Last night the stage for the SEC Championship game was set with Auburn winning against rival Georgia in shootout fashion 49-31 to clinch the SEC West, and South Carolina dominating Florida 36-14 in the Swamp to clinch the SEC East. This is a unique contest as this is the first time since 2004 that the teams representing both divisions played each other in the regular season, and the regular season game between Auburn and South Carolina was a good one.
South Carolina led most of the game, even building a 20-7 and holding it for most of the second quarter. However, Auburn was not going down without a fight and kept it close going into halftime and through all of the third quarter until the Gamecocks started unraveling with 4 turnovers(two fumbles, two interceptions), with the two fumbles leading to two touchdowns for Auburn. Auburn eventually won the game 35-27 with the two interceptions helping to seal the win.
Let's look at this game as if these two teams have not played each other. It is not fair to judge how a team is going to do based on what happened September 25th. Who has the edge in passing offense, rushing offense, rush defense, and pass defense right now as we speak? What about in game preparation time and motivation? A sound analysis of all the units on both teams plus figuring out who has the edge in game preparation and motivation will determine who has the best chance to win this game.
Here are the two matchups I am most excited to see
The rushing offense and defense of both teams
Auburn: The Tigers are in some pretty good company as they are fourth in the country in rushing yards per game. Leading the way for Auburn's ground game is Heisman Trophy contender Cam Newton. Even though he played at Florida, don't even compare this guy to Tim Tebow. Newton is in a league of his own as he has racked 1,297 yards so far this season on 206 with seventeen rushing touchdowns. He is also averaging 6.3 yards a carry, which is absolutely phenomenal.
Even though Auburn's quarterback is the team's leading rusher, Auburn's running back tandem has been no less productive. True freshman Michael Dyer leads all the running backs with 849 yards on 137 carries averaging 6.3 yards per carry with five touchdowns. Ontario McCalebb has proven to be the big play running back for Auburn as he has gained 683 yards on just 78 carries with 9 scores, one of them going for seventy yards and averaging almost nine yards a carry!
Senior Mario Fannin has not had many chances to shine this season due to the emergence of the aforementioned players, but he has made the most of his opportunities gaining 367 yards on 55 carries with four scores and averaging 6.7 yards a carry.
Auburn's rushing defense is equally impressive as it ranks second in the SEC in stopping the run and No.12 nationally, allowing an average of 111.55 yards a game, and allowing only 3 yards a carry. Like the Gamecocks, Auburn is quite good at getting in the opponent's backfield as they have 74 tackles for loss and 25 sacks. However, Auburn's defensive line is getting the majority of those stops as they are getting a strong push up front in the run game and collapsing the pocket in the passing game.
Nick Fairley has become a dominant force at nose guard as he has racked up 18 tackles for loss to compliment 7.5 sacks. Senior defensive end Antoine Carter has been impressive as well as he notched ten tackles for loss, and recorded 4.5 sacks. All the other starters and the backups have contributed as many have notched at least one sack or knocked someone behind the line of scrimmage.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks possess the top rushing defense in the SEC and the No.8 rushing defense nationally, only allowing an average of 97.6 yards a game. How are they doing this? South Carolina has excelled in getting in the opponent's backfield with 73 tackles for loss on the season and have sacked the quarterback 35 times.
Defensive end Devin Taylor is leading the way for this unit as he leads the team with 12 tackles for loss and lead the team in sacks with 7 1/2. What makes this unit so dangerous is the fact that everyone is getting involved as it is not just the defensive linemen making these plays it is also the linebackers and even the secondary, as players like cornerback Stephon Gilmore has 3 sacks and 6 tackles for loss and linebacker/safety hybrid Antonio Allen has 8.5 tackles for loss and 2 sacks.
South Carolina can run the ball decently as they average about 156 yards a game, good for 9th in the SEC and 56th nationally. The rushing offense for Carolina has improved as they are averaging almost 40 more rushing yards a game. This is due to improved offensive line play and one special player, Marcus Lattimore.
Lattimore has been quite the workhorse as he has carried the ball 202 times for 964 yards with 14 touchdowns and averaging 4.8 yards a carry. He has played some of his best football in the big games. He rushed for 93 yards against Alabama, and in this week's game he rushed for 212 yards to help Carolina clinch the East. His top backup Brian Maddox hasn't had many opportunities but he's made the most of the ones he has gotten as he has rushed for 243 yards on just 44 carries with 2 scores and he's averaging almost 6 yards a carry.
The passing offense and passing defense of both squads
Both teams can pass the ball well enough to win the game. South Carolina averages more yards passing a game than Auburn with about 249,and has scored 15 touchdowns through the air.Quarterback Stephen Garcia has thrown for 2,221 yards with 14 scores against 9 interceptions. Wideout Alshon Jeffery has broken out this year as he has notched 65 receptions for 1,087 yards and 7 touchdowns all while averaging almost 17 yards a catch!!
Auburn does not pass the ball as much as South Carolina, but they average 15 yards a completion and have scored 21 touchdowns through the air. Cam Newton has had equal success throwing the football as well as running the football with 2,038 passing yards with 21 touchdowns versus 6 interceptions. Junior wideout Darvin Adams is the leading receiver with 39 catches for 663 yards and 5 touchdowns, while senior Terrell Zachery has caught 35 passes for 504 yards with three scores.
While both teams can pass the ball, both struggle to defend the pass. Auburn and South Carolina are ranked 11 and 12 respectively in terms of overall pass defense in the SEC. Auburn ranks 75th nationally in pass defense and allows about 131 yards passing a game and has allowed 19 touchdowns and 7 yards per attempt.
South Carolina has not fared better as they are ranked 97th nationally in pass defense allowing about 141 yards a game and allowing 15 scores plus 8 yards per attempt.
Game Preparation and Motivation
Auburn gets the benefit of an extra day of practice thanks to playing Alabama the day after Thanksgiving while South Carolina plays archrival Clemson on Saturday. Both teams will be motivated to win this game as Auburn wants to go all the way and win a national championship after being left out of the 2005 BCS Championship game despite being undefeated. South Carolina is going to the SEC Championship for the first time in school history, and they just don't want to make an apperance.
An Auburn-Florida matchup might have been better from a drama standpoint, but if any team in the East is going to give Auburn a run for their money it is Carolina. The regular season game was a cloe onethe whole game, and expect this game to be the same. I would expect both teams to review film from that game so they don't make the same mistakes twice like putting the ball on the ground and throwing stupid interceptions.
Who wins the SEC Championship?
The winner of this game will be able to limit their opponent's offensive attack enough running and passing wise so that the offense can get long sustained drives that wear down the clock and the defense. The winner's offense will also need to run the ball well and pass just enough so that the defense won't key on stopping the run.
Prediction: South Carolina will play Auburn tough given that this is their first SEC Championship game. I expect Carolina's big three of Garcia, Lattimore, and Jeffrey to have decent games, with Jeffrey and Lattimore going over 50 yards a game receiving and rushing, with each scoring a touchdown. I believe the defense will contain Newton and Co. a bit and force them to throw more.
However, the four-headed monster of Newton, Dyer, McCalebb, and Fannin will be too much for Carolina to contain the whole game. I see Newton rushing for about 100 yards and a score, while the backups will be in the 30 to 50 yard range, with at least one of them scoring. Newton will have a good day throwing the football as I predict he will throw for over 200 yards and two scores.
My final: Auburn 28 South Carolina 14.