- Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer
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For four months, ESPN The Magazine will follow the march to the VIZIO BCS National Championship, moment by moment, culminating in our "Story of the Season" double issue Dec. 27. Every Tuesday, Mag senior writer Ryan McGee will pick the previous week's biggest moments and tell you why they'll have the most impact on potential BCS title matchups. If you disagree, send a tweet to @ESPNMag and tell us why your moment matters more, using the hashtag #StoryoftheSeason. Who knows? Your moment (and tweet) might just end up in our issue.
As the clock ticked below the three-minute mark at Saturday night's SEC championship game, the Auburn running backs sat perpendicular to their sideline, tucked in behind a standing wall of their much larger teammates, lined up in two neat rows of folding chairs.
"It looks weird right?" a security guard said, motioning toward the six players, three facing one direction, three facing the other, all with their helmets off, mouths hanging open, no one saying a word. "It took me a about half the game to realize what they're doing."
Well, I asked, what are they doing? He pointed.
"They're watching the game on TV."
Indeed they were. Each row faced a separate massive widescreen in each end zone, a high-definition telecast of what was happening live and in person only a few dozen yards away. The images were of Missouri quarterback James Franklin desperately trying to do something -- anything -- to cut into Auburn's 17-point lead.
Three plays after a 43-yard completion to cross midfield, he broke off a nice run to the Auburn 9 to make it first-and-goal.
The running backs' collective expression never changed.
On first down, Franklin was sacked.
On second down, Franklin threw an incomplete pass.
On third down, he completed a screen pass to the Auburn 7.
On fourth down, with 1:46 remaining, Franklin's would-be TD pass fell incomplete. Now, finally, the navy-clad backs stood and snatched up their helmets. Only one player cut through the silence. He also happened to be the one player whose uniform was covered in stains and helmet was pocked with streaks of Mizzou black. It was No. 21, Tre Mason.
"One more time, fellas, and we're celebrating."
In actuality, it was two more times. The final two carries and 14 yards of a night so large that teammates joked they were going to ask him to tow the team bus back to Auburn. Mason's final stat line: 46 carries, 304 yards and four touchdowns, with a long run of 52 yards and a per-carry average of 6.6.
"Sometimes you just have one of those games where you don't want it to end," said a former Auburn back, Bo Jackson. As his alma mater took to the stage and hoisted its new conference championship trophy, the 1985 Heisman Trophy winner leaned on the makeshift safety fence and captured the moment with his phone's video camera. "You just see the whole field, your legs feel good and you can't carry it enough. Tonight that kid's going to sleep well ... assuming he ever goes to bed."
Mason's night shattered nearly every rushing record in the storied two-decade history of the SEC title game. It was the perfect illustration of first-year coach Gus Malzahn's longtime offensive philosophy of "go with the hot hand." In fact, Mason's entire 2013 season is the ideal representation of his team's improbable year. A running back who found his legs in the season's second half, leading a group whose run began outside the hemisphere of the preseason AP Top 25 and will now end on the field at the Rose Bowl playing for a BCS title.
"Honestly, they couldn't give it to me enough," Mason, a junior from Palm Beach, Fla., shouted to a scrum of TV cameras after the game. Then, unknowingly echoing Bo, he continued: "Sometimes you just have one of those nights and you're in a groove and it's just, 'Give me the ball, Coach.' It seems like every week we've had someone in that zone. Tonight it was me."
Really, for the past month, it has been mostly him. Like his team, Mason has gained steam with each turn of the calendar page. Now, when it counts most, he has been at his best. During the season's first five games, he cracked 100 yards only once. In the past five, he has averaged 174. The past two weeks alone, he has racked up 468, and did it against a pair of top-10 teams (Alabama and Missouri) both known as run-stoppers. Mizzou entered Saturday night's game ranked 14th in FBS in run defense. By game's end, the other Tigers had fallen to 47th.
"You're a NASCAR guy," Malzahn said to me following the game. "Well, a season is like a 500-mile race. You want to be at your best at the end of the race. You think about where this team was last spring, or even in August, and then look at where these guys are now. Man, it's hard to believe. That's peaking at the right time."
Yes, it is. Even if, while peaking, you don't allow yourself to peek at the actual game.
"Yeah, we were watching on TV, weren't we?" Mason said when asked about the backs' Georgia Dome sideline routine, saying they'd done the same whenever there were stadium big screens available for sideline viewing. "Whatever we were doing, it worked, right? Now we've got to get out of here, get home, and watch some more TV."
Mason wasn't heading off to watch "The Sound of Music: Live." He was looking for the Big Ten championship game. So were all his teammates and fans, which is why the Georgia Dome field was cleared much quicker than normal.
"I bet we're all headed out of here pretty quick to go find a television somewhere," admitted Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs. Just a few feet away, SEC commissioner Mike Slive was saying the same, fingering his green necktie and admitting that his choice of color was not a coincidence.
Everyone from Atlanta to Auburn would be rooting for Michigan State to defeat Ohio State in Indianapolis, in the hopes that the BCS formula would boost the Tigers past a field of fellow one-loss teams.
Only a week earlier, Ohio State had quickly hustled off the field of the Big House, anxious to root for this very Auburn team as they played top-ranked Alabama. When the Tigers pulled off the most insane of all college football finishes, it set off an equally crazy celebration on the Buckeyes' team bus. The video of that moment became a bit of a social media sensation.
This past Saturday the roles were reversed. Now the YouTube stars are the Auburn trainers and equipment managers, who were back home in time for the Big Ten finish, still dressed in their SEC championship caps and T-shirts that were handed out on the field in Atlanta.
When Braxton Miller's final pass fell incomplete at midfield and the Spartans iced the 34-24 upset, Auburn's support crew went crazy, the clip ending with a shout of "We're going to Pasadena, baby!"
Better call ahead to the Rose Bowl and check on the big-screen TV situation.
— ESPN The Magazine (@ESPNMag) December 8, 2013
16hSam Khan Jr. and Derek Tyson