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3 SEC QUESTIONS THAT NAG MORE THAN YOUR EX
(i) Who do you expect to have the best performance in the SECCG?
At this point how do you pick anyone other than Auburn's quarterback Cameron Newton? If Auburn didn't have such an experienced defensive front, and have done so well against the run, you might be able to take SC's Marcus Lattimore. But if you did, you'd be taking a far bigger risk than choosing Newton. Stop Cam's ground game and he beats you with the pass, as he did against Clemson, Alabama and ole miss. Take away the pass (or try to) and he beats you with his legs, as he did against LSU, Arkansas and SC. Try to do both, and he'll beat you in both, as he did against UGA and Kentucky. Newton is the most dynamic player to come through the SEC since – well, technically since Tim Tebow; as that was only yesterday, it seems to diminish the unique nature of Newton's talent. It shouldn't. He's a very rare athlete, and it's been a true pleasure to watch him play this season.
This one is pretty easy… Cameron Newton will have the best performance in the SECCG. A lot of South Carolina fans will point to how Alabama limited Newton in the first half, how this is their second attempt at stopping the Heisman favorite, and that they learned so much from the first game. To put it kindly, South Carolina doesn't have the same talent level that Alabama has (it doesn't matter that Carolina beat Bama this year), and they don't have the defensive coaches either. Newton used South Carolina this year as his breakout game, and he has improved steadily each week since. Carolina may try to limit his ability to run free into the secondary, but the Carolina secondary is downright terrible. Newton will end up using his arm more than his legs in Atlanta. Last year Mark Ingram leveraged the SEC Championship to catapult himself into a Heisman; Newton has the award locked up already, but he solidifies everyone's vote with another great effort against the Gamecocks.
(ii) South Carolina/Auburn Position-by-Position: Who has the Edge?
Mitchell: AUBURN – Just stop.
Harbach: AUBURN – Stephen Garcia has had a good year this season, but he is not the caliber signal caller that Auburn has in Newton. Newton is the best dual threat QB in the nation and the favorite to win the Heisman trophy; Garcia is not at that level right now.
Mitchell: SOUTH CAROLINA – Came close to calling this a wash, as Marcus Lattimore and Mike Dyer are close in overall numbers. However, the difference is Lattimore is THE man – he's carried the load virtually by himself. And with everyone well aware of that he's been a major target, and he's still done a fantastic job. Even with all the talent SC has on offense, it's the true freshman that's carried this team to Atlanta. And that alone is worth the nod to SC when measuring this position. If you include Cam as a "running back", which we didn't, then this is a tie – maybe even a slight beat for Auburn given their breadth at the position.
Harbach: EVEN – Marcus Lattimore is no doubt the best freshmen running back in the country, but as a duo, Mike Dyer and Onterio McCalebb are equally dangerous running the football. If you twisted our arm and made us pick one of the three we would take Lattimore, but if Marcus goes down South Carolina is done. Losing Dyer or McCalebb wouldn't change Auburn's ability to run the ball from the RB position much.
RECEIVERS & TIGHT ENDS
Mitchell: SOUTH CAROLINA – Auburn throws the ball? Yes, of course they do. Terrell Zachery, Kodi Burns, Darvin Adams and Emory Blake are all quality receivers, and Newton is one of the most accurate passers in the nation – which always makes your receivers look better. But Alshon Jeffrey is arguably the best WR is the conference (he's not, it's AJ Green, but we said "arguably"). Tori Gurley and DL Moore would both be #1s on most other squads, and will likely be playing on Sundays. It's tight, but again we give the nod to the Gamecocks.
Harbach: SOUTH CAROLINA – There is not a huge talent gap between these two groups, but it is hard to ignore how good Alshon Jeffrey has been this season and how good the role players around him have been as well. Tori Gurley and DL Moore have been very complimentary to the beast that Jeffrey has become, and with the size and speed Carolina brings at that position they deserve the edge.
Mitchell: AUBURN – Not even close. The SC line looks vastly improved vs. last season, but ONLY when Lattimore is on the field. Take the freshman out of the equation, and this squad looks a lot like the line of 2007-2009. Which is to say, average at best. Meanwhile, Auburn's O-line has been exceptionally impressive, in both run blocking and pass protection. Having considerable experience, this unit has been as much a lynchpin to Auburn's 2010 success as has anything other than Newton himself. It has also done a masterful job of blocking downfield.
Harbach: AUBURN – This is one of the easier ones to pick as the Auburn offensive line has been a dominating force since the second half of the Clemson game. The line has paved the way for Auburn to rush for 300 yards in five SEC games, including the first game against Carolina.
Mitchell: AUBURN – Again, this is actually quite close, but I'm giving Auburn the edge solely because of the dynamic play of DT Nick Fairley. He's worth the price of admission. There are a handful of players in our conference that you simply know are going to make a key play at some point in the game, and Fairley is one of those players. SC has good talent on the front line – in particular DE Devin Taylor. Both squads do a great job of stopping the run (Carolina: #1 SEC/#5 nation, Auburn: #2 SEC/#10 nation), but SC is better at Tackles for Loss and Sacks. Again, it's quite close – but Fairley will once again step up at a key point to make a difference.
Harbach: EVEN – This is similar to the running back position except that this time Auburn has the best player in Fairley. Both D-lines are very talented and very deep. South Carolina's Taylor is one of the best young defensive ends in the league, while Auburn has experience at the ends with seniors Antoine Carter and Michael Goggans. All eight starters are very good SEC D-lineman and there isn't a huge difference between the two units.
Mitchell: AUBURN – Carolina's LBs have made key mistakes throughout the season – including a number of missed tackles. These mistakes will add up against a offense like Auburn; you simply cannot miss tackles playing this Auburn team. We'd feel more comfortable with our pick if Auburn had a bit more depth at the position… but minus two injuries during the game, the Tigers should be ok.
Harbach: AUBURN – Auburn brings two very experience senior linebackers to the field in Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens. The Carolina defense has been up and down all year, but these are the top two rushing defenses in the SEC, and the linebackers have a lot to do with that. We give the edge to Auburn because of how they tackled Carolina the last time around and how Carolina didn't tackle very well at all.
Mitchell: EVEN – We went through this a couple of weeks ago, but as bad as Auburn's secondary has been at times throughout the season, they've managed to put their heels in the earth when needed in the second half of ballgames. SC's defense may not have given up as many big plays as Auburn's, but it's close. Both teams struggle with pass defense – we're calling it even.
Harbach: EVEN – This might seem shocking because the Auburn secondary has been slammed week in and week out (perhaps even more so in the press than on the field), but South Carolina gives up only 10 fewer passing yards a game than Auburn. Neither one of these defensive backfields are particularly good, and to pick one over the other doesn't make much sense. It is the weakest part of the defense for both teams.
Mitchell: EVEN – Lanning may not have the best average, but he has been clutch at times for SC this season (go look at the first half of the Florida game). His punting is pretty good. Outside of the Iron Bowl, Auburn's punting has been just as woeful; Auburn is dead last in the conference in Net Punting. The Tigers' PK Wes Byrum is likely a notch above Lanning. Again, overall this is too close to call.
Harbach: AUBURN – Spencer Lanning handles both duties for South Carolina and he is a decent punter but a worrisome kicker. He has missed three PAT's this year but he is hitting a decent 75% on FG's. Auburn's punters are awful but kicker Wes Byrum has been clutch since his freshmen year. He isn't Josh Jasper or Blair Walsh, but he would be third on any list behind those two.
Mitchell: AUBURN – This is much easier to gauge… SC's return game is near the bottom of the SEC barrel in kickoffs and punt returns, while Auburn has been good – particularly returning kickoffs (ranked 4th in conference, to SC's 11th). Edge here to the Tigers. And given SC is going to rely heavily on Lattimore's running, field position is likely to be even more critical than usual in this game. Keep an eye on the kick returners!
Harbach: AUBURN – South Carolina is second to last in the SEC in Kickoff Returns and tied for last in Punt Return average. Demond Washington and Onterio McCalebb have been excellent on kickoffs, but both teams have serious issues when it comes to punt returns. Auburn gets the edge because they have two guys who can take it to the house on any kickoff.
Mitchell: EVEN – Chizik, Malzhan and Roof have done an excellent job this season for Auburn. Malzhan in using Newton effectively, and Roof in particular with his second half adjustments to a paper thin defensive squad. However, Spurrier and Johnson have also worked considerable magic, especially Johnson, whose defense has been unusually suspect at times this year. Both sets of coaches have done excellent jobs preparing for opponents and making second half adjustments. If we were going to give a slight nod it would go to Auburn, whose coaches have managed to run the SEC West unscathed. Though a lot of that credit falls on the shoulders (legs and arms) of #2.
Harbach: AUBURN – Has Steve Spurrier done more than Gene Chizik in the SEC? No question about it, but he hasn't done it at South Carolina, and his staff is not better than Auburn's. Gus Malzahn coached circles around Ellis Johnson in their first meeting, and Auburn DC Ted Roof had a masterful fourth quarter defense set up for the Carolina offense. Steve Spurrier has proven he knows how to win SEC Championships, but right now Auburn has the better overall staff.
(iii) What every SEC fan should be talking about re: the SECCG, but isn't?
Everyone is pointing to the fact that Marcus Lattimore got only 14 carries in the first contest between these two teams, and that given the opportunity to "run free", the talented freshman will make this rematch an entirely different affair. While we've been pointing out Lattimore's "15 carry threshold" for weeks now vis-à-vis SC's wins/losses, most are failing to given equal credit to the improvement made by Auburn Tigers since these teams first locked horns.
Since that game, Newton has blossomed in terms of both performance and confidence. In Rushing Offense, Auburn has gone from 12th to 6th in the nation. It's gone from 17th to 8th in Overall Offense, and a whopping 41st to 7th in Scoring Offense. It's Scoring Defense and Total Defense have also improved during that time, and its Run Defense has gone from 27th to 10th today. Yes, SC might not be the same team it was on September 25th, but so too has Auburn improved. In fact, it's not a stretch to say that Auburn has improved even more during that time than SC.
If not for the current situation regarding Newton's recruitment, the Cameron Newton story would be one of Disney feel good proportions. Growing up south of Atlanta, Newton was recruited by Auburn, but former offensive coordinator Al Borges didn't think he was accurate enough and targeted Kodi Burns instead. Newton went to Florida where he played as a true freshmen, got hurt his sophomore year, bought a stolen laptop, got arrested for having stolen property in his possession, finished out the year in Gainesville and decided to transfer to Junior College after Tim Tebow announced he would return for his senior year. Newton spent a year in Blinn Junior College where he led the team to a JC National Championship, then signed with Auburn and has led the Tigers back to his home town to play for a chance at a SEC and BCS Championship.
No one knows for certain how Saturday will play out. We have our assumptions, and having seen him once already, the South Carolina defense seems convinced it is ready to shut him down. But how excited and motivated is Newton going to be to play in front of his home crowd in the Georgia Dome? This will more than likely be Cam's final SEC game, and how fitting is it that his SEC career finish up less than ten miles away from where he committed to Florida four years ago. Newton is a great story, a polarizing figure and the best player in College Football. Sometimes you can't write stories like this… But there is still a very good South Carolina team waiting in Atlanta that will have a lot to say about how the story ends.
IN FOCUS: Which SEC Coach / Player is in the Spotlight in the SECCG?
Marcus Lattimore, RB SC. I agree with Brian here. If Lattimore can grind out 30+ carries against this nationally ranked rushing defense, thereby keeping Newton on the bench, SC will win this game. We saw what happened to Auburn when Newton's not on the field for long stretches of time in the first half of the Iron Bowl (granted, that had nothing to do with Bama's rushing, but the point remains nonetheless). Keep Newton off the field – that's the only way to stop this Auburn offense. As we wrote before the Iron Bowl, you can't simply stack the line and take away the run – even though he doesn't do it often, Newton's deadly throwing the ball, ranked the #2 overall Passing Efficiency quarterback in the country. As Lattimore goes, so goes Carolina's chance at a title.
Marcus Lattimore, RB SC. There are two pieces to this spotlight player: Lattimore himself and the offensive line. First, Lattimore had a terrible time against tthe Tigers in their first meeting because Auburn has a very strong run defense. Spurrier did not go away from Lattimore out of stubbornness… he did it because his star running back wasn't getting any space. The games South Carolina has lost have been when Lattimore is contained or injured. That hasn't happened a lot but when it does, Carolina looks like a one dimensional team and falls apart. If Cameron Newton is the person that Auburn needs to win, Marcus Lattimore is that player for Carolina. Lattimore needs 25+ carries and 125 yards to give the Gamecocks a chance to win this game. Spurrier will feed him the ball more than he did two months ago, but if the yards aren't there it will be tough sledding for South Carolina.
SEC POWER RANKINGS
1 Auburn – Won one of the greatest football games we've ever seen
2 Arkansas (up from 3) – Pigs can smell Sugar
3 LSU (down from 2) – Yup. Tigers fell a notch
4 Alabama – No shame in losing to a power like 2010 Auburn, even with the collapse
5 South Carolina – Roll the dice, Coach; don't leave anything in your bag
6 Mississippi State – Hang on to Mullen!
7 Florida – Well that was embarrassing
8 Georgia – Very impressed with Aaron Murray's development
9 Tennessee (up from 10) – The most improved team over the last third of the season
10 Kentucky (down from 9) – Not pretty, but a bowl's a bowl. Going to miss Cobb
11 ole miss – Hit the recruiting trail hard
12 Vanderbilt – Where to now? 2008 Music City Bowl seems a lifetime ago…
1 Auburn – "The Cam-back" keeps Auburn's BCS hopes alive
2 Arkansas (up from 4) – Mallett just makes big play after big play in the passing game
3 LSU (down from 2) – No one to blame but themselves… 6 seconds left in the half changed the game
4 Alabama (down from 3) – "The Collapse" will make for an ugly offseason for the Tide
5 South Carolina – Lee Corso may have a nasty welcome to Columbia next trip by Gameday
6 Mississippi State – Why Mullen doesn't have a contract extension yet is beyond comprehension
7 Florida – 2010 Gator Motto: If it's broke, don't fix it
8 Georgia – Getting the feeling the coaching problem in Athens actually is Richt
9 Tennessee (up from 10) – Derek Dooley is looking like the right hire for the present, and Bray is the future
10 Kentucky (down from 9) – 2 losses that could have made the Wildcat season special were @ Ole Miss and @ UT
11 Vanderbilt – Paging Tommy Bowden… Paging Tommy Bowden
12 Ole Miss – Do what you do, Jimmy Sexton
THE GAME TO DVR
1) South Carolina vs. Auburn, December 4th | 3:30 PM | CBS. We picked Auburn to win the National Championship after the clutch win against Arkansas, and we've seen nothing since then to make us change our opinion. Auburn's offense is virtually unstoppable at this point – hyperbole to be sure, but then again, who has stopped them over a four quarter game? Still, it was an interesting process breaking these two teams down by position. It was interesting to see SC grade out well against Auburn on offense, but fail to take any position on defense. We noted this earlier, but SC's only chance to win this is if Lattimore has the mother of all games – something akin to his performance against Florida (40/212, 3 TDs). We note that Florida ended the season barely ranked in the top 30 in Rush Defense. Auburn? Top 10… Pick: Auburn 35, South Carolina 21
1) South Carolina vs. Auburn, December 4th | 3:30 PM | CBS. Stats are fun, but most of the time they are meaningless. South Carolina was the number one rush defense in the SEC coming into Jordan Hare back in September, and left giving up 334. Two months later South Carolina once again enters the game as the best rushing defense in the SEC and Auburn continues to lead the SEC in rushing with almost 300 yards per game. First time SEC teams playing in the SEC Championship are 4-4, and when the SECCG features a rematch from the regular season the team that won the first game is 5-1 in the second. All that stuff is cute, but this game comes down to one thing and one thing only: the running game. Auburn has proven it can stop anyone from running the football, including South Carolina, and more importantly, Auburn can run the ball on anyone.
Marcus Lattimore will get his carries, but he isn't going to get his normal yards. Alshon Jeffrey will burn the Auburn secondary and Stephen Garcia will play well and limit his turnovers... But in the end it will come down to Auburn's ability to move the ball whenever they want, and Nick Fairley & Company blowing up the Carolina offensive line. Auburn is playing its best football of the season right now, turning the ball over only twice in the month of November, compared to six for the Gamecocks. Also, Carolina has won three straight games against teams with a combined record of 19-16, so their great play can be partially attributed to the competition. Auburn will give up a ton of yards and a bunch of points, but in the end Auburn will own the fourth quarter and claim the SEC Championship. Pick: Auburn 38, South Carolina 28
Don't forget to read CFN's Barrett Sallee Three & Out: SEC Preview every Wednesday.
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