Ulster's hopes of securing a home draw in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals were dashed as they were edged out by Clermont Auvergne in a bruising clash.
Morgan Parra kicked 14 points with Ti'i Paulo scoring the crucial second-half try as Clermont topped Pool Four.
Parra and Ruan Pienaar swapped two penalties in the first half as Ulster missed two great try-scoring chances.
Pienaar nudged Ulster ahead twice in the second half but Paulo's 62nd-minute try proved the crucial score.
Clermont, unbeaten at home in 36 matches, threatened in the opening moments at the Stade Marcel Michelin as Sitiveni Sivivatu's break set up a charging Aurelien Rougerie before Parra knocked on in the Ulster 22.
Parra did kick Clermont into the lead on 14 minutes after Dan Tuohy had been harshly sin-binned for tackling the scrum-half who had attempted to take a tap penalty.
Ulster, aiming for their first win on French soil, were on terms as Pienaar slotted a penalty on 14 minutes only for Parra to nudge Clermont ahead four minutes later after a scrum infringement.
The visitors squandered their first great try-scoring chance in the 25th minute as Paddy Wallace knocked on just short of the Clermont line as Ulster had numbers out wide after Rougerie's loose pass.
Ulster's second glorious opportunity came on 32 minutes as they had another overlap deep in the Clermont 22 but Humphreys' looping pass was behind Whitten and the chance was lost as Andrew Trimble was bottled up.
However, the pressure did yield a penalty which Pienaar slotted to level the contest.
Pienaar also missed a couple of long-range penalties before the break but the visitors should have been content going in 6-6 at the interval.
Pienaar and Parra swapped penalties at either end early in the second half before the South African nudged the visitors ahead again on 55 minutes.
However, Clermont, knowing that their place in the knockout stages was under real threat, finally began to put Ulster under sustained pressure midway through the second half.
The French side wasted a glorious chance when Nathan Hines deliberately held Ferris and Pedrie Wannenburg in a ruck just short of the Ulster line as Clermont looked certain to score.
Hines was probably lucky not to be sin-binned for the offence and with the Clermont pressure continuing, the try came with replacement hooker Paulo barging his away over the line in the 62th minute, with Parra converting.
Pienaar reduced Clermont's lead to the minimum two minutes later but Parra immediately replied in kind at the other end.
Ulster's frantic efforts in the closing minutes weren't helped by an uncharacteristic piece of indiscipline from skipper Johann Muller as he conceded a penalty after the visitors had been awarded a scrum in a threatening central position.
Clermont held on to win the Pool and left Ulster certain to be away for their last-eight contest.
Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin:
"We're exceptionally disappointed because we felt in the first half we maybe had a couple of opportunities.
"What we wanted to do was back up last week, to show that we are proper contenders in this competition.
"Now what we've got to do, no matter where we go in the last eight, we've got to turn in another performance.
"But it's got to be better again because we are more than capable of going further in this competition."
Clermont Auvergne boach Vern Cotter:
"They're very strong up front and it took us a wee while to get our hands on the ball.
"It wasn't until the second half that we got into their end of the paddock, got our hands on the ball and we could actually get the game going the way that we wanted to."
Clermont Auvergne: L Byrne; S Sivivatu, A Rougerie, W Fofana, J Malzieu; D Skrela, M Parra; L Faure, B Kayser, C Ric; J Pierre, N Hines; G Vosloo, J Bardy, J Bonnaire.
Replacements: R King for Byrne 70, B James for Skrela 46, T Paulo for Kayser 52, V Debaty for Ric 46, J Cudmore for Pierre 67, A Lapandry for Bardy 56.
Ulster: S Terblanche; A Trimble, I Whitten, P Wallace, C Gilroy; I Humphreys, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best, J Afoa; J Muller (capt), D Tuohy; S Ferris, C Henry, P Wannenburg.
Replacements: P Marshall for Humphreys 61.
Not Used: A Kyriacou, C Black, A Macklin, L Stevenson, W Faloon, N Spence, A D'Arcy.