Auburn didn't need any miracles this time around—just a historic rushing performance that tore up the Southeastern Conference record books.
Gus Malzahn's vaunted offense rushed for an SEC Championship Game record 545 yards and overcame a four-touchdown day from James Franklin, as Auburn defeated Missouri, 59-42, to capture its second conference title in four seasons.
As noted by Jon Solomon of The Birmingham News, Malzahn became just the third coach in SEC history to capture the conference in his first year:
Gus Malzahn is 3rd coach to win SEC title in 1st season, joining LSU’s Bernie Moore (1935) & Ole Miss’ John Vaught (1947).— Jon Solomon (@jonsol) December 8, 2013
The scene at the Georgia Dome was unlike any in SEC Championship Game history. The two sides broke the game's total scoring record in the third quarter, marched up and down the field against flummoxed defenses that did not come close to resembling the juggernauts on that side of the ball that the SEC has made its name on for years.
There were eight lead changes and more than 1,100 total yards, but it was Auburn's ground game that ruled the day.
Pounding the ball into an overmatched Missouri front seven, Auburn needed only 11 passes to score a dominant offensive performance. Malzahn's play-calling rarely deviated from a few basic calls, but still managed to dominate a Missouri defense that came into the weekend ranked No. 14 against the run.
In particular, running back Tre Mason entered the Heisman conversation with a record-setting day of his own. Mason rushed for a championship game record 304 yards and four touchdowns, carrying the ball a career-high 46 times on his way to the game's Most Valuable Player Award.
The junior back's final touchdown, a 13-yard scamper following a failed Missouri fourth-down conversion, capped off a dominant fourth quarter from Auburn. Ahead only 45-42 going into the final 15 minutes, Auburn worked its way down the field on an eight-play drive capped off by Mason to go ahead by 10 with 11:09 remaining.
Then the Auburn defense, which had been torched for the first three quarters, got two key stops at a time when Missouri's defense was in desperate need of some rest.
While the final quarter belonged to Auburn, the first three frames were as exciting as any game in the entire 2013 season. The two sides traded scoring drives for the entire first half, with neither Auburn nor Missouri able to score without the other driving back down the field.
Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall scored two first-quarter touchdowns. Marshall's nine-yard rush with 4:09 remaining in the first gave Auburn a 14-10 lead, but he allowed Missouri back into the game with a fumble returned for a touchdown to start the second
Not that Franklin and Co. needed all that much help. When Auburn wasn't giving Missouri a shortened field, Franklin was finding holes in the secondary. He connected with Dorial Green-Beckham from 28 yards out in the first quarter and 55 yards out with 18 seconds remaining in the first half, as Missouri went into the halftime break down 28-27.
Franklin struggled at points with accuracy and had trouble when Auburn brought pressure, but finished with 303 passing yards and three touchdowns. His 10-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Murphy with 5:35 left in the third quarter gave Missouri a 34-31 lead—the last time the No. 5 team in the country would lead in the game.
Auburn went right back up the field in six plays, with Corey Grant scoring for two yards out to put his side up for good.
The victory caps a storybook season for Malzahn and his team. Taking over a program that went 3-9 in 2012, including an 0-8 mark in the SEC, Auburn was looked at as being two or three years away from national contention. Instead, the orange and blue side of Alabama will patiently await the result of the Big Ten and ACC Championship Games. Should either Ohio State or Florida State lose, Auburn will slide into the national championship game.
And, after such a brilliant performance Saturday night, there will be some who clamor for Auburn to do so anyway.
Tre Mason (RB, Auburn): A
In a time where it seems like top contenders are treating the Heisman like the plague, Mason may have played himself into an invite to New York City. The Auburn running back was brilliant in the Tigers' two biggest games of the season, pounding Alabama for 164 yards last week and setting the SEC record on Saturday.
Read-option styles tend to inflate running back statistics, but you could tell watching Mason run that he'd excel in almost any system. He broke multiple runs to the outside that were originally designed inside the tackle, flashing impressive vision and patience to find holes and break long gains.
Missouri's defense, of course, helped matters by seemingly guessing rather than watching the ball and taking poor tackling angles. That said, you can't poke holes in Mason's performance. He was the most spectacular player on the field all night long
Nick Marshall (QB, Auburn): B-
The Tigers have zero interest in passing the ball. Gus Malzahn makes no bones about that fact in his play-calling. Marshall only throws when the down and distance requires it or when defenses load the box to the point it forces the team's hand.
So it was more than a little concerning to see Marshall failing to perform his two overarching tasks—protecting the ball and running the read-option—in the first half. Marshall fumbled three times, two of which went Missouri's way and one of which went for a touchdown. Against another team, those turnovers could have single-handedly caused Auburn to lose.
Luckily, Missouri's defense cratered on most other possessions and Marshall responded by not letting the mistakes get to him. The junior quarterback looked solid when forced to pass, ran the ball well when he wasn't handing it off to Mason, and by the fourth quarter was at the helm of an offense that was steamrolling its opponent.
James Franklin (QB, Missouri): B
If you learned one thing on Saturday, it's that watching Franklin isn't always pretty. Auburn defensive backs, who won't be having much fun in the film room, dropped multiple would-be Franklin interceptions in addition to the one they picked off.
Franklin, who had not completed less than 60 percent of his passes in a game all season, was at times wildly inaccurate. Passes sailed over receivers' heads, and oftentimes even the ones in a teammate's vicinity necessitated body contortion to pull in.
And yet, looking at Franklin's overall stats, you come away with what looks like an elite performance. The breakdowns in Auburn's coverage left massive yards-after-catch opportunities for Missouri, and wideouts like Green-Beckham responded by breaking huge gains.
Couple that with Franklin's prowess on the ground, and it's hard to quibble too much—even if the process was pretty ugly at times.
Dorial Green-Beckham (WR, Missouri): A
Even if you take away the first quarter Green-Beckham touchdown that should have been called back because replays showed that he bobbled the ball, the kid had a night to remember. At 6'6" and 225 pounds, Green-Beckham is a matchup nightmare for every team in the country. For an Auburn squad that was struggling just to stick in its basic coverages, covering the sophomore wideout proved to be an impossibility.
What's even more impressive is that Green-Beckham produced his big day while dealing with a shoulder injury. He went down in the first quarter with what was described as a shoulder strain, per ESPN SEC, but toughed it out after a quick trip back to the locker room.
A highly touted recruit coming out of high school, Green-Beckham is well on his way to living up to his prodigious hype. His two touchdowns on Saturday give him 12 for the season, and could set up for a huge junior campaign.
Even in the loss, Green-Beckham jumped off the screen.
Both teams will find out where they'll be playing on Sunday. Auburn are now favorites for a berth in the BCS National Championship after Ohio State's loss. Missouri's fate will be up to the whims of the pollsters. It's possible that they could unseat Alabama and move into the No. 4 spot, but if not, they'll be barred from the BCS bowl picture.
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