College Football Was Perfect Last Night

Jeff Gross/Getty Images Kelvin Benjamin

If for some reason you ever find yourself arguing that college football is the best sport on earth, the 2014 BCS National Championship would make for some pretty great evidence.

My brain is still half-broken after spending eight hours in Pasadena on Monday, so instead of attempting coherence after that game, let’s just keep things nice and disorganized.

Here’s everything I’ll remember from the 2014 title game.

The Fans. A big-time college football game might be the largest gathering of people in a good mood that you’ll find anywhere in America. I remember this every time I go to a big game, and it never stops being incredible. Everyone’s drinking and eating horrible food, there are babies dressed head to toe in team gear, senior citizens wobbling around next to them, hammered college kids in between, and everybody’s there to have fun.

These people just make you a happier person.

As someone who grew up going to NFC East football games, it’s all pretty foreign to me. NFL tailgating is generally dominated by grumpy old men in cold weather, cursing out their teams. With any pro sport, really, you won’t see rival fans partying with each other before a big game, or giving each other shit and then laughing about it. The games are too important. But this was the most important game of the college football season, and nobody at the Rose Bowl made the mistake of taking it too seriously beforehand. What I’m saying is, life should be more like a college football tailgate, and we should all grow up to be these Auburn fans.

Inside the stadium …

Tebowwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww. HE IS RISEN. I’m happy for him. Especially since he’s not actually playing quarterback in the NFL, and he just gets to be famous for being Tim Tebow, which is sort of where we were all along once he left Florida. This role makes a lot more sense for everyone, I think.

Until he inevitably runs for Congress in five years, Tebow should fit in great with college football. He’s already dapping up Johnny Manziel.

Nick Saban. He was on the opposite side of the field from Tebow, because if they’d been together, the tension between good and evil would’ve meant a hole in the earth swallowing us all. For the record, I’m almost positive Saban only committed to be in Pasadena as some twisted form of punishment for himself. You know how the Opus Dei character whips himself in The Da Vinci Code? That was this game for Saban.

Red Lightning. Another reason college football is different than other sports: All those other sports don’t have Red Lightning. Who is Red Lightning? I had no idea before Monday. But walking around the Rose Bowl field with Spencer Hall, he pointed him out to me, and said, “He’s a team manager who’s kind of become a folk hero this year.”

This is Red Lighting.

He became a hero on YouTube for his celebrations, and I think he has sort of become an unofficial ambassador for FSU football. Which is great, obviously. As Mr. Lightning told reporters last month, “I’ve always been fiery and passionate in everything I do, especially in sports. The players see it every day in practice. And it just so happens on Saturday everybody in the world sees it.”

I hope this guy gets elected governor of Florida one day. He adds: “It’s my normal attitude. I’m always fired up to be at work and fired up for the team. … We ride together, we die together.”

What a king.

WAR DAMN THAT’S A REAL EAGLE. Before Monday I knew Auburn had a real eagle on the sideline, but that didn’t stop me from (a) almost stumbling into the eagle’s safe zone during pregame, (b) almost having a heart attack once I saw a live eagle sitting there, and (c) immediately getting accosted by one of the eagle’s four security guards for getting too close. Reread that sentence. I’m telling you, this sport is the best.

The Rose Bowl. There is no better football stadium on earth. The NCAA title game should be here every year. The Super Bowl, too. Why screw around with anything else when perfection is sitting right there for everyone?

I make fun of people who get all nostalgic about “The Grandaddy of Them All” and the Rose Bowl mystique, but I’m sorry, I can’t help being part of the problem here. The combination of the weather, the light as the sun’s setting, the impossibly perfect field, the mountains and trees in the background, the 100,000-person capacity that somehow feels a lot smaller … I won’t start going to UCLA home games next year, but that stadium was incredible enough Monday to make me consider it.

The Rose Bowl is what a football stadium in heaven would look like. Including the elaborate tailgating scene set up on the adjacent golf course, because in heaven you get to piss off golfers for eternity.

The Teams. FSU was favored by eight points, and when you compared the teams it was easy to see why. Florida State is ridiculous. Anyone on that roster who doesn’t have world-class athleticism has world-class strength, but really, most of them have both.

I saw Charlie Ward pregame, and he still has the frame of a 15-year-old. But seeing Jameis Winston in person is a reminder that he’s built more like a linebacker than a quarterback. Kelvin Benjamin could probably play power forward in college basketball. Their offensive line abused people all year long, and their defense has freakishly athletic mercenaries like Telvin Smith and Lamarcus Joyner, and then guys like Timmy Jernigan, a defensive tackle who inspired me to scribble this in the first quarter: “No. 8 FSU — Death Monster.”

Meanwhile, there’s Auburn, the team that needed miracle plays in two of its biggest wins of the season to even get this far. Their defense had been a mess for most of the year. They play a converted cornerback at quarterback, and while Nick Marshall is definitely awesome to watch, there are at least five plays during any Auburn game when you remember that he’s a cornerback playing quarterback. Their running game has always been incredible enough to make you forget those plays, but not quite incredible enough to make you think they had a chance in this game.

This is where we were coming into this game. Auburn was a very good team running the most entertaining offense in college football, but Florida State was more like a pro team playing college football, with predictably unstoppable results.

Right before I got banished to the press box before kickoff, I found two confetti boxes off to the side of the field.

After seeing the FSU giants in person, I made peace with the fact that the Seminoles were destined to make all that orange confetti useless. But then the game started.

Gus Malzahn. Everything I just said made what Auburn did in the first half of this game twice as incredible. As it went up and down the field, and the defense stopped FSU over and over again, Is this really happening? became the theme of the first half.

Part of the first-half story was Auburn’s defense harassing Winston, and FSU’s offense sputtering all over the place, but it’s the Auburn offense baffling everyone that I’ll remember most.

Malzahn produces more surreal outcomes than anybody in football. All of his illuminati play cards, eight types of pre-snap motion … somehow it turns into the most dominant running game in college football, plus a passing game with Marshall that works just enough to drive teams completely insane. I have no idea how this works, and I’m glad I don’t. That makes it even more fun to just sit back and be amazed as Auburn renders entire teams helpless. It spent most of the national title game doing it to the best defense in the country, and the legend of Gus hit a whole new level.

Jimbo Fisher. I can’t imagine any job less appealing than being head coach of a school that expects to win a national title every year, but hasn’t been great for a decade. This has been Fisher’s reality for a while now, facing a rabid fan base and countless rooms full of boosters who demand to know when FSU will really be “BACK.”

I have no idea what Fisher is like as a person, but given how horrible his job must’ve been for the past few years, you can’t help but be happy for him breaking through this season. Or, if that’s not enough to make you happy for him, just go read this article.

Tre Mason. After the game Mason said, “We wanted to have the biggest turnaround in college football. I want to apologize for not fulfilling that. I tried to do everything to give us the best chance to win the national championship and I failed.” Nobody who watched the game would ever think of accepting this apology, because Mason is the last person on earth who should be apologizing for anything.

He ran for 195 yards, it seemed like anytime he touched the ball it was an automatic five-yard gain, and that was before he bounced through the FSU defense for the 37-yard fourth-quarter touchdown that almost gave Auburn the national championship. Dee Ford was unreal one more time for the Auburn defense and Marshall’s speed and passing caught FSU off guard, but nobody on either team was more impressive than Mason.

Jameis Winston. I still have no idea how to feel about Winston, but this much is certain: Instead of the inspirational folk hero everyone was in love with at the start of the year, Winston is now more just a football player who’s really good at football. Which was probably the right approach to take all along.

As a football player, he struggled for most of the game, and for a while it looked like we were going to spend the rest of the week wondering what went wrong with Winston. Then the comeback started, and he came to life, and we all remembered why he was the most incredible player in college football this year. After Mason scored that fourth-quarter touchdown, Winston got the ball back with 1:19 left; he went 6-of-7, took Florida State 80 yards down the field, and threw the game-winning touchdown in the BCS National Championship. In a bad game, it doesn’t get much better than everything Winston did at the end.

The End. I was back on the field for the final five minutes. This meant walking down just as FSU ran the kick back to take the lead, then watching its sideline recoil in horror when Auburn and Mason took it back, then standing at the 10-yard line as Winston won the game for good.

You couldn’t ask for a better ending to a college football season. FSU and Auburn both stepping up over and over again, Mason and Winston dominating, two fan bases losing their minds at once … We even had Tebow and Manziel on the sideline. Everything anyone loves about college football was right there, in the best stadium football has, with a finish as good as any championship game we’ve seen.

I’ll remember wives of coaches running down to the sideline in tears, the maroon confetti blasting onto the field, Red Lightning giving postgame interviews on the field, continuing his role as King of the Universe. And I’ll remember the glorious finale of the flawed and corrupt BCS as a reminder about college football in general. This whole sport has always been its own flawed, corrupt system. But when it works, there’s nothing better.

Nick Saban. The best memory from Monday night? Standing behind Saban on the sideline when FSU kicked off to Chris Davis with 10 seconds left. The same Chris Davis who ruined Saban’s national championship hopes a month ago. When FSU got him down on that last kickoff, Saban turned from the field shaking his head and let out an exaggerated, amused sigh.

Even the grumpiest human in the world couldn’t help but laugh and shake his head at the way all this played out. The perfect ending to a game sorta did that to everyone.

Filed Under: College Football, Andrew Sharp, Auburn, Florida State, Nick Saban, Tim Tebow

Andrew Sharp is a staff editor at Grantland.

Archive @ andrewsharp