ATLANTA -- Just last weekend, when many thought it couldn’t be done, Auburn ran for 296 yards against the SEC’s top rushing defense in a thrilling 34-28 Iron Bowl victory over Alabama. On Saturday against Missouri, which entered the game with the conference’s second-ranked rushing defense, Auburn’s ground game was even more impressive -- and the prize was an SEC championship.
Tailback Tre Mason rushed for SEC title game records 303 yards and four touchdowns on 45 carries, and No. 3 Auburn beat No. 5 Missouri 59-42 in a shootout at the Georgia Dome. Auburn gained 676 yards of total offense, including 544 on the ground, to clinch a BCS bowl berth and keep its hopes for a spot in the national title game alive.
Auburn did not need a magical finish on Saturday, a departure from the last two weeks when the Tigers defeated both Georgia and Alabama on miraculous, last-second plays. Mizzou simply ran out of gas in the fourth quarter of a game in which both teams moved the ball at will.
The fireworks started early. Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to Sammie Coates midway through the first quarter, and Missouri responded with a 28-yard scoring strike of its own, from quarterback James Franklin to Dorial Green-Beckham (who had six catches for 144 yards and two touchdowns) on the ensuing possession. With four minutes left in the opening quarter, Marshall scored on a nine-yard run to push Auburn's lead to 14-10.
The second quarter brought more of the same, though Mizzou got some points from its defense. Tigers cornerback E.J. Gaines recovered a Marshall fumble and returned it 11 yards for a touchdown to give coach Gary Pinkel's team a 17-14 lead and some much-needed momentum. But Auburn responded with two long drives that ended with touchdown runs by Mason, and went into the locker room ahead 28-27.
The combined 55 first-half points set an SEC Championship Game record, besting the previous mark of 42 set by Auburn and South Carolina in 2010. Mason -- who has suddenly emerged as a dark-horse Heisman Trophy contender -- and Auburn ripped through Missouri for 286 rushing yards before the break.
After a back-and-forth third quarter that ended with Auburn leading 45-42, the Tigers began to pull away in the fourth. With less than five minutes to play, Missouri trailed 52-42 and went for it on a critical fourth-and-one from its own 13-yard line. Auburn cornerback Chris Davis -- yes, that Chris Davis -- batted down Franklin's pass to force a turnover on downs; on the very next play, Mason sprinted into the end zone to lock up the title.
Mizzou's previously stout defense did not seem to present much of a challenge to Auburn. Before Saturday, Missouri hadn't allowed more than 28 points in a game all season. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn's offense scored that many in the game's first 30 minutes, and finished with a staggering 59.
Now, Auburn must sit and wait. If both top-ranked Florida State and No. 2 Ohio State win their respective conference championship games, the debate will rage over whether the one-loss Tigers deserve to jump either program into the BCS title game. But for Auburn, simply being in that conversation is remarkable. No turnaround story this season has been more impressive than the Tigers', as Malzahn has completely transformed a team that went 3-9 (0-8 in the SEC) in 2012. It took a lot of grit and a little bit of magic, but Auburn has once again ascended to the top of the SEC.