It’s not the SEC title game matchup many predicted. In fact, you may be hard pressed to find anyone who thought Auburn would turn former Florida QB prospect Cam Newton into a Heisman Trophy contender. Furthermore, the likelihood that Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks would make it out of their tough schedule as the SEC East champs was even smaller.
Alas, here we are, one team looking for their first SEC title in school history, the other looking for titles beyond just what the SEC can offer.
The angles to this game are fascinating to say the least. There’s of course the “elephant in the dome” in Cam Newton, who apparently as recently as yesterday was ineligible, but is now eligible again and will play Saturday. The controversy surrounding him hasn’t affected him to this point, and it shouldn’t against the Gamecocks either.
Then there’s South Carolina, a team that was mediocre at best for so many years in the SEC, and even their coach is most famous for his accomplishments at a different SEC school. But that doesn’t take away from a team that has plowed through big time SEC opponents this year with relative ease, and has proven themselves worthy of the SEC title game.
Comparing the teams isn’t difficult. Both have had five like opponents from the regular season, and the two teams faced one another back in September, a game won by Auburn 35-27.
The obvious key to the game is Newton, who could lay an egg this weekend and still be holding the Heisman Trophy in a few weeks. Cam Newton has accounted for 18 touchdowns this year, accumulating 114 points. That’s seven more than the Auburn kicker Wes Byrum, and good enough to be tied for eighth nationally. He has over 2,000 yards passing, over 1,000 yards rushing, and is tops in the SEC in passer rating (185.5), placing him ahead of Ryan Mallett and Greg McElroy.
That’s not to say South Carolina doesn’t have a few of their own playmakers. One of those tied for eighth in scoring nationally with Cam Newton is none other than the Gamecocks’ freshman running back Marcus Lattimore. He’s the leading running back in the SEC with 1,114 yards and 17 TDs. Only Cam Newton can boast better numbers than that.
As good as Lattimore is, sophomore receiver Alshon Jeffrey may be better. AJ is the leading receiver in yards in the SEC despite having the same number of receptions as Alabama’s Julio Jones (75). Jeffrey is also the only receiver in the SEC to have over 100 yards receiving per game. At 112.6 yards, that’s good enough to even place him fifth among all wideouts nationwide.
The importance of Lattimore and Jeffrey to the Gamecock offense cannot be overstated. In games where Lattimore failed to reach 100 yards rushing and Jeffrey had less than 100 yards receiving, the Gamecocks were 1-2. Jeffrey actually had a huge game against Auburn in the regular season meeting, but Lattimore was held to just 33 yards on 14 carries. In fact, the Gamecocks had their lowest rushing yards of any game against Auburn, totaling just 79 yards on the ground.
Surprisingly, the stingiest run defense in the league (South Carolina) had their worst performance against Auburn, giving up 5.86 yards per rush. No question Cam Newton is tough to bring down, but the Gamecocks will need to hold their own to keep the Auburn offense off the field, one that boasts the sixth-best run game nationally.
While these teams are relatively evenly matched, there’s one big hurdle the Gamecocks must overcome to win this game, and it proves to be the Achilles heel of many aspiring title contenders: turnovers.
In games where South Carolina has been on the wrong end of the turnover margin, they’ve lost three of the four games. Even worse, as far as interceptions go, five of the 12 that Gamecock QBs have thrown this year have come in the fourth quarter, a stat that surely makes the Ol’ Ball Coach cringe. In the game against Auburn, South Carolina committed four turnovers in the fourth quarter alone.
So who will win this highly anticipated matchup? For Auburn, the key will be avoiding distractions (which they’ve done well thus far) and allowing Newton to do what Newton does, and that’s take over ballgames. The weapons he has make him all the more dangerous, so South Carolina will have to limit big plays and contain Newton’s scrambling as much as possible.
For South Carolina, the key is protecting QB Stephen Garcia. Auburn had 15 QB hurries on Garcia, more than their defense had against any other opponent. That helped for two fumbles in the fourth quarter, ultimately spelling doom for the Gamecocks. Garcia has to be protected and be smart with the ball. Jeffrey will make his plays, but Lattimore will be a huge asset not just running, but catching the ball out of the backfield, something he’s had success with this year.
In the end, Auburn will be Auburn. Make big plays like they’ve done all year, getting everyone involved on the offense, and putting up tons of points. South Carolina, however, has talented weapons of their own. They’ve been battle tested just like Auburn, and have come through in games that matter.
Of the three games the Gamecocks have played where the most has been at stake (then No. 1 Alabama, Florida for the SEC East title, Clemson for in-state bragging rights), they’ve outscored their opponents 100-42. And this upcoming SEC title game is certainly one that matters for South Carolina. That’s why the new SEC title holders will hail from Columbia, SC.
FINAL: South Carolina 34, Auburn 31