'What ifs' linger after Missouri's SEC Championship loss to Auburn

Saturday, December 7, 2013 | 10:38 p.m. CST

ATLANTA — Gary Pinkel didn't want to see the cameras.

As Missouri players and coaches quickly filed off the field and through the tunnel, blue and orange confetti rained down at the Georgia Dome as Auburn celebrated a 59-42 win over Missouri to take home its eighth Southeastern Conference Championship.

Pinkel didn't want to see the cameras, but more importantly, he didn't want the cameras to see his players. He didn't want them to see the pain on their faces. 

"They are crushed," Pinkel said. "I mean, they are absolutely crushed."

But even if Pinkel didn't want the cameras to see his players in the aftermath, 75,632 people packed into the Georgia Dome and millions of others watching at home saw it all.

They saw the 677 yards of total offense Auburn racked up, which was the second most Missouri has ever surrendered in a single game. They saw Guz Malzahn's rushing attack pound away at an overly anxious Missouri front-seven that ranked second in the league in run defense but constantly found itself out of gaps and allowed more than 500 yards of rushing. And they saw a team with a chance to become the best in program history fail to validate its season in the most important game.

"You don't ever want to go out like this," defensive end Markus Golden said. "I wish we could play again tomorrow."

Missouri came into the game focused on Auburn's running back. Slow down the read option attack and force Nick Marshall to pass. It couldn't have gone much worse. 

Auburn running back Tre Mason, who took home the MVP award, set an Auburn record with 46 carries. He turned those into an SEC Championship Game record 304 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Missouri's defensive ends continuously got caught upfield and opened up lanes for Auburn's running game, which piled up more than 500 yards.

"I feel like some of y'all could have run through the holes out there," cornerback E.J. Gaines said.

After the game, the defensive linemen sat in the corner of the locker room in disbelief. Nothing they did helped slow down the running game. Even when defensive end Kony Ealy forced two fumbles in the first half, one of which was returned for a Missouri touchdown, Auburn's running game kept coming.

With the roar of a Georgia Dome covered in blue and orange behind them, Auburn bled the life out of Missouri's defense at a blinding pace. Just when Missouri would sell out to stop Mason, Marshall would keep it himself. He picked up 101 yards rushing and a touchdown of his own and only had to attempt 11 passes in the game, which was the lowest total in SEC Championship Game history.

"We practice fastball," Ealy said. "It wasn't the tempo. It was just missed assignments."

Missouri was able to keep pace offensively for a while. Wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham had over 100 receiving yards and two touchdowns in the first half, contributing to the highest scoring first half in SEC Championship Game history.

But in the second half, the 2013 SEC Champion Game became the highest scoring in history by 28 points, and Auburn was doing most of the work. Nothing changed for Missouri on defense. Auburn continued to run the football at will, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. Missouri was shut out in the fourth quarter.

"We had a game plan going in, and we stuck to it," defensive tackle Lucas Vincent said.

"It doesn't matter," Vincent added. "The only thing you can do is your job. If you don't, it's over."

Sticking to the game plan resulted in a monster second half for Auburn. So when the stage was assembled on the field after the game, it was Malzahn climbing the steps to claim the SEC crown, while Pinkel was running through the tunnel wanting to get away from it all.

"You can't be mad that the best team won," Ealy said.

It wasn't supposed to be bigger than any other game. That was Missouri's plan. But it was foiled right away. The crowd noise was deafening from start to finish. The Georgia Dome was packed 20 minutes before kickoff, and the entire college football world was watching to find out which team would lay claim to a championship in the nation's best conference. For the first time all season, Missouri looked overwhelmed.

"Hopefully, we get in the position again, and we'll play better," Pinkel said. "Maybe we'll handle it a little bit better. But I thought we did all right things. I'm proud of them, proud how they competed and battled."

The tears in the locker room were the lasting image of Missouri's 2013 season. Despite the highest win total since 2007, Missouri couldn't help but think about the what-ifs. What if it could have slowed down Auburn and won its first conference championship since 1969? What if its national championship hopes were still alive? What if the final result of the 2013 season was better than 2007?

Instead it's a similar ending to a similar season. A bowl game still looms, but it won't be as prestigious as Missouri had been hoping for. The Capital One Bowl, Cotton Bowl and Outback Bowl are now the most likely destinations, while Auburn and Alabama will occupy the SEC's spots in the BCS.

But while an opportunity was lost on Saturday for Missouri football, the players were able to recognize what was gained. Putting up 42 points on Auburn in the SEC Championship Game earned them some respect. The problem is, it will be another year before Missouri has another chance to validate itself in the biggest way.

While Missouri players quickly filed out of the locker room, struggling to do anything but hang their heads, Auburn was busy with a post game press conference. Mason wore an SEC Champions hat as he sat next to Malzahn on the podium, bright lights shining all around them with a crowd of reporters hanging on their every word. Auburn seized the opportunity and stayed alive in the hunt for a national title.

Missouri's chance would have to wait.

"We'll be back, that's all I can say about that" Green-Beckham said. "We'll just be back. I believe in all the guys. They're going to try to make their way back to being here. It's a good start for right now. We know what it feels like to be here. We just need to get our respect the way it should be."

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