ATLANTA — Avery Young grabbed the SEC placard, holding it high in the air for all to see.
Dameyune Craig jumped into the arms of Greg Robinson, elation clearly defined across his face.
As the confetti streamed down from the rafters to the Georgia Dome turf, Gabe Wright kept a promise to himself, making snow angels among the bits of yellow, blue and white bits of paper. When he got up, he headed toward the stands, leaping into the seats to celebrate with exultant Auburn fans.
And their joy was for good reason, as No. 3 Auburn found itself at the pinnacle of the SEC on Saturday, dismissing Missouri 59-42 in the highest-scoring contest in SEC Championship game history.
But Auburn (12-1) is aiming for more than just being conference champions. Thanks to Michigan State dropping Ohio State 34-24 in the Big Ten Championship game Saturday night, Auburn's path to the BCS national title game — and a matchup against top-ranked Florida State, which beat Duke 45-7 in the ACC Championship game Saturday — opened up.
Jay Prosch was still in a state of shock.
Asked what was going through his mind, he drew a blank. Auburn's senior fullback said the magnitude of his team's turnaround — from a 3-9 overall showing (and an 0-8 mark in the SEC) last season to conference kings one season later — was too much to take in at once.
"I haven't really processed it all yet," Prosch said when he was finally able to put his thoughts into words. "This full season has been perfect. I couldn't ask for anything more."
Little more could have been asked of Tre Mason.
As teammate Jermaine Whitehead recalled, Auburn’s junior running back stalked around the locker room at halftime, talking to every person he came across. To each of them, Mason delivered one simple message: just keep feeding him the ball. Despite carrying 23 times in the first 30 minutes of Saturday night’s game, he wanted more.
Auburn was more than happy to cede to his wishes, giving Mason the ball another 23 times in the second half.
And the records were plentiful.
Forty-six carries, the most in school history in a single game — and just one off Herschel Walker’s SEC record. Three hundred and four rushing yards and four touchdowns, both SEC Championship game bests. Twenty-two rushing touchdowns, which surpassed Cam Newton’s 2010 tally for the most by an Auburn player in a single campaign.
After all his work was done, though, the questions were obvious: Did one carry stand above the rest? Did he ever stop to think about his hefty workload.
Not for a second, he said.
“We just wanted to keep fighting till the end,” Mason said. “Find a way to put a nail in the coffin, as we say. We've got to finish the game. We didn't get too ahead of ourselves. We played great when the clock was winding down, and our team found a win.”
His final touchdown, which came with 4:22 remaining, did just that. But ever the team player, Mason credited everyone but himself for the score.
“It was a team effort,” he said. “Jay Prosch blocking, our O-line, our receivers — everybody wanting to get in the end zone. We believed and found a way to stretch it out right there where we could kind of enjoy that last couple of minutes.”
As it turned out, Auburn needed nearly every single point and yard Mason was good for.
Of course, Mason wasn’t the only player who found success running the ball against Missouri (11-2).
Coming into the game with the second-best rushing defense in the SEC, No. 5 Missouri looked anything but that caliber Saturday night. Aside from Mason’s 304 yards, Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall ran for 101 yards and a touchdown, while another junior running back, Corey Grant, ran for 65 yards and a touchdown on just five carries.
In sum, Auburn ran for 545 yards, the second-most in the school’s annals.
While Auburn scored eight touchdowns — another SEC Championship game record, bettering the seven it had in the 2010 contest — Missouri was no slouch itself. Missouri put five touchdowns on the board against Auburn’s defense, and held leads at four different points in the game.
Even after Mason’s third score extended the advantage to 52-42 with 11:09 to play, Gus Malzahn knew it would be crazy to think the game was anywhere close to being over.
“The way games have ended the last few weeks, we didn't want to take anything for granted,” Auburn’s head coach said. “We're up by 10, and we just (had to) keep playing. Just keep fighting, keep playing. So really that didn't really go through my mind other than, ‘Hey, let's be ready if they score again.' I mean, they're a great team. They're a top five team. They're one of the better teams we played all year.”
Not surprisingly, though, Mason’s electric performance led to talk of the Heisman Trophy.
He didn’t dispute that it’s a personal goal, something he has thought about for as long as he can remember.
“Everyone has goals of their own,” he said. “It was always a dream, you know, growing up, wanting to win the Heisman. I'm sure that every kid that played football, that's one of their dreams.”
And he had at least one person willing to stump for his candidacy: the person sitting beside him at the postgame podium.
“You're looking at one of the top running backs in 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.”