ATLANTA — A Southeastern Conference team has won the BCS National Championship for seven straight years. This season, that streak could come to a close.
Conference champion Auburn would be the SEC’s representative, but after its win Friday, it could still be on the outside looking in at the championship picture.
Either No. 1 Florida State of the Atlantic Coast Conference or No. 2 Ohio State of the Big 10 Conference would have to lose Saturday against No. 20 Duke or No. 10 Michigan State, respectively, for third-ranked Auburn to jump into the mix.
Both AU coach Gus Malzahn and Missouri coach Gary Pinkel think Auburn has earned its place in the contest, regardless of the night’s remaining outcomes.
“We're the SEC champ,” Malzahn said. “I believe we won (the national championship) the last seven years. We play the toughest schedule of any of the teams there, and we're playing our best football. A lot of teams aren't getting better each week. This team is.”
“I think it certainly has to be considered without question,” Pinkel said. “I would hope that it is.”
Malzahn’s Auburn team defeated No. 5 Missouri (11-2, 7-2 SEC) for the conference title, 59-42, in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome on Saturday.
AU stacked 677 yards of total offense on MU and scored eight touchdowns, four of which came from tailback Tre Mason, who ran for 304 yards himself.
Missouri had the nation’s 14th best rushing defense coming into the game. Now, analysts are saying Mason — who ran for 164 yards against then No. 1 Alabama a week ago — is a Heisman Trophy contender.
“This is a personal goal of mine,” Mason said. “Everyone has goals of their own. It was always a dream, you know, growing up, wanting to win the Heisman.”
Malzahn is more blunt.
“You're looking at one of the top running backs in college football, and he proved it again today,” Malzahn said. “So usually, the best players on the best teams have a chance at it, and you're looking at one of those guys right here.”
Malzahn’s up-tempo, run-heavy offense put both the blue and orange and Mason on the national stage.
Predicated on a zone-read option, quarterback Nick Marshall (who rushed for 115 yards and a touchdown) and Mason are generally the offense’s only playmakers.
Mason said that means AU’s offensive line is the offense’s true bread-winner and Malzahn’s system is a good place for a running back to go to work.
“Those guys open up some of the biggest holes that I've ever seen, that I've ever ran through,” Mason said. “This is a blessing to have those guys in front of me, you know, the players around me, and having a coach like coach Malzahn.
Auburn attempted just 11 passes on the game and rushed 70 times. Forty-six of those rushes went to Mason. War Eagle ran 10 more plays than Missouri and possessed the ball nine minutes more.
“There's a real frustration that comes over you on defense when they're coming after you over and over and over again,” Pinkel said. “We had trouble stopping it, obviously, and couldn't get it fixed.”