Tre Mason helps carry Auburn to SEC title

ATLANTA -- In the minutes that Tre Mason spent inside Auburn's locker room before Saturday's SEC championship game, he felt as though he was in some sort of a trance. He was fully aware of where he was and what was about to transpire, but his focus was heightened.

He wasn't jittery or anxious. He possessed a calm demeanor, but spoke with power when he finally stood in front of his teammates and told them the plan: They weren't leaving Atlanta without rings.

"I had the eye of the tiger," Mason said.

Once he stepped on the field, Mason had the strength, agility and heart of one, too, as he sliced and diced his way through Missouri's top-ranked rush defense to carry No. 3 Auburn (12-1, 7-1 SEC) to a 59-42 SEC championship victory.

Mason, who has quietly pummeled SEC defenses all season, not only left Atlanta with dreams of bling and a trophy, he left with a few records and some legitimate Heisman Trophy buzz after registering a career-high 304 yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries. The game's MVP set the SEC championship-game record for rushing yards and attempts, while leaving the rest of the SEC's running backs in his dust with a league-high 1,621 yards and a school-record 22 touchdowns on the season.

"Tre told me he was going to do that and he did," receiver Ricardo Louis said. "He's the greatest player here. He's the best running back in the nation."

Mason couldn't be stopped by a defense that entered the game allowing just 119 rushing yards per contest. Before Saturday, fifth-ranked Missouri (11-2, 7-1) hadn't allowed a team to rush for more than 184 yards or two touchdowns in a single game.

By halftime, Mason had 195 yards, two touchdowns and was averaging a bruising 8.5 yards per carry. With 14 minutes, 26 seconds remaining in the third quarter, his 12-yard, first-down run to Auburn's 37-yard line that gutted the middle of Mizzou's defense pushed him past LSU's Justin Vincent's SEC championship-game record of 201 rushing yards (2003).

With Mizzou worried about athletic quarterback Nick Marshall and that deceptive read-option, Mason barreled his way through a line that featured way too much three-man personnel. He did most of his damage through the middle of the field, churning his legs and exploiting truck-sized holes made by his offensive line, and finished the game with just 2 negative yards. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Mason gained 182 yards inside the tackles, the most by an SEC player this season. Mason also gained 5 yards past the line of scrimmage without being contacted on 14 of his 34 carries inside the tackles. When he made his way to the edge, he embarrassed Mizzou's ends, linebackers and defensive backs with speed that left them panting and strength that left their measly arm tackles futile.

It was only fitting that he sealed the game with a feisty 13-yard touchdown run that carried a few Mizzou defenders into the end zone with 4:22 remaining.

With Mason having his way with Mizzou's defense with every punishing run he mustered, Auburn rushed for a title game-record 545 yards (third-most nationally this season) and had seven rushing touchdowns.

"We put the workload on him for the majority of the game and he always delivers," tight end C.J. Uzomah said. "He always shows up and he's always ready to play. Sixteen-hundred yards ... there's no reason he shouldn't be in New York.

"Coach [Gus] Malzahn said we were going to run the ball down their throats and really try to impose our will, and he came out and had a performance that I don't think anybody will forget."

So it begs the question: Is Mason, who leads the SEC in rushing and has had eight 100-yard rushing games (five straight), worthy of a seat at next week's Heisman Trophy ceremony?

"I want to win that, that's a goal of mine," said Mason, who now holds Auburn's single-season record for all-purpose yards (2,137). "I want to be in New York and be a finalist for the Heisman."

"I struck the pose a couple times [Saturday]. I feel like I should be in the talk with those guys."

His coach, who knows something about the Heisman, agreed.

"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."

In the nation's toughest conference, Mason ran over and through defenses. Five of the defenses he has faced rank in the top 50 against the run. He rushed for 100-plus yards against each but Mississippi State (34). He has averaged at least 5 yards per carry in nine games and has at least one rushing touchdown in 12 games.

He's confident that he's one of the best players on one of the best teams, and it seems foolish to leave him out of legitimate Heisman talk -- or New York.

He's etched his name into the Auburn record books next to -- and over -- names such as Bo Jackson and Cam Newton. His yardage total Saturday was the second-most in Auburn history. In a special season for a program that has made college football's biggest turnaround, Mason has been a major piece of the Tigers' championship run.

Now he's hoping his own run takes a detour to the Big Apple.

"I feel like I'm chasing after [my dreams]," he said, "and nothing can stop me on the way there."