Essex have missed out on promotion to Division One after they were forced to follow-on against Hampshire at the Ageas Bowl, where Adam Wheater and Matt Coles stared.
Coles, on loan from Kent, alerted several other counties to his availability by recording his season's best figures of 6-71 from 19.1 overs as Essex's promotion hopes expired in a fragile batting performance.
Needing maximum points and hoping second-placed Northamptonshire would slip up at Worcester, Essex were bowled out for 207 in reply to Hampshire's first-innings total of 456 in which Wheater made his team's top score of 122.
Wheater, who rejected the chance to stay at Essex at the end of last season in favour of a fresh start with Hampshire, chose the perfect opposition to record his highest home score since his move to the south coast, compiling his innings over at a run-a-ball and hitting 15 fours and a six.
Greg Smith, continuing his secondary bowling role of off-spinner, removed Wheater to a catch at deep mid-wicket by Tom Westley but by then the damage had been done with Essex when they responded needing to take advantage of an easy-paced wicket to stay in contention.
Smith finished with figures of 5-58 but Monty Panesar, recalled by England for the Ashes tour, managed only 2-100, his meagre haul including that of last man out, Ruel Brathwaite to another catch on the boundary.
Essex were desperate for a good start and did not get it as Coles sent back openers Jaik Mickleburgh, who lost his middle stump, and Gautam Gambhir with only 16 on the board.
There followed the only partnership of substance, 65 for the third wicket between Westley and Smith, but when Smith drove James Tomlinson to Jimmy Adams at mid-on after making 37, the rest became processional.
Brathwaite had Westley pinned on the back foot for his team's top score of 40 when the score was 93 and while several Essex batsmen made promising starts, none were able to sustain an innings.
Ben Foakes gloved a bouncer from Sean Ervine to first slip after making 26, James Foster pulled Coles to Brathwaite at deep mid-wicket for 33 and debut-making Kishen Velani gave Coles a soft fourth wicket when he steered to Adams at cover at 170.
Coles returned after tea to finish off the Essex tail, dismissing Graham Napier and Panesar in quick succession, leaving dispirited Essex needing 249 to avoid the ignominy of ending the season with an innings defeat.
Already without key players David Masters, Ravi Bopara and Reece Topley - all rested - Essex made a more determined start to their second innings after Adams had enforced the follow-on.
Mickleburgh and Gambhir put on 44 in 13.4 overs before bad light and rain brought a premature end to play on the second day, Essex ending it 205 behind and facing the prospect of a heavy defeat.