Auburn and South Carolina meet in SEC title tilt
Atlanta, GA (Sports Network) - The eyes of the college football world will be focused on this weekend's SEC Championship Game between the second-ranked Auburn Tigers and the 18th-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks, who will meet in Atlanta.
These two teams met in Auburn back in September, and the Tigers managed a hard-fought 35-27 victory in that affair. Auburn now owns a 6-1-1 advantage in the all-time series with South Carolina.
Auburn is the top-ranked team in the BCS poll, and a victory over South Carolina will send the Tigers to the national title game. The Tigers are a perfect 12-0 this season, their best mark since the memorable 2004 campaign when the squad finished 13-0. Last weekend, it appeared that Auburn was headed for its first loss of the season, as the club trailed rival Alabama 24-0 in the second quarter. The Tigers showed the heart of a champion to fight back and claim a 28-27 victory over the defending national champs, and coach Gene Chizik's team is certainly favored in this weekend's affair.
"It's going to be a great, great challenge for us," said Chizik in anticipation of Saturday's showdown. "South Carolina is probably playing the best football they've played all year. Extremely, extremely talented, as we know, as we faced them the first time."
South Carolina is guided by Steve Spurrier, who is the second-longest tenured coach in the SEC at his current school. The Gamecocks have never played in the SEC Championship Game, so the excitement level in Columbia is at an all-time high.
"We're obviously fired up, excited to be in the game, to win the Eastern Division for the first time ever," said Spurrier. "And we're happy we're coming in with a victory over our big rival here in the state of South Carolina, Clemson."
The Gamecocks handled Clemson easily last weekend by a 29-7 final, the third consecutive victory for Spurrier's squad. At 9-3, the Gamecocks have no chance of reaching the national title game regardless of the result this weekend, but the club would consider the season a tremendous success if it can win the SEC title and play in a BCS bowl.
There is absolutely no doubt that the best player in college football wears an Auburn uniform. Cam Newton, the team's quarterback, is responsible for 43 touchdowns this season and can break the SEC record with one more score this weekend. The versatile performer has completed 67.9 percent of his passes for 2,254 yards and 24 touchdowns with only six interceptions, and he has also rushed for 1,336 yards and 18 touchdowns. Newton caught a touchdown pass in one of the team's 12 wins, and he spearheads an offense that accounts for 490.1 yards per game. Lately, Newton's eligibility has been called into question, as it is alleged that he was paid to enroll at Auburn after a stint at a community college. The fact that the Heisman frontrunner has been able to get past the controversy and continue to put up numbers is impressive to say the least.
"Cameron Newton is physically and mentally as tough as I've ever seen," Chizik said after the Alabama game. "Period."
Michael Dyer, Onterrio McCalebb and Mario Fannin are all talented tailbacks who have helped the Tigers rack up 41.6 ppg. They have combined for nearly 2,000 rushing yards and 18 scores on the ground. As for the receivers, Darvin Adams is tops with 41 catches for 692 yards, while Emory Blake has scored on six of his 24 grabs.
Defensively, Auburn is yielding 25.1 ppg and 363.2 total ypg, numbers that can certainly stand some improvement. The Tigers are permitting 255.2 passing ypg, and opposing quarterbacks have been able to toss 21 touchdown passes against only eight interceptions. While Auburn can't be happy about the fact that it has yielded 16 rushing touchdowns, the team is permitting a mere 3.4 yards per rushing attempt. A standout on the defense is Nick Fairley, who has 20 TFLs to his credit, including 9.5 sacks.
Against Alabama last week, Newton threw three touchdown passes and ran for another to lead his team to the come-from-behind victory. The Tigers finished with just 324 total yards, but Newton didn't throw a single interception. Auburn was just 4-of-13 on third-down conversion attempts and held the ball for under 27 minutes, but the team made the necessary plays down the stretch.
The Auburn defense was dominated in the first half by Alabama, which scored three touchdowns in that opening frame, all on drives spanning greater than 60 yards. To the credit of the Tigers, they allowed no touchdowns and just two field goals over the final 45 minutes. Auburn came up with a pair of takeaways and limited Alabama to 69 rushing yards on 30 attempts, a tremendous achievement.
Undoubtedly, South Carolina has the offensive talent to take advantage of Auburn's defensive weaknesses. The Gamecocks, who are averaging 33.2 ppg and 394.7 total ypg, have standouts at all the skill positions. Stephen Garcia is one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the nation, and he will play this weekend despite a shoulder injury. Garcia, who has run for six touchdowns, has completed 65.9 percent of his passes for 2,646 yards and 18 scores with nine interceptions. Alshon Jeffery is a star at the receiver position, as he has made 75 catches for 1,351 yards and eight touchdowns to lead the team by a wide margin in all three carries. Marcus Lattimore is a freshman tailback who has played like a senior, rushing for 1,114 yards and 17 touchdowns.
The Gamecocks are yielding only 20.2 ppg and 338.7 total ypg, impressive numbers considering the quality of opposition that they have faced this season. South Carolina is tough against the run, as it is permitting a meager 93.2 rushing ypg at a clip of 2.9 yards per carry. Just nine rushing touchdowns have been permitted compared to 18 passing scores. Stephon Gilmore paces Spurrier's club with 66 tackles, including three sacks, and he has intercepted two passes. Devin Taylor has recorded 7.5 sacks.
In the 22-point victory over Clemson last week, South Carolina was rather mediocre offensively, as the club posted just 322 total yards and scored a pair of touchdowns. The Gamecocks were committed to running the football, finishing with 36 attempts, but they logged a mere 95 yards on the ground. Sure, they held possession for nearly 35 minutes, but a 6-of-18 effort on third-down conversion attempts was far from impressive. Garcia threw a pair of touchdown passes, but he completed fewer than 50 percent of his tosses. Jeffery finished with five catches for 141 yards and a score.
The defense was dominant against Clemson and even contributed a touchdown, as South Carolina's Antonio Allen intercepted a pass and raced 37 yards for a score. The Gamecocks surrendered only 251 total yards and came up with three takeaways, obvious keys to the lopsided win.
12/01 11:56:13 ET