he'd learned, and all the "adversity" he'd overcome. And it felt awkward to hear Jameis Winston say it, to file away the results of that terrible night -- regardless of what might have actually happened -- as some sort of team-building exercise. But this is college football, and the only way any of us can get away with watching it is to accept its flaws and to live with them. So it went in the BCS era, and so it will go, no doubt, in the playoff era. It's pretty spectacular, if you don't give it too much thought.