AUBURN, Ala. — Early-season statement games can be misleading.
Case in point: Two years ago, after LSU squeaked by Auburn in a September battle between top-10 teams. LSU ended up with a 3-5 league record, while Auburn parted ways with its head coach.
So proclamations about the outcome of tonight’s matchup at Jordan-Hare Stadium between No. 12 South Carolina and No. 17 Auburn shouldn’t be blown out of proportion.
Nevertheless, both teams think a lot is riding on this September game between teams trying to establish themselves as SEC contenders.
“It’s a lot to prove,” Auburn right guard Byron Isom said. “When you get this type of attention for this type of game, it’s really a statement game.”
Auburn (3-0, 1-0 SEC) is seeking its second straight perfect September under coach Gene Chizik, who went 1-2 against ranked teams last year.
South Carolina (3-0, 1-0) will try to start 4-0 for only the ninth time in school history and the first since 2001, when Lou Holtz was coach.
The Gamecocks, who have never won more than eight games in Steve Spurrier’s five-plus years as coach, hope to prove their legitimacy by snapping a five-game SEC road losing streak that dates back to 2008.
They will try to do it in a decidedly un-Spurrier-like fashion. The ol’ ball coach made his living at Florida by throwing the ball at will but never has had the quarterback to do it at South Carolina, a trend that has continued with his current signal-caller, Stephen Garcia, with whom he has a love-hate relationship.
Enter Marcus Lattimore. The freshman running back, who nearly signed with Auburn last winter, is second in the SEC with 333 rushing yards and has a league-high 70 carries.
“You have to do what you do best to try to win the game,” Spurrier said. “We are not real good throwing it as we have been running.
“I shouldn’t say that we’re completely a running team, but we would hate to start throwing it 45-50 times. History tells you something good doesn’t happen when you have to throw that many times.”
The Tigers have been hit-or-miss at stopping the run under defensive coordinator Ted Roof, struggling against small, shifty backs while faring decently against straight-line, power backs (most notably Alabama’s Mark Ingram, who had 16 carries for 30 yards last year).
Lattimore, who is 6 feet, 218 pounds and has drawn comparisons to former Florida back and Spurrier pupil Emmitt Smith, better fits the latter category. He broke 29 tackles for 127 extra yards during his big day against Georgia earlier this season.
“They’re going to come to town looking to run the ball inside a lot, basically trying to run it down our throats, see what we’re made of,” defensive tackle Nick Fairley said. “We’ve got to step up as the defense as a whole, tackle better, bring a hat to it.”
That will be a challenge for both sides. Auburn enters the game with the SEC’s leading rushing attack, averaging 259.3 yards per game. South Carolina leads the SEC and is sixth nationally in rushing defense, allowing 59.7 yards per game.
It’s no wonder that Chizik made repeated pleas this week for his veteran offensive line, which has 121 starts among its four seniors, to step up its physical play.
“Any time you hear it from the head coach it gets your attention,” Auburn offensive line coach Jeff Grimes said. “I’ve said it a couple times this season that we’re not where we can be or where I think we’re capable of being based on the amount of experience we’ve got up front.
“It’s a great challenge for us this week. It’ll be a great opportunity for us to show where we are.”