ATLANTA (AP) Missouri proved it’s SEC worthy in only its second year in the league.
The Tigers just weren’t ready for Auburn’s up-tempo running game, and that was a devastating realization with the Southeastern Conference championship on the line.
James Franklin passed for 303 yards and three touchdowns and No. 5 Missouri kept pace with No. 3 Auburn through three quarters before falling 59-42 in a wild SEC title game on Saturday.
The quarterback also ran for a touchdown but Missouri couldn’t match the relentless Auburn offense led by Tre Mason’s 304 yards rushing and four touchdowns.
Coach Gary Pinkel said Missouri struggled to contain quarterback Nick Marshall’s option reads and leadership in Auburn’s fast-paced, no-huddle attack.
“I think what happens is they try to really get going fast, get the fastball rolling, and your defense gets a little frustrated because you’re giving up 10 yards, nine yards,” Pinkel said. “And then guess what? You start making mistakes. You don’t get the gaps. You don’t get to do things you need to do. That’s just not a very good situation to be in.”
Asked what it takes to stop Auburn, Pinkel said. “Everybody has problems with it. You know what, I’m the wrong person to ask because I’d have stopped it if I could have.”
Missouri trailed only 45-42 entering the fourth quarter.
The Tigers (11-2) made a big improvement from a 5-7 finish in 2012.
“They’re a great offense and we’re a great offense and they put everything together and we came up a little short,” said running back Henry Josey, who rushed for 123 yards, including a 65-yarder, on only nine carries.
Missouri is expected to land in a New Year’s Day bowl. The Capital One, Cotton and Outback games are possible destinations. But the promise of a high-profile bowl didn’t lift the somber postgame mood of the Missouri players.
“They’re crushed,” said Pinkel of his players. “I mean, they are absolutely crushed. And that’s good. I mean, that’s OK. They’re used to winning, and this game was real important to them. Hopefully, we get in the position again, and we’ll play better. Maybe we’ll handle it a little bit better.”
The pace of the game was a surprise, especially for a Missouri defense that ranked second in the SEC with its average of 19.4 points allowed. Auburn set SEC Championship Game records with 677 total yards and 545 yards rushing.
“We went out and played the same way we’ve been playing all year,” said defensive end Kony Ealy, who had a sack and two forced fumbles in the first half.
“Our game plan was great. The coaches did a great job of preparing us for the game. It’s on us. When it’s all said and done, we didn’t go out and play to the best of our ability.”
Auburn (12-1) kept alive its hopes of playing for the national championship.
“We deserve it,” said Auburn receiver Sammie Coates. “We won the SEC championship. What else do you want us to do?”
Mason had scoring runs of 7, 3 and 1 yards before bursting up the middle on a 13-yard TD that clinched the victory with 4:22 remaining.
Mason had 46 carries and was selected the game’s MVP.
“You’re looking at one of the top running backs in college football,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “He was a warrior today. Unbelievable.”
Missouri’s offense also put up impressive numbers, including 534 total yards. Dorial Green-Beckham was Franklin’s top target with six receptions for 144 yards and two touchdowns.
It wasn’t nearly enough against Auburn’s hurry-up spread offense.
Before Saturday, the most yards rushing allowed by Missouri was 184 in last week’s win over 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M.
The lead changed hands five times before Auburn eased ahead 28-20 on a lightning-quick 79-yard drive, needing only four plays and 53 seconds to set up Mason’s 3-yard scoring run.
Auburn had a chance to seize control, forcing a Missouri punt and hurrying back to its end of the field. After Mason was stuffed for no gain, Auburn curiously started throwing the ball. Two screens to Sammie Coates resulted in a loss of 5 yards total, and Auburn was called for holding on a deep throw. The Tigers wound up punting, giving Missouri one more chance to pull closer with a little over a minute remaining before halftime.
Franklin took advantage. He guided Missouri to the Auburn 45 before going deep, hitting Green-Beckham in stride for a 55-yard touchdown with 18 seconds remaining. Missouri kicked the extra point and trailed 28-27 at the break.