Can the Gamecocks upset Auburn for the SEC crown?
SEC Championship Game, No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 18 South Carolina
This is an unfair comparison to South Carolina’s Stephen Garcia, and that’s because Garcia has developed this season into one of the SEC’s better quarterbacks. But, you know, when you’re going up against the likely Heisman Trophy winner, it’s difficult to keep pace.
The conference’s leader in rushing (113.3 yards a game) is also its leader in passing efficiency (185.6). Cameron Newton’s thrown only six interceptions all year. He can beat you in a variety of ways, but teams would still prefer to dare Newton to throw. Then again, Alabama did — and he worked the Tide in the second half.
Garcia fumbled twice in the fourth quarter of the first Auburn game and didn’t play the final six minutes as a result. Had to be a sickening feeling for the junior, who hasn’t looked back since then. In fact, he’s played his past three games turnover-free. South Carolina could use another similar effort from Garcia, the nation’s 14th-ranked passer, in this one. The run game wasn’t there in the first game. The potential is there that the rematch could play out in a similar fashion, thrusting the burden on Garcia’s shoulders. Can he handle it?
It’s difficult to give Auburn the edge over Marcus Lattimore, but Lattimore is outnumbered here. In addition to Newton, who often fashions himself as a running back, the Tigers have between-the-tackles beast Michael Dyer and hit-the-edge speedster Onterio McCalebb. Both Dyer and McCalebb did damage in the first South Carolina game. Dyer had a very quiet 100-yard day, but it was a performance that helped the Tigers hang on to the ball for most of the second half. Speaking of that, McCalebb and Mario Fannin each fumbled in the first meeting. That won’t do, obviously — especially for Fannin, who has proven fumble-prone all season.
Lattimore is special, but he has to have somewhere to run. With 33 yards on 14 carries the first time, it wasn’t there earlier in the year. Has he learned any new tricks for Round Two?
This area works just like running backs. South Carolina has the best one, by far. But Auburn has better depth.
Alshon Jeffery is one of the top three receivers in the country. With 1,351 yards on 75 catches, he’s a Biletnikoff finalist. But the Tigers three top very good threats in Darvin Adams, Emory Blake and Terrell Zachery. They’re all slightly different, but speed is the common denominator. Throw in tight end Phil Lutzenkirchen, who has five touchdowns this season, including a late one against South Carolina, and the Tigers have weapons all over the field.
Tori Gurley showed he could be a legit target for the Gamecocks with 14 catches in the Vanderbilt game, but he has just eight in the five games since — including none the past two weeks. Ace Sanders is a speedy threat, but Steve Spurrier hasn’t used him too, too much against SEC opponents.
Spurrier just raved and raved after the first Auburn game about Jeff Grimes and Auburn’s offensive line. Newton’s individual ability shines, but the Tigers were incredibly physical against the Gamecocks back in September. They were big, particularly, in helping Dyer to his 100-yard evening. Left tackle Lee Ziemba is as good as it gets in the league.
South Carolina’s line has shown signs of improvement, even if it hasn’t been incredibly consistent. It followed the Auburn loss up with its finest showing, against Alabama. It very nearly helped pave the way for the first 100-yard rusher against the Tide in 40 games (Lattimore had 93 yards). Against a great Clemson defensive front last week, the Gamecocks kept Garcia from being sacked. That was a big, big point of emphasis coming into the season. This week will be a test to see if South Carolina has really improved.
Consider this the defensive equivalent of the running back and receiver breakdowns. Auburn has the best D-lineman, in tackle Nick Fairley, but South Carolina has the better overall line.
In truth, both D-lines are very, very good. But the Gamecocks are deeper and can therefore rotate players and stay fresher. That’s a big secret in their success against the run and SEC-leading 39 sacks.
Melvin Ingram has been a pleasant surprise as a junior who can play both end and tackle. Devin Taylor, at end, might be the most underrated player in the conference. Those players have 15½ combined sacks. Senior end Cliff Matthews, a captain, was hindered by a shoulder brace early in the season, including the first Auburn game. Rid of it, he’s playing much better.
Fairley has 9½, sacks himself, but no teammate has any more than 4½.
Advantage: South Carolina
Auburn’s Josh Bynes is the best linebacker in this game. It’s not even close. The 6-2, 235-pound senior is the big and physical prototype of a Tigers linebacker, leading the team with 68 tackles. He’s a big part of Auburn’s physicality in run defense.
As it turns out, the first Auburn game was the only one that junior leader Shaq Wilson would play this season, because of a hamstring injury. Wilson recovered two Auburn fumbles, but he was also several steps slow in pursuing Newton. The Gamecocks, in truth, would’ve been better off without a player who grabbed a medical redshirt shortly after that game.
The rotation of Rodney Paulk, Josh Dickerson, Tony Straughter and Quin Smith has worked well enough to support the defensive line in the run game. Are they physical enough for Newton, however?
One of the few spots on the field for which the appropriate question is, Who is worse? South Carolina is 99th in the country in passing defense (245.5 yards a game), but Auburn, at 106th, is even worse (255.2).
One thing both secondaries do not get credit for is their ability to help out in the run game. In fact, South Carolina’s top three tacklers are defensive backs — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Gamecocks often use their corners and safeties up near the line of scrimmage. All three safeties are among the top six tacklers. The three-man rotation of DeVonte Holloman, D.J. Swearinger and Akeem Auguste has worked to give the Gamecocks something different than what they had in the first game.
Holloman is playing well moving between the field and boundary safety positions. Don’t forget spur Antonio Allen with this group, also. He’s played exceptionally well the past month, including his pick six of Kyle Parker last week.
Similar story for the Tigers. Zac Etheridge, Neiko Thorpe and Demond Washington are among the top six tacklers.
Both defensive backfields have given up a ton of big plays. At least South Carolina’s secondary can say it’s played better in the past month. Still, this is a flimsy edge to project.
Advantage: South Carolina
Neither team has an extreme advantage in this area. Both have excellent kickers. South Carolina’s Spencer Lanning has made 15 of 20 field goals this season, including nine of his past 10 kicks. Auburn’s Wes Byrum has made a ton of clutch kicks in his career, and he’s 15 of 19 this season.
The difference is that Lanning has also developed into a very good punter. He had one of his best punting games last week at Clemson, averaging 43 yards a punt and knocking one out of bounds at the half-yard line. Lanning is averaging 43.8 yards a punt this season, compared to Ryan Shoemaker’s rather pedestrian 39.1 yards a punt.
Neither team has been particularly good in the return game. Auburn’s Demond Washington and South Carolina’s Bryce Sherman have proven to be middling men on kick returns, while the Gamecocks’ Ace Sanders and the Tigers’ Quin Carr have done little on punt returns.
Advantage: South Carolina
Quick math there says Auburn has a 5-3 advantage. And that makes sense when you consider the Tigers are 12–0 and the Gamecocks are 9–3. But, of course, these edges aren’t all there is to a game. Every fit of four quarters has its ebbs and flows, and South Carolina certainly has a chance to win. If the Gamecocks could grab a 20–7 lead and hang around for four quarters at Jordan-Hare, they’ve got what it takes to do it again on a neutral field.
Even if Newton doesn’t beat the Gamecocks with his legs, as he did the first time, there’s always the distinct possibility he could throw to beat a South Carolina secondary that’s had the propensity to give up a deep ball or two in every game. Keep an eye, too, on Lattimore. He couldn’t get going in the first game. In the Gamecocks’ four SEC wins with him (he missed one, due to injury), he rushed for 168 yards a game. In the three losses, including Auburn? Just 47.3 yards a game.
Turnovers, as they so often do, could determine this game of fairly even teams. South Carolina led the turnover battle 2-0 entering the fourth quarter in the first meeting. But it gave the ball away on all four fourth-quarter possessions.
Auburn beat South Carolina 35–27 in September via a fourth-quarter rally. The more things change …
AUBURN 35, SOUTH CAROLINA 27