MVP Mason boosts Heisman profile in win over Mizzou

ATLANTA — Amid the convergence of blue-and-yellow streamers adorning his hair and uniform in the foreground and orange-clad Tigers supporters rejoicing in the background, Tre Mason’s thousand-watt post-game smile could be seen from just about any corner of the Georgia Dome.

A few minutes prior, the junior tailback had just put the finishing touches on a transcendent afternoon of football, rushing for 304 yards and four touchdowns in No. 3 Auburn’s 59-42 win over No. 5 Missouri in the 22nd SEC title game.

For good measure, Mason’s incredible outing also broke the rushing record for any SEC championship outing. But that little nugget kind of got lost in the shuffle on Saturday … since Mason had essentially eclipsed Justin Vincent’s 10-year-old mark of 201 rushing yards (with LSU) by halftime.

“(The offensive line) opened up some of the biggest holes I’ve ever seen, that I’ve ever run through,” gushed Mason, who missed out on Auburn’s school rushing record by three measly yards (Curtis Kuykendall’s single-game mark of 397 has endured since 1944).

On this day, Mason (the game’s MVP) and his Tiger teammates would not be denied, rolling up 677 total yards (545 rushing) and 59 points on a Missouri defense that hadn’t surrendered more than 28 points in their first 12 games.

It’s not like Mason leaned on two or three long carries to break the 300-yard threshold, either. His longest carry was a 52-yard scamper in the second quarter … and his four scores uniformly occurred from 13 yards or less.

All told, Mason toted the rock a staggering 46 times, easily a personal record.

“Tre really wanted the football,” said Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn in the post-game media scrum. “You could see it in his eyes — just keep giving him the ball and giving him the ball.

“… He was a real warrior our there (against Mizzou).”

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Forget about archaic edicts like Defense wins championships or Turnovers squander titles.

For this Auburn team, a 12-1 juggernaut that remains a serious contender for the BCS title game, the old-guard keys to victory simply don’t apply here.

Auburn yielded 22 first downs and 534 total yards to Missouri. And for the sixth time this season, Auburn didn’t win the turnover battle against an SEC foe.

In any other season, perhaps with any other program, the above nuggets would be preludes to disappointment. Instead, neither hindered Auburn’s magical transformation from a winless SEC team last year (prompting Gene Chizik’s dismissal) to a conference champion in 2013, with only one tiny resume smudge (a September road loss to LSU).

“That first team meeting, we’ve come a long way. Right, Tre?” said Malzahn to Mason during the media address.

Three years ago, Malzahn was the offensive coordinator on Auburn’s national championship team. This time around, he’s the cool, calm and collected caretaker of a once-battered program that’s just hitting its seasonal stride.

“We strained the dog out of our players in the spring,” recalled Malzahn, marveling over his team’s resolve from last year’s misery.

“We’re the SEC champs, we played the toughest schedule and we’re playing our best ball right now. Not every (national-title contender) is playing their best at the end of a season — but this group is.”

For the well-spoken Malzahn, that’s the closest thing he had to a direct-shot dig at Ohio State, which currently holds the No. 2 BCS ranking, just one slot ahead of Auburn (12-1).

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Perhaps Mason should get the lion’s share of blame for the lack of buzz surrounding his own Heisman candidacy.

After all, back in the 1980s, 90s and 2000s, if a stud absurdly averaged something like 175 rushing yards and two scores over his last five SEC games, he’d be a shoo-in for college football’s most prestigious award.

And yet, it’s quite possible that Mason might only have the fifth-highest Q rating inside the Auburn program — after Malzahn, quarterback Nick Marshall (233 total yards, two TDs vs. Missouri) and Ricardo Louis (click here for Absurd Ending #1) and Chris Davis (Absurd Ending #2), the main benefactors of the Tigers’ miracle-play-inspired victories over Georgia and Alabama, respectively.

The reasoning for Mason’s relative anonymity: After collecting big yardage on any random Auburn play, the junior tailback has a quirky desire of immediately carrying the ball again, roughly 2.3 seconds later … without any sideline rest or the temptation to play “on-field decoy” for a down or two.

It’s part of Auburn’s warp-speed mentality on offense.

As a result, Mason doesn’t leave broadcasters or press-box pundits much time to promote his emerging greatness. By comparison, whenever 1985 Heisman winner Bo Jackson galloped for 50-plus-yards as a collegiate star, the TV announcers typically had 20 seconds, between snaps, to extol Jackson’s virtues as a national treasure.

Let’s use Auburn’s second touchdown drive in the second quarter as an example:

On the first play, Mason sprinted to the right edge of a misdirection call, rolling for 52 yards. Without a break or even a few extra seconds to catch his breath, Mason then ran for seven, 17 and three yards — on three successive plays — punctuating the four-play, 79-yard scoring drive in 53 seconds flat.

“I never thought (about) fatigue. I’m not quitting until the clock reads zero,” says Mason, who’s not shy his personal and team ambitions for the next few weeks — a Heisman Trophy and a berth in the BCS title game.

“The Heisman’s just a goal of mine,” said Mason.

Getting an invite to New York City is one thing. Winning the coveted honor is quite another.

On the plus side, Mason has rushed for 1,317 yards and 18 touchdowns — strong numbers that include an otherworldly finishing kick of 868 rushing yards and 13 TDs in the final five games (all SEC victories).

On the down side, Mason didn’t collect 100 rushing yards in his first three games.

And historically speaking, late bloomers seldom have enough clout to get over the top.

“You’re looking at one of the top running backs in college football,” said Malzahn of Mason.