There was a moment at the Georgia Dome Saturday night when James Franklin tossed a pass to a wide open Marcus Murphy in the end zone to give Missouri the lead in the third quarter, and Auburn’s hordes of fans fell silent and Missouri’s corner of the stadium erupted and it seemed like the black-and-gold Tigers just might win the SEC Championship Game.
It was the sixth lead change of the scintillating, back-and-forth game. Unfortunately for No. 5 Missouri (11-2), there would be a seventh and final lead change as No. 3 Auburn (12-1) surged ahead down the stretch for a 59-42 win.
This surprising season produced plenty of memories and successes for Missouri, but the Tigers would come up just short in their push for the school’s first football conference title since 1969.
The defense, so often a strength this year, was simply gashed, giving up 677 yards, including 545 on the ground. Missouri’s defense had often yielded some yards but then was at its best in the red zone. But on Saturday, Auburn entered the red zone seven times and scored a touchdown each time. Auburn running back Tre Mason romped for 304 yards, four yards shy of the school record.
So often Auburn players were running through massive lanes and baffling Missouri with fakes. I remember at least one occasion where a Missouri section of fans cheered an apparent tackle only to realize the real Auburn ballcarrier was still sprinting in the open field.
It was still a remarkable, successful season for Missouri. But this was clearly a missed opportunity to end that conference title drought, and with Ohio State losing later in the night, Missouri’s loss kept it from playing for a national title.
Coach Gary Pinkel fell to 0-3 in conference title games. He’ll be 62 when next season starts and should have more chances, but there are no guarantees, certainly not in the SEC.
Still, the Missouri’s 11 regular-season wins did secure the Tigers a nice bowl destination, against old Big 12 (and Big 8) foe Oklahoma State (10-2). The Cowboys had their own BCS bowl and conference title near miss, losing at home to rival Oklahoma on Saturday.
The Cotton Bowl (6:30 p.m. Jan. 3, FOX), played at the Dallas Cowboys’ massive AT&T Stadium, commonly called Jerry World in homage to Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, is a fine consolation prize. It’s a prestigious, historic bowl located in fertile recruiting ground and will be a part of the rotation of bowls hosting College Football Playoff games starting next year.
Missouri fans will recognize Oklahoma State’s high-powered offense, which is 15th in the nation in scoring, at 39.8 points per game.
This season had many parallels with Missouri’s famed 2007 season, with both years seeing the Tigers go 11-1 and then lose the conference title game to keep them out of the national championship game. Missouri capped the 2007 season with a Cotton Bowl win; in January they’ll try to do the same for this season.