PASADENA -- Top-ranked Florida State won the national championship Monday night in pulsating fashion, defeating Auburn 34-31 at the Rose Bowl and sending the Bowl Championship Series out in style.

The Seminoles' epic victory capped an undefeated season and ended the Southeastern Conference's run of seven consecutive BCS titles as the controversial system gives way to a four-team playoff next season.

Florida State and Auburn combined for 31 points in the fourth quarter and three touchdowns in an astonishing final 4:31.

The late-game scoring frenzy started with a 100-yard kickoff return by FSU's Kermit Whitfield, featured a 37-yard touchdown run by Auburn's Tre Mason and ended with a 2-yard touchdown catch by Seminoles receiver Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds left.

"It went back and forth, but you've got to give them credit," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "They drove the field and found a way to win."

Florida State freshman quarterback Jameis Winston struggled early but found his Heisman Trophy-winning form when it mattered, completing 14 of 20 passes in the second half and leading the Seminoles on an 80-yard drive for the winning touchdown.

On his 20th birthday.

"I wanted to be in that situation because that's what great quarterbacks do," Winston said. "The Tom Bradys, Peyton Mannings, Drew Brees -- that's what they do.

"Any quarterback can go out there and perform when they're up 50-0 in the second quarter. I'm pretty sure I got more respect from my teammates and the people around me on the last drive than I got all year."


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The game was unlike many of its predecessors: In the 16 years of the BCS, half the title games were lopsided, and only a few went down to the wire.

The long layoff after the regular season also led to sloppy, grinding affairs. But the Tigers were sharp from the start Monday, and Florida State's problems were largely a function of Auburn's inspired play.

The Tigers, who entering the season were a 500-to-1 shot to win the national title, jumped to a 21-3 lead early in the second quarter. But Florida State's defense dug in while the offense searched for rhythm. After a series of breakdowns in the secondary, the Seminoles held Auburn (12-2) scoreless from late in the second quarter to late in the fourth.

The turning point for the Seminoles (14-0) came on a successful fake punt at their 40-yard line late in the second quarter. The deception kept alive a possession that eventually ended in the end zone, trimming Auburn's lead to 21-10.

"If they got it back and scored, the game could have been over before the half," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. "That's what we had to do to get momentum back."

Florida State's momentum continued in the third quarter. A field goal cut the deficit to eight points, and an 11-yard touchdown pass from Winston to fullback Chad Abram sliced it to one.

The Tigers answered with a long drive and short field goal, pushing their lead to 24-20.

A few seconds later, it was gone: Whitfield took the kickoff and dashed through a seam on the left side for a thunderous return that gave the Seminoles a 27-24 lead.

The Tigers, who survived several close calls during the season, didn't flinch under the pressure. They needed just three minutes to reclaim the lead on Mason's 37-yard touchdown run with 1:19 left.

But Florida State wasn't finished: Winston connected with Rashad Greene on a 49-yard catch-and-run that propelled the Seminoles into scoring range.

A pass interference penalty on Auburn in the end zone gave FSU possession at the 2 and set up Winston's game-winning touchdown to Benjamin.

"I knew it was going to be a touchdown as soon as I stepped to the line of scrimmage," Winston said. "Any time you get (Benjamin) one-on-one, it's a dream come true."

For more on college sports, see Jon Wilner's College Hotline at blogs.mercurynews.com/collegesports. Contact him at jwilner@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5716.

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