ATLANTA — “Runner up” might as well have been written on the tops of No. 5 Missouri’s brand new helmets.
Trailing by 10 from his own 13 yard-line, senior quarterback James Franklin fired a slant on fourth down to sophomore receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. He missed his target.
Brand new black matte helmets on the Tigers’ heads dropped. “Runner up” would have been easy to read.
“They're crushed,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said of his players. “I mean, they are absolutely crushed. And that's good. I mean, that's okay. They're used to winning, and this game was real important to them."
Auburn tailback Tre Mason would march into the endzone for his fourth touchdown of the day a play later.
“Let's seal the deal,” Mason said. “The game's not over, but we can find a way to make it be over. Put the nail in the coffin.”
Missouri drove 62 yards on the ensuing possession and on fourth-and-goal from the 7 yard-line, Franklin lofted one more desperation heave for Green-Beckham. That too fell incomplete. Blue and orange confetti leaked from the rafters.
“They’re just plays we have to make,” Green-Beckham said.
Mason ran for six, then eight more yards on the next two plays. He finished with 304 yards rushing, none more gratifying, he said, than those last two carries.
“It's just a blessing,” he said. “Words can't even describe how I feel.”
Missouri’s side, too, was hard for words.
“It’s frustrating because this was one of the goals for our team,” Franklin said. “This was one of the big ones, to win the championship, and we didn’t. We did some things this year, but we wanted to win this one.”
Sophomore center Evan Boehm was more blunt.
“I think everyone knows what it feels like,” he said. “It’s not a good feeling. There’s nothing you can do about it now.”
How both Missouri and Auburn made it to the Georgia Dome is an improbable tale. Auburn went winless in the conference in 2012. Missouri mustered its only conference wins against Kentucky and Tennessee.
Auburn had been to bowl games 10 of the past 11 years and won a BCS National Championship in that span. Missouri’s 2012 campaign snapped an eight-year bowl streak.
Auburn fired coach Gene Chizik. Pinkel was in the hot seat. Fortunes turned in 2013 when Auburn hired coach Gus Malzahn and Pinkel’s squad won its first seven games.
“I was excited about our program a year ago,” Pinkel said. “I'm excited to keep building (the program).”
Malzahn said the aura around Auburn’s program changed significantly since the beginning of the year.
“That first team meeting, we came a long way, Tre, didn't we?” he asked, grinning. “It's been one of the more unique experiences I've ever been a part of.”