ATLANTA - The Auburn Tigers completed their remarkable Southeastern Conference worst-to-first journey Saturday inside the Georgia Dome, and they did so emphatically.
Showing no hangover effects from the previous week's emotional Iron Bowl win over top-ranked Alabama, the West champion Tigers unleashed an offensive attack never before witnessed in the league's football championship game. Led by junior tailback Tre Mason's 304 yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries, No. 3 Auburn racked up 677 yards in a 59-42 win over No. 5 Missouri.
Auburn won its eighth Southeastern Conference championship and its third since 2004, more than any other league member in the past decade, but this was by far the most unlikely after last season's team bottomed out at 3-9.
"We've come a long way since that first team meeting," Auburn's Gus Malzahn said after becoming the first coach since Ole Miss's Johnny Vaught in 1947 to win the SEC in his first year. "It's been one of the more unique experiences I've ever been a part of. Our staff deserves a lot of credit, because they came in and developed a lot of relationships with our players. We developed trust with each other and had some growing pains and some tough times, but this bunch came together and found a way.
"We're playing our best football right now."
With the victory, Auburn tied the 2000 Hawaii team for the biggest single-season turnaround in NCAA, but Malzahn's Tigers (12-1) will get a chance to have that record all to themselves. Where that will occur should be in the BCS title game, as Auburn got its wish that either No. 1 Florida State or No. 2 Ohio State would stumble Saturday night.
Florida State routed Duke 45-7 in the ACC title game, but Ohio State lost 34-24 to Michigan State in the Big Ten showdown.
"We've played the toughest schedule of any of the teams up there, and we're playing our best football," Malzahn said. "A lot of teams aren't getting better each week. This team is."
And Mason certainly is.
The 5-foot-10, 196-pounder from Palm Beach set a new career high in the first half, when he amassed 195 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries. With Auburn leading 21-20 midway through the second quarter, Mason had runs of 52, 7, 17 and 3 yards to account for a four-play, 79-yard scoring drive.
"I expected him to be a great player, but you let a guy go through gaps like that at full speed and you've got problems," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said after his Tigers slipped to 11-2. "You're asking your safeties and other people to make plays with him in space, and that's difficult."
Said Mason: "Our guys opened up some of the biggest holes I've ever seen and I've ever run through."
Mason was not in the Heisman Trophy conversation entering Saturday, but his 304-yard total gives him 1,621 yards this season. His 22 rushing touchdowns top the single-season charts at a program that has produced Bo Jackson and Cam Newton.
"You're looking at one of the top running backs in all of college football, and he proved it again today," Malzahn said. "Usually the best players on the best teams have a chance at it, and you're looking at one of those guys right here."
Missouri allowed just 119.1 rushing yards a game before yielding 545 to Auburn. Backup tailback Cameron Artis-Payne briefly replaced Mason late in the third quarter and had two carries for 36 yards and a touchdown, while speed threats Corey Grant and Ricardo Louis combined on eight carries for 108 yards.
When he wasn't completing 9 of 11 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown, Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall was rushing 16 times for 101 yards and a score.
"We just lined up and pounded it straight down their throats," Marshall said. "We just did what we do best. We hit the seems and made plays. If you can't stop us, then you're not going to like it."
Auburn led 28-27 at halftime, when the two teams combined for 30 first downs and 680 total yards. Missouri came out sharp in the third quarter and took a 34-31 lead on a 10-yard pass from James Franklin to Marcus Murphy at the 5:35 mark, but Auburn ended the game on a 28-8 run.
Artis-Payne's 15-yard touchdown gave Auburn its first double-digit lead at 45-34 with 31 seconds left in the third quarter, and Mason's 13-yard score with 4:22 remaining accounted for the game's final points. Saturday was the seventh time this season that Auburn's defense pitched a fourth-quarter shutout.
"In the fourth quarter, our guys are playing their best ball," Malzahn said.
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.