ATLANTA — From last to first. From winless to Southeastern Conference champions. From dysfunction to destiny.
The story of Auburn's turnaround was too improbable to dream, too unbelievable to ever see coming. But with Gus Malzahn, an unstoppable running attack and a couple last-minute miracles, it happened. The question now: Is it over?
No. 3 Auburn wrapped up the SEC title against No. 5 Missouri on Saturday, 59-42, in a Georgia Dome painted with orange and blue and littered with the remnants of shattered records.
But in the wake of Auburn's celebration, there was uncertainty. Would Saturday's victory be enough for the 12-1 Tigers, with wins against two of the top 5 teams in the USA TODAY Sports Coaches Poll, to jump undefeated Ohio State or Florida State and play for the BCS title?
That, of course, will be the main storyline in the immediate aftermath of this game. But the subplot was pretty good, too.
A league known for conservative offense and brutal defense was turned on its head this season, ending with the ultimate victory by a team that piled up 677 yards and shamed a Missouri defense that knew exactly what was coming and still couldn't stop it.
In a wild game with huge momentum swings, long touchdown plays and very few moments of brilliance for either defense, Auburn could finally feel comfortable with 4:27 left when cornerback Chris Davis – otherwise known as the man who beat Alabama with a 109-yard field goal return last week – knocked down a pass to Dorial Green-Beckham on fourth down. With a 10-point lead, Auburn added its exclamation point on the next play as running back Tre Mason finished off the game of his life with a 13-yard touchdown.
Mason finished with 304 yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries, thrusting himself into the Heisman Trophy conversation. In total, Auburn's running game accounted for 545 yards – and it came against a Missouri team that hadn't given up more than 28 points this season and was ranked 14th in the country against the run.
Though Auburn couldn't be stopped, there were plenty of tense moments – especially with 11:09 remaining when Mason bullied into the end zone on fourth-and-goal from inside the 1-yard line. That put Auburn ahead 52-42, a lead that only seemed safe when it forced Missouri to go three-and-out on the next possession.
Up until that point, Missouri had an answer for everything Auburn threw at it in a breathless game played at warp speed.
A 10-yard touchdown pass from James Franklin to tailback Marcus Murphy gave Missouri a 34-31 lead with 5:35 remaining in the third quarter. Then Auburn pushed back in front just 2:14 later, popping big runs by Mason and a 42-yarder by Marshall for a 38-34 lead.
And just when it appeared Auburn was ready to roll toward its third SEC title of the last 10 years, taking a 45-34 lead, here came Missouri, needing just 22 seconds to respond with a touchdown and a two-point conversion to pull within a field goal.
It wasn't your classic SEC game, but for Auburn – which went 0-8 in the league last season under Gene Chizik – it couldn't have been a prettier picture.