Before Saturday's game, Tre Mason had a message for his Auburn teammates.
"Stay motivated. Stay humble. Stay hungry," Mason told them. "I'm not leaving here without an SEC championship."
Mason and the Tigers left the Georgia Dome with a 59-42 victory over Missouri to claim the SEC championship just one year after being winless in the conference. Mason left with rushing records that might never be broken -- 46 carries, 304 yards.
Put it in perspective. Just a year ago, Alabama set the SEC championship game TEAM record with 360 yards rushing. Mason nearly eclipsed that on his own.
Well, statistically speaking, on his own. Mason went out of his way to praise his teammates and his coach, Gus Malzahn, who happened to be sitting next to him at the postgame interview table.
"I don't want to credit myself," Mason said. "It was a team effort. Jay Prosch (fullback) had some great blocks. The offensive line also blocked well."
Even though it's been a full year since the Tigers were winless in the SEC, the pain of that dismal season was still fresh throughout the season and even throughout Saturday's game. It stayed in the back of Mason's mind that he never wanted to feel that pain again.
"We used last season as motivation," Mason said.
So even as the carries mounted up, Mason kept asking for the ball. Demanding it, in fact.
"I was getting a little worried there," said Malzahn. "But we kept giving it to him. You could see he had that look in his eye."
Mason ripped off a 52-yard run and hardly seemed winded. Most players would go to the sideline for a breather. Mason bounced up and rushed back for the next play in Auburn's no-huddle and quick huddle system.
"He's just so strong," said Prosch. "They hit him and he keeps going. Sometimes he'll run into my back and just bounce off and keep going."
OK, so he did once playfully strike the Heisman pose on the sideline as the yardage mounted up. But that was more in fun, something to celebrate with his teammates. When asked about it afterward, Mason acknowledged that he'd love to be considered. But he stopped well short of campaigning.
"Growing up, it's always been a dream of mine."
"Let me say this," Malzahn added. "He's one of the best running backs in the country. It usually goes to the best player on one of the best teams in the country."
Mason received a hug after the game from Bo Jackson, who told him he was proud of him. Mason's performance drew comparisons to Cam Newton, the MVP in Auburn's 2010 SEC Championship Game.
"It's just a blessing," Mason said. "To be put in the same conversation with those guys, it's just a blessing from above."
Mason wants more. If nothing else, the strong finish might push Mason into the Heisman discussion next season. For now, all he's concerned about is winning one more game, preferably in the national championship game. At the worst, the Tigers are assured of a BCS bowl berth as the SEC champions. But they left the Georgia Dome hoping that regardless of the outcomes of the Florida State-Duke and Ohio State-Michigan State games, they had done enough to sway voters when the national championship matchup is announced today.
For a while in the fourth quarter, it looked like Mason was gassed. But when Missouri gave the ball back to Auburn at the 13 after being stopped on fourth down, Mason dug down even deeper. He burst through the line and scored the Tigers' final touchdown.
Malzahn was asked to put Mason's performance in historic perspective.
"I think it says he's one of the best players to ever wear an Auburn helmet."
-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org