No. 19 South Carolina vs. No. 1 Auburn
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Ga.
When: 4 p.m.
TV: CBS-3, 3:30 p.m.
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Records: South Carolina 9-3, 5-3 SEC; Auburn 12-0, 8-0 SEC
South Carolina passing game vs. Auburn secondary
The Gamecocks’ passing game starts and mostly ends with Alshon Jeffery, who leads the SEC and is fifth in the nation in receiving yards per game (112.6). Jeffery has 75 catches this season, 36 more than the next-closest Gamecock. Quarterback Stephen Garcia is fifth in the nation in passer rating but is playing with a bruised left shoulder and right thumb. Auburn’s secondary hasn’t done well against big-time receivers this year. Jeffery had 184 yards, Georgia’s A.J. Green had 164 and Alabama’s Julio Jones had 199. The Tigers did a better job on the latter two in the second half, but they still didn’t shut them down completely.
Edge: SOUTH CAROLINA
South Carolina running backs vs. Auburn linebackers
Freshman Marcus Lattimore has 1,114 rushing yards and has been the difference-maker for the Gamecocks’ offense. With 20 more yards today, he will have the third-best rushing season in school history behind only Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers’ 1979 and 1980 seasons. Auburn handled Lattimore in the first matchup, holding him to 33 yards on 14 carries, a 2.4-yard average. Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens played a big role in holding Alabama’s Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson to 60 yards last week. Add a resurgent Eltoro Freeman, and Auburn’s linebacking trio is stout.
South Carolina offensive line vs. Auburn defensive line
The Gamecocks have given up 25 sacks this year. Only three teams in the SEC have given up more. South Carolina has paved the way for a 1,000-yard rusher, but even the offensive linemen say that Lattimore has more to do with that than they do. Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley added to his reputation as a disrupter against Alabama, finishing with two sacks and bringing his TFL total up to 20 this year, a school record. Auburn has 30 sacks this year, fifth in the SEC.
Auburn passing game vs. South Carolina secondary
Quarterback Cam Newton’s overlooked skill remains his passing. He has thrown 11 touchdowns the last four games and one pick, a ball that went through the hands of a receiver. He spreads the wealth. Auburn has had a different leading receiver the last three weeks. Add in a healthy Philip Lutzenkirchen at tight end (3 TDs in two weeks) and the Tigers have a versatile attack. The Gamecocks have fluctuated from average to terrible in the secondary. The Tigers are one of the few teams that haven’t exploited South Carolina’s propensity to blow coverages, probably because they had so much success running the ball.
Auburn running backs vs. South Carolina linebackers
Auburn’s run of 300-yard games in SEC play came to an end with a season-worst 108 rushing yards against Alabama. But the Tigers have proven they can run the ball against the Gamecocks. Newton had 176 yards in the first meeting. Running backs Mike Dyer and Onterio McCalebb added 100 and 55 yards, respectively. Dyer is 114 yards shy of 1,000. The Gamecocks linebacking corps of Josh Dickerson and Tony Straughter has been good but not great. They are undersized (201 pounds, 225 pounds) but athletic. Throw in hybrid Spur Antonio Allen and the group gets better. Allen is having a great year.
Auburn offensive line vs. South Carolina defensive line
The Tigers’ physical edge has been well-documented, and it started against South Carolina. This is the kind of game where the experience of four seniors who have made a combined 157 career starts pays off. Despite last week’s hiccup, Auburn is still averaging 291.3 rushing yards per game. This group has only allowed 21 sacks, third fewest in the league. The Gamecocks defensive line is their strength. Tackles Travian Robertson and Ladi Ajiboye are strong and have excellent technique. Ends Devin Taylor and Cliff Matthews are a threat on every snap, and versatile backup Melvin Ingram leads the team with eight sacks.
South Carolina return units vs. Auburn coverage teams
The Gamecocks have gotten nothing from their return teams. Starting punt returner Ace Sanders has only 13 return yards this season. Sanders has averaged 1.9 yards on his seven returns. Kickoff returner Bryce Sherman is ninth in the SEC. Auburn is second in the SEC in kick coverage but last in punting average. Punter Ryan Shoemaker had a decent day against Alabama, dropping two punts inside the 20, but he still only averaged 38.7 yards per punt.
Auburn return units vs. South Carolina coverage teams
Demond Washington and McCalebb help give Auburn the 16th-ranked kick return unit in the nation, averaging 24.4 yards. But the Tigers have a mess on punt returns. Quindarius Carr fumbled a punt against Alabama. Darvin Adams has solid hands and could step in, but he’s only returned one punt in his career. South Carolina hasn’t made any big positive plays in its coverage teams, but it does have one glaring mistake, allowing Florida’s Andre DeBose to go 100 yards on the first play of the game against the Gators.
South Carolina is getting double-duty out of Spencer Lanning, who is 15-for-20 this year and hit three key 40-plus yard kicks against the Gators. He is coming off SEC Special Teams Player of the Week honors against Clemson. Auburn’s Wes Byrum is 15-for-19 this year, but you have to wonder if he’s getting rusty. The senior hasn’t had a field goal attempt since the Ole Miss game on Oct. 30.
South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier will be coaching in his eighth SEC title game. The Gamecocks’ sixth-year head coach has a lot of momentum right now, having already led the team to just its third season ever with more than eight victories. Spurrier had the right plan against Auburn the first time around (scoring 27 points despite four fourth-quarter turnovers) and he will again. Auburn’s Gene Chizik has been an coordinator in big games before (on Auburn’s unbeaten 2004 team and on Texas’ national championship 2005 team), but he’s never been the one in charge in a big game like this. Although Chizik has cleared every hurdle this season, the lack of experience as a head coach in these types of games -- especially compared to Spurrier -- is hard to overlook.
Edge: South Carolina
South Carolina comes into the game with little to lose. The Gamecocks could lose the game and still lay claim to one of the top three seasons in school history. The key for South Carolina will be its offensive execution. Nobody in garnet and black expects to stop the Auburn offense entirely, but they have proven they can move the ball on the Tigers. They’ll have to keep pace for the whole game this time, not just three quarters like in September. Auburn, meanwhile, has everything to play for. The SEC title is on the line, but so is a berth in the BCS national championship game. The Tigers have had their share of tests this year, going down to the wire in almost all of their significant games. This is just the latest, so it shouldn’t overwhelm them.
Josh Kendall’s prediction: Auburn 31, South Carolina 30
Andy Bitter’s prediction: Auburn 42, South Carolina 31
-- Andy Bitter and Josh Kendall