2010 SEC Championship Game: Cam Newton & Others Who Will Determine the Outcome
With the 2010 SEC Championship Game participants in place now, it's time to turn our attention to the game itself.
As in most team sports, it ultimately comes down to individual performances at clutch times. Those performances make the difference between champions and runners-up.
This year, the cast of characters who could make or break Auburn, the Western Division champ, is bigger than simply Cameron Newton, Mr. Everything 2010. The undefeated and highly-ranked Tigers rely on more than their quarterback's legs.
Some might argue that South Carolina, the Eastern Division representative, is a more diverse and balanced squad despite its 8-3 record. The Gamecocks can beat you with the run or the pass, and they've shown that they have a defense that can respond if called upon.
Let's take a look at 10 players who will, in all probability, determine who the 2010 SEC champion will be.
Nick Fairley leads the SEC with tackles for loss. He ranks third nationally in that category.
And this from a team that is supposed to have a weak defense.
Fairley heads an Auburn defensive squad that has shown consistent improvement throughout the year. After allowing 169.8 yards per game through the first 10 games last season, Auburn now ranks third in the SEC and 18th nationally this season against the run, allowing just over 114 yards per game.
And it all begins with Fairley. He's a beast, and South Carolina would do well to run away from him as much as possible.
Auburn’s defense has been able to get into the opposition’s backfield at will. The Tigers rank 24th nationally in tackles for loss, averaging 6.9 TFL per game.
Think of it this way: that's two-plus series of minus yards allowed on average during a game.
Even if South Carolina blocks him, the threat of Fairley getting a sack against Stephen Garcia could give the Ol' Ball Coach nightmares.
Of course, line up Cam Newton behind, oh, say, Western Kentucky's offensive line, and he'd not get his offensive production.
Newton leads the Heisman race in large part because he's running behind what Phil Steele called the fifth-best offensive line in the nation.
That offensive line features four starters returning who have a combined 149 career starts. Their leader is senior All-American candidate and Outland Trophy watchlist candidate Lee Ziemba (No. 73, above).
Ziemba has started all 49 games at tackle since arriving as a true freshman.
Newton may be a lot of things, but he's no dummy. He'll run behind the guy who can make holes in the South Carolina defensive front all day.
Watch for that match up throughout the game; you'll not be disappointed.
Take a guess which SEC school leads the league in rushing defense?
It's South Carolina.
South Carolina has the SEC’s No. 1 rushing defense, holding opposing offenses to 104.6 yards per game on the ground. Opponents have been held under 100 rushing yards in seven of the first 10 games. They held Florida to only 35 yards rushing.
Under Steve Spurrier, the Gamecocks are 18-3 when holding opposing offenses under 100 rushing yards.
That might seem like a trap for Auburn's vaunted rushing attack.
When the Tigers faced South Carolina the first time, it was cornerback Stephon Gilmore who led the team in tackles. In fact, he's the defensive team leader, and he added another interception against Florida to clinch the SEC East title.
Gilmore is on almost every watchlist for the defensive hardware for which he qualifies: the Bednarik, Hornung, Maxwell, Nagurski and Thorpe Awards.
He'll be prowling the secondary and waiting for Cameron Newton to make an errant throw. He's already run one pick back for six this season.
He'd like at least one more.
In a season of superlatives, Emory Blake is setting a new standard. Against Louisiana-Monroe, Blake set the Auburn record for longest play from scrimmage on a 94-yard catch and run for a touchdown.
Not the tallest Tiger receiver (6'1"), Blake runs good routes and has good hands. He's third on the team in both receptions and yards, but he's tied for touchdowns and has the best yards per catch average on the squad.
And when the Tigers met South Carolina earlier this year, Blake had his best game of the year by posting a season-high three catches for 33 yards, including a 12-yard TD catch-and-run in the fourth quarter that proved to be the difference in the game.
Against the Georgia Bulldogs, Blake equaled his best total of three receptions for 64 yards.
It seems the Tiger is getting hot right when Auburn needs him most. And Cam Newton will look to the sophomore for big plays deep.
Name the single-season record holder for kickers and the overall career scoring record holder for the Auburn Tigers.
If you said Wes Byrum, you'd be correct.
And if you talk about the Tigers being undefeated, you'd have to remember that it was Byrum who's won two of those games for the team. He beat Clemson in overtime at the beginning of the year, and he beat Kentucky in Week 6.
In fact, Byrum's kicked the game winner five times in his career.
If the SEC Championship Game comes down to a field goal, wouldn't you want to be Gene Chizik and not Steve Spurrier? We have nothing against the Gamecocks' PK Spencer Lanning, but we'd want the guy who's more experienced booting it through when time expires.
In a world of diverse opinions as we have in college football, one item is probably not up for debate.
Alshon Jeffery will be the first wide receiver taken in next year's NFL draft.
The super sophomore entered this past weekend as the SEC's leader in receiving yards per game (114 yards) and in receptions per game (6.6).
And from a school that produced Sidney Rice and Sterling Sharpe, Jeffery will certainly break the school record for receiving yards in a season next week.
He played particularly well the last time these two schools met; he had the fourth-best receiving game in Carolina history with 192 yards on eight catches and saw personal highs in both categories.
If Garcia has time and Lattimore can have the defense creeping up, look for Jeffery to have a good game in the cozy confines of the Georgia Dome.
In a way, this was supposed to be Mario Fannin's team.
The three-year letterman and senior is on the career leader board for rushing and receiving yards.
In fact, Fannin is the career leader in receptions and receiving yards by a running back. Such prowess allowed him to receive second-team all-SEC nods at the beginning of this year.
But Auburn developed into a different team with Newton under center, and the spotlight shifted to other players. That and an early-season injury limited him somewhat. In spite of all this, Fannin has maintained his leadership role.
Sure, he's not the top ball-carrier in the backfield (he gets less than half the carries of freshman Michael Dyer), but Fannin can still be lethal and a good counterpunch to Newton's scrambling style.
While others may get the carries in the SEC Championship game, we feel the senior running back wants to go out in style and may have a good game.
Against No. 1 Alabama six weeks ago, Stephen Garcia had the game of his life. Coach Steve Spurrier hailed his quarterback, calling the performance a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Garcia has been in Spurrier's doghouse more than his penthouse. He's even spent some time in Spurrier's outhouse.
That's because he makes amazingly great plays one minute and stupidly boneheaded plays the next. And for a coach like Spurrier that seeks perfection and gets headaches when he doesn't get it, Garcia is a migraine.
He's a quarterbacking Jekyll and Hyde.
But Garcia stepped it up again against Florida, leading the Gamecocks to their first-ever SEC title game. Of course, having the likes of Marcus Lattimore in the backfield and Alshon Jeffery split out wide helps.
He'll have to bring his best game against Auburn if the 'Cocks are to pull off the upset.
We think the junior, who ranks in the top five of almost every major passing category in school history, will play well.
Unless Mr. Hyde shows up.
How important is South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore to coach Steve Spurrier?
Put it this way; the Gamecocks haven't been to the SEC Championship before they had him. Lattimore makes the entire show go. He's given the Ol' Ball Coach's team a dimension it's never enjoyed before and allowed him to open up his patented passing attack.
People in South Carolina are comparing him to legendary Heisman winner George Rogers. And why not? The super freshman has rushed for over 180 yards each against Georgia and Tennessee, and then he added 212 against Florida.
Besides, he's already set the team single-season record for rushing touchdowns.
And, against defending SEC champ Alabama, it was not reigning Heisman winner Mark Ingram who ran away with the game. It was Lattimore.
We think he can put up decent numbers against Auburn if he gets help, and he might just be the difference-maker if the 'Cocks are to upset the Tigers.
Other than Denard Robinson of Michigan for a couple of games, who in the nation has been so electrifying for fans to watch and terrifying for opponents to watch as has Cameron Newton?
That's why the Auburn signal caller is first in line to become the latest Tiger to receive the Heisman Trophy.
Auburn fans warned the nation that they had the best player in the land. All Newton has done is prove them right.
And he's done it against SEC defenses-which were supposed to be geared to stop this type of thing.
Nope. Nobody has done so. Yet.
And we don't think South Carolina will, either.
Thus, we feel that Cameron Newton will be the player in the SEC Championship game who will have the biggest impact on the outcome of the game.