For having $50,000 swinging on the merciless whims of a college football game, Mark Skiba seemed almost too rational.
The money doesn’t really matter, he says.
Any number of grand could be riding on the next 30 minutes of the BCS national championship game, and it still wouldn’t be as valuable to him as witnessing his alma mater, the Auburn Tigers, become champions of college football for the second time in four seasons.
Maybe he was hiding his nerves, maybe he was hedging his heart if not his bet, maybe he was preemptively numbing the impending pain.
When Skiba called into the live video chat FOXSports.com was running during the national title game, he said the money was the third-most important thing to him at that moment.
First, and forever first, was Auburn winning a title.
Second was the shared experience of having put $100 on Auburn before the season at 500-1 odds to win the national title and then living through the thrill of Ricardo Louis against Georgia and Chris Davis in the Iron Bowl and the SEC championship and the trip to Pasadena.
“I’d probably give most of it away to people who really need it,” Skiba, 39, told FOXSports’ Clay Travis and Todd Fuhrman when he called in at halftime.
Auburn was leading 21-10 after a first half of pressuring Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston and breakdowns at the second level of FSU’s defense.
Skiba spent those first two quarters where he’d spend the last: buried in a Las Vegas sports book, the ticket in his pocket and ready to be cashed.
A small group of friends in his presence knew the kind of money pile he was potential guarding, but nobody else did. There was no crowd gathering ‘round, no loud good lucks, no table of champagne on ice nearby.
Sure, Skiba had a couple drinks to cut the legs of his nervous energy, he said, but he was not imbibing with the best of them at the book nor did he plan to. The thought of a nice annual salary suddenly being dumped into his pocket wasn’t eating at him in the way it might gnaw at nearly everyone else in that book.
If he could give all $50,000 up at halftime to guarantee an Auburn victory, he said he would.
Another title for his team and a fifth straight for his state was worth more than that.
So here Skiba was, sitting in a Vegas book, watching his Tigers and tweeting with them, his energy dispersing through his feed in minimal-word machine gun bursts.
At 4:42 remaining in the fourth quarter, Auburn kicked a field goal to go up 24-20. If the Tigers could stop Winston from leading one final touchdown drive, they’d win.
That seems like a simple yes, at least, or more likely a highly disguised, “OH GOD $%!@# YES!!”
One of the two.
But before Skiba can cash out, there’s still 1:19 to go, and Florida State had the nation’s best player with two timeouts remaining against a defense that ranked 95th in the country this season in yards per play (5.96).
For most of the night, Florida State wasn’t showing the quick-strike offense that had obliterated every opponent it faced in 2013.
Winston completed only six of 15 passes in the first half for 62 yards. Kelvin Benjamin, a 6-foot-5 beast who had 957 yards receiving and 14 TDs entering the national championship, didn’t record a catch in the first 30 minutes.
Auburn went after Winston with a mix of pressures, forcing him out of the pocket and into risky throws.
But now, as the minutes ticked down and Winston had found his rhythm with Benjamin and Rashad Greene, 1:19 and two timeouts seemed like plenty of time to score, particularly if Whitfield brought the ensuing kick out and gave the Noles good field position.
Starting at FSU’s 20, Winston begins the drive with a pass to Greene for eight yards and then hits him again for 49 up the right side, bursting to the Auburn 23-yard line with a minute left and both timeouts still available.
Auburn knows miracles, of course, but the defensive kind?
Skiba would probably like his odds better if Davis was returning a kick or Nick Marshall was throwing a prayer into triple coverage and hoping an overzealous defensive back tipped it up instead of knocking it down.
But no, Auburn has to handle this one on its own.
After a pass interference penalty gives FSU first-and-goal at the 2-yard line with 14 seconds remaining, everyone knows what’s coming. Not a Freeman run, not a Winston keeper, nothing out of the power playbook.
A one-on-one ball to Benjamin – maybe the most impossible play to defend in college football – connects.
Oh well. It was fun while it lasted. Peace, love and War Eagle.
After a season of senseless improbabilities turning up true for the Tigers, this turned out to be too much.
Florida State 34, Auburn 31.
Skiba would not win his $50,000, and the Tigers would not win the national championship. After a first half spent out of sync, Winston finished 20 of 35 for 237 yards and two touchdowns. He was not brilliant, nor anything close, but he was good enough with 1:19 and a season on the line.
Auburn will return to The Plains with something left on the table for 2014. It’ll likely lose Mason to the draft, but Marshall will be back as a senior behind center.
The defense, in its second season under Ellis Johnson, should improve. After a 3-9 season a year ago, these are good days in that loveliest of villages.
He’ll be fine.
One last thing – I caught FSU at Even money early in the game for $2K. So that should make some of you feel better 😉