COLUMBIA, Mo. - Missouri is headed to Atlanta.
In one of the most improbable turnaround stories of the college football season, rivaled maybe only by the Tigers' upcoming opponent, Missouri is headed to the Southeastern Conference championship game.
No. 5 Missouri (11-1, 7-1 SEC) needed some late heroics to defeat Johnny Manziel and the No. 19 Texas A&M Aggies (8-4, 4-4 SEC) 28-21 to clinch the SEC East Division title Saturday night on Senior Night at Faurot Field.
"Wow. How about those Tigers?" Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel said. "... It's kind of surreal. ... You work so hard to do this, and you get to this point and have a chance to win a championship in a tough league, especially after the year we came off of. We got a lot of respect back."
Missouri advances to play Auburn (11-1, 7-1 SEC) in the SEC championship game at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
Auburn ripped the SEC West Division title away from top-ranked Alabama by returning a 57-yard field-goal attempt more than 100 yards for a touchdown as time expired to top the Crimson Tide 34-28 in the Iron Bowl.
"They've been making some great plays. Hopefully they're going to quit making them," Pinkel said of Auburn. "They're a good football team. We're exciting about representing the East and going to Atlanta. They keep getting bigger."
While it certainly wasn't the shootout everyone expected, there was no dearth of fireworks Saturday night.
It was Henry Josey - who else? - who provided them, dashing 57 yards for the game-winning touchdown with 3:34 left in the game.
"That was fitting," Pinkel said. "It's fitting for Henry Josey and the kind of year he's had and who he is and what he's about."
Josey was not made available for comment.
"I knew it was pretty much wrapped up after that when he scored the touchdown," defensive lineman Kony Ealy said.
Missouri's defense forced a three-and-out and took possession with just more than two minutes left in the game. The Tigers picked up a pair of first downs before taking a couple of kneel-downs to end the game, prompting a good portion of the crowd to rush the field, resulting in a sea of black near midfield. The party was on.
"It is big-time for this program," center Evan Boehm said, "especially after where we were last year. Everyone counted us out this year at the beginning, but we knew as a unit and as a team that we could be the best. ... It's a special moment right now to be a Missouri Tiger."
After a first half that looked like Missouri from 2012, the 2013 version showed up for the second half.
But first, the inauspicious start for the Tigers. Texas A&M's Tra Carson broke a pair of tackles on his way to a 29-yard touchdown run, giving the Aggies a 7-0 lead midway through the first period.
Missouri finally awoke from its hibernation with 5:16 left in the opening half as quarterback James Franklin orchestrated a 94-yard scoring drive. It culminated when the senior signal-caller hit Dorial Green-Beckham for a 38-yard touchdown pass, his 10th such reception this year, to knot the score at 7.
It took Texas A&M only 70 seconds to respond. Two big plays - one a 43-yard run from Brandon Williams and the other a 32-yard touchdown pass from Manziel to Derel Walker - did the trick, handing the Aggies a 14-7 advantage.
Missouri kicker Andrew Baggett missed a 47-yard field goal as time expired in the first half, meaning the Tigers entered the intermission down by seven, the first time Missouri trailed at halftime this season.
"A little bit uncharacteristic the first half," Pinkel said. "We looked out of sync a little bit. But we settled down and scored 21 points in the third and fourth quarter when it mattered."
Missouri delivered a prompt response to that challenge with a 75-yard drive that spanned the opening 2:45 of the third quarter, capped by a 2-yard touchdown run from Marcus Murphy to tie the game at 14.
The momentum swing continued for Missouri with a defensive stop and a 31-yard punt return from Murphy, his longest of the season.
The offense capitalized when Franklin hit L'Damian Washington for a 5-yard touchdown on a fade pattern. After originally ruled an incompletion, the play was overturned following a review, confirming Washington did have possession of the ball. That score gave Missouri its first lead at 21-14 midway through the third period, and also marked Washington's 10th touchdown catch of the year.
The Aggies wouldn't go quietly.
Texas A&M tied it up on a 98-yard touchdown drive that spanned 2:51, capped by a 7-yard run from Ben Malena early in the fourth quarter. While Manziel orchestrate the drive, he finished just 24-of-35 for 195 yards and a touchdown. Manziel was sacked twice.
"We were relentless," Pinkel said. "Our defensive line wanted him so bad, they wanted a piece of him every chance they got. He's a great, great player."
After the teams traded unsuccessful possessions, it was Josey that delivered the SEC title-game berth to the Tigers.
"It's a dream come true," wide receiver Marcus Lucas said.
Who would have thought it? Missouri is going to play for an SEC title. And possibly a berth in the BCS title game.
"All we can do is win a football game," Pinkel said.
Pinkel tied Don Faurot as the winningest football coach in program history with 101 wins as the Tiger head coach.
"I am surely honored, but that is not what is nice about that," he said. "This is about winning a championship, it is about all the guys in here. I am so proud of this football team."