As it has so many times during its much-maligned 16-year run, the BCS managed to sort things out over the closing month of the regular season and, finally, on championship weekend.
One by one, all but one of the major unbeatens fell out out of the national-title chase. First it was Baylor, then Alabama. And Saturday night in the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis, Ohio State removed whatever gray area remained by losing to Michigan State. Which meant America no longer had to debate whether a one-loss SEC champion should get in over an unbeaten Big Ten champ that had played a more user-friendly schedule.
One week after it knocked off top-ranked Alabama on a last play that'll be replayed forever, Auburn did what it had to by getting past once-beaten Missouri in the SEC final in Atlanta, 59-42. Florida State, as expected, also took care of its business in the ACC final in Charlotte, N.C., 45-7 over four-touchdown underdog Duke.
But Ohio State, which hadn't lost since 2011, couldn't beat the highest-ranked team it had faced in the last two seasons. The No. 10 Spartans scored the first 17 points, gave up the next 24 and then got the last 17. So they will go to the Rose Bowl for the first time in a quarter-century. Their opponent is Stanford, which took the Pac-12 by rolling Arizona State for the second time this season.
The Cardinal will be going there in back-to-back years for the first time in just over 4 decades. This will be its fourth straight BCS bowl, the longest current streak. The teams have played once since 1962 (Sun Bowl in '96).
The FSU-Auburn matchup didn't became official until last night's final BCS show on ESPN. Next year there will be a four-team playoff, and a 13-person Selection Committee can try to figure it all out. If the new system was being used now they would have to choose between MSU and Stanford, which had one more loss but a much tougher sked in the second-best conference. Or perhaps even Baylor, which won the Big 12 when Oklahoma State lost to Oklahoma.
But when it comes to who should meet in Pasadena on Jan. 6, there's really no question which two have the best argument.
And hasn't the last month felt like a playoff anyway?
Maybe you really can't have a title game without an SEC team. The conference has won the last seven, having never lost in one. Auburn won 3 years ago with Cam Newton. These Tigers are an even better story line, after not winning an SEC game in 2012. But first-year coach Gus Malzahn, their offensive coordinator in 2010, turned them into the most feared running team in FBS. And maybe destiny's on their side, since they also beat Georgia on Nov. 16 on a long tipped desperation pass with 25 seconds to go.
You can question Florida State's sked but not its dominance, which was defined by that 51-14 romp at then-No. 3 Clemson in mid-October. The Seminoles will have the Heisman Trophy winner in freshman quarterback Jameis Winston, whose legal issues are in the past tense. He'll become the 10th Heisman guy to play in a BCS final. The others have gone 3-6. But the last two, both from the SEC (Alabama's Mark Ingram in 2009 and Newton), added a ring to their hardware. FSU's Chris Weinke, in 2000, was among those who didn't.
FSU coach Jimbo Fisher is a former Auburn assistant. Winston is from Alabama.
FSU played in the first three BCS finals, winning the middle one in 1999 by beating Virginia Tech and freshman Michael Vick. For the fourth time it'll be favored, right now by about a touchdown.
"We feel we're the best team in college football," said Tre Johnson, who ran for 304 against Missouri after getting 164 in the 'Bama game. "We've got to continue to prove it."
Four of Auburn's wins were decided in the final 80 seconds.
But what other squad beat two top-five teams in as many weeks, or six that were in the Top 25 at the time, including a 6 and 7? And still, it nearly wasn't enough. But the Tigers got the help they needed. There should be a lot of Christmas cards headed East Lansing's way.
The SEC won the last seven finals by 27, 14, 10, 16, 3, 21 and 28. The 21 came against another SEC team. The 3 was by Auburn.
The teams have met 18 times, but not since 1990. Auburn leads, 13-4-1. One was in a bowl, the 1989 Sugar, which FSU won 13-7.
In a perfect world, the matchup most everyone wanted was FSU-Alabama. The BCS was never meant to be flawless, merely better than what was in place before. This time it worked out right. More often than not, despite the criticism, it did. If OSU hadn't cooperated at the end someone would have been, well, upset. Wouldn't be the first time. Next year it'll just be the so-called fifth-best team doing the squawking instead of the third.
If you really want to know what's wrong with the bowl thing, ask why Rutgers is going to play Notre Dame in Yankee Stadium even though it didn't beat anyone who finished with a winning record. Details.
As a consolation prize, Ohio State will get Clemson in the Orange. It's OSU's 10th BCS bowl, a record. You think that matters today in Columbus? The one previous meeting became infamous when Woody Hayes threw a punch at Clemson's Charlie Bauman and got fired. The Tigers went to their first BCS bowl two years ago and gave up 70 in Miami to West Virginia.
In the other prelims, the Sugar got two marquee names in Alabama and Oklahoma. It's just the fifth meeting. Alabama's lone win was in the first, in the 1963 Orange. They tied 7 years later in the Astro-Bluebonnet.
And in the Fiesta it's Baylor-Central Florida, both making their BCS bowl debuts. They've never played.
The biggest loser? Well, Oregon finished 10th in the final standings, just ahead of Oklahoma and Clemson. But the Ducks had to settle for the Alamo Bowl against Texas.
Missouri and South Carolina, at 8 and 9, couldn't get picked because no conference can have more than two. It's the third straight year that SC finished in the top 10 but was left out.