ATLANTA -- Auburn cornerback T’Sharvan Bell earned his second career start in Saturday’s SEC championship game. He rewarded the coaches for their decision.
Bell finished with a team-best nine tackles and returned an interception 10 yards for a touchdown in Auburn’s 59-17 win against South Carolina.
“In the last month or so, I think he’s probably one of the most improved football players on our defensive side of the ball,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said.
Bell, who missed two-and-a-half weeks with a hamstring injury in the middle of the season, started in place of Demond Washington, who got burned on several big plays the previous two games against Alabama and Georgia.
“Just a guy who has come into his own,” Chizik said of Bell. “In the last two games he’s made two huge plays for us that everybody could see. But there’s a lot of plays he’s made behind the scenes that nobody would probably notice.”
The play that caught everyone’s attention at Alabama was the sack he had of quarterback Greg McElroy, coming off the edge on a cornerback blitz on a key third down late in the fourth quarter. He knocked the Crimson Tide out of field goal range and McElroy out of the game with a concussion.
Bell almost finished the Iron Bowl with a game-clinching interception, but he dropped it.
Given another chance Saturday, he made the most of his opportunity. In the third quarter, Auburn linebacker Craig Stevens pressured South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia into an errant pass that Bell caught at the 10-yard line and easily took into the end zone.
“It was like a dream come true,” Bell said. “I (thought) I’ve got to catch this, I ain’t dropping this one. I walked into the end zone, looked up and saw my mom.”
It was Auburn’s first interception return for a touchdown since Walt McFadden took one back 100 yards against Northwestern in last season’s Outback Bowl.
Title game records
Auburn’s 39-point victory was the largest in the 19-year history of the SEC championship game, topping Florida’s 31-point win against Arkansas in 1995.
The Tigers set a host of offensive marks, including points (56), touchdowns (8) and total yards (589). The previous record for yardage was 559 yards, set by Auburn’s 2004 team.
The teams combined to score 73 points, second-most in an SEC title game to the 75 Florida and Alabama combined to score in 1996.
On the offensive and defensive side of the ball, Auburn won the game on third downs. The Tigers converted 9 of 12 opportunities offensively, a few the result of Cam Newton keeping a play alive with his feet.
Defensively, Auburn held South Carolina, which entered the game with the second-best third-down conversion rate in the SEC, to 5 of 12 on third-down conversions.
“That was one of our goals going in,” Chizik said. “I thought coach (Ted) Roof did a good job third-down planning tonight. Always the key is to get pressure on the quarterback. I thought he did a great job mixing in different blends of blitzes and four man pressures.”
LB Eltoro Freeman started for the second straight game. He had one tackle. ... PK Wes Byrum missed his only field-goal attempt, hitting the right upright with a 36-yarder in the second quarter. It was Byrum’s first field goal attempt since Oct. 30 at Mississippi. … LT Lee Ziemba extended his consecutive starts streak to 51 games, adding to his school record. … Former LB Gregg Carr (1981-84) is part of the SEC 2010 Legends Class. He was a three-time All-SEC selection and the 1984 SEC Lineman of the Year.