Auburn vs. South Carolina: SEC Championship

The wait is almost over. It will be a rematch in Atlanta on Saturday when Auburn faces South Carolina for the SEC title. Auburn will be led by quarterback Cam Newton and a wealth of offensive weapons, while the Gamecocks fire back with a trio of playmakers on offense and the SEC's top rush defense.

It's here.

The game that South Carolina fans have waited for since joining the Southeastern Conference in 1992 is here. The game that South Carolina fans have waited for as they toiled through years of frustrating struggles is here.

On Saturday afternoon in the Georgia Dome, the USC Gamecocks will face the Auburn Tigers for the opportunity to be crowned the 2010 SEC Champion. And even though they will be an underdog against AU, the Gamecocks are confident after nearly beating the Tigers in September.

It will be the first SEC Championship game for South Carolina after winning their first SEC Eastern Division championship this season. For Auburn, it will be their fourth trip to the big game, and their first since 2004.

"We're excited that we're in our first SEC championship game and our guys are really looking forward to it," said Head Coach Steve Spurrier. "We're looking forward to the challenge and seeing if we can play our best game of the year."

Although his team may not have a lot of experience in this game, it is an understatement to say Spurrier has a wealth of it, as he traveled to the game seven times while at Florida, winning five titles. And Spurrier hopes to add number six, but will have to fight through the tough Auburn squad before taking home another championship.

"That's what every coach, I think, should shoot for once you start the season," said Spurrier. "If you're in a conference which almost everybody is now, you got a chance to win some kind of championship. Actually, every team in the SEC can win the division, if you're fortunate enough to get into national championship, you've got a shot at it."

Auburn has accumulated a 12-0 regular season, but it has not been without close calls. There were three point wins over Mississippi State, Kentucky, and Clemson in overtime. There was also the 35-27 defeat of South Carolina in September, a 24-17 win over LSU, and the 28-27 win over Alabama after coming back from a 24 point deficit.

"Obviously, Auburn has had a magical year, they've won all their games," said Spurrier. "They seem to really play well when the game's on the line, offense, defense and so forth. So we've got to play very well. Our guys are really looking forward to this game. We've got to block a lot better than we did last week. A lot of guys that didn't have their best game last week have got to play a lot better if we're going to have a chance to beat Auburn."

Rushing yards at a premium

Saturday's matchup will not only pit the top two teams in the SEC against each other, but also the top two run defenses in the conference. With both teams possessing prolific rushers in Marcus Lattimore and Cameron Newton, it will be strength versus strength for each squad.

South Carolina comes in with the top rush defense in the SEC, giving up only 93.2 yards per game on the ground. Auburn has been equally strong with their defensive front, as they have allowed an average of just 108 yards per contest.

The Gamecocks struggled on the ground in the first matchup with Auburn, rushing for just 79 yards as a team. The Tiger defense also held Lattimore in check, limiting him to just 33 net yards. Spurrier said that his team will have to try a different approach if they hope to break through the strong Auburn defensive line and get Lattimore going.

"But we certainly can't run right up the middle for no gain like we did at Auburn," added Spurrier. "Defensively, they're good against the run. They haven't been great against the pass and that's about the way we've been a lot this year also. Against run, we're first against the run, they're second in rush defense. (There's) a lot of similarities."

Still, South Carolina feels that if they can get Lattimore more yards in this game, it will lead to even greater opportunities for Stephen Garcia and Alshon Jeffery to exploit the Auburn secondary.

"I think it's going to come down to the team that plays the best, plays with the fewest turnovers, fewest crucial penalties, makes the big plays," said Spurrier. "And so far, they've had a knack of making the big plays every game. A few games we've not quite done that. I believe every game stands on its own merit and we'll see how this one plays out."

Gamecocks continuing to roll after Arkansas loss

With three straight wins since an inexplicable 41-20 home loss to Arkansas to start the month of November, the Gamecocks have forgotten all about the late season struggles that have plagued them for so long. Those three big wins allowed Carolina to continue their history making season and capture a division championship, but a fourth straight win would capture the school's first SEC title in football and instantly launch the Gamecocks into the conference's elite.

Coach Spurrier said that his team's planning and preparation for each individual game allowed them to quickly erase that loss from their minds. "Our team has had a plan. Like all coaches, we talk about a plan one game at a time. But also, there's next week and here's the next week as we go down the list there. So we have not, after some nice wins at Florida and at Clemson, I don't think we've gotten full of ourselves the way we have in the past."

The Head Ball Coach also stated that he thinks the reason his team has been able to sustain success over the course of an entire season has been staying grounded and not congratulating themselves too much over each win. But he also said there have been some unexplainable poor periods of play, and that the Gamecocks will look to avoid that to give themselves a chance on Saturday.

"I sense that our guys have not overly celebrated," said Spurrier. "We may have a little after the Alabama game, I'm not sure. But we were ready, I still say, we were ready to play at Kentucky, but second half, we just went bad. We went bad. Like Alabama went bad second half against Auburn, sometimes you go bad and you don't realize, gosh, how did that happen or this happen or that happen.. But right now, there's two of us playing for the championship and that's what you set out to do when the season begins."

Amazing atmosphere

Year in and year out, every football team in the SEC plays in some loud and intimidating atmospheres. The Gamecocks can certainly claim one of the toughest in the league as the faithful at Williams-Brice make it a tough place for any opponent to play.

But for this game, USC will be facing a whole new animal, as it will be a split crowd dividing the Georgia Dome. They will most certainly be ready after facing a full stadium on the Plains of Auburn in September.

Still, even Coach Spurrier knows that this game will be different than any his team has played in so far.

"It's a championship game," said Spurrier. "Full house. National TV audience. All the SEC schools are finished playing now except us. Probably all the players on all the other teams that love football, they'll watch this game. I know pretty much all of our guys watched it the last several years. The whole country watches pretty much and when it's all over, there's a pretty happy team, fans, school, and so forth. This is what we all shoot for."

And when it comes down to it, there are no moral victories in this stadium, only a winner-take-all showdown for the SEC championship.

"We have 12 teams and only one can win it all. That's why people watch. There's going to be a winner and a loser and that's what makes college football so big, I guess. It's not two out of three, no, ‘We'll get ‘em next week,' and so forth. This is it."

Quarterbacks' chance for redemption

While Stephen Garcia will be counted on heavily if the Gamecocks hope to win the game Saturday, both quarterbacks have a chance to redeem themselves for four turnovers that were very costly in the loss at Auburn.

Garcia's two second half fumbles erased a late Gamecock lead, and also ended the good feelings after his excellent day through the air. He was replaced late by Connor Shaw, whose two late interceptions finally sealed the win for Auburn.

"Connor went in there and went up and down the field," said Spurrier. "We ran into one call – we tried to fake a little screen and throw to (Patrick DiMarco) down the middle and he was covered like a blanket. Connor threw it anyway so we shouldn't have called that. Connor went up and down the field when he was in the game. We had that pick and the last pick, Alshon had the ball in his two hands. The safety came by, poked it out, and the other guy made a beautiful diving catch right off his shoelaces. That was a big play for them or else we're there going for two to tie the ball game with a minute left."

Chance for a championship

Tomorrow, all of the anticipation and waiting will finally come to an end when the garnet and black take on the orange and blue in downtown Atlanta. The Gamecocks have fully embraced the underdog role as they face Auburn a second time, and will head into the game with full confidence that they will come out on top.

And unlike the national championship of college football, this SEC championship will be decided where it's meant to be: on the field.

"Realistically, your division and the SEC is something that almost all the schools have any chance at all, that's what we shoot for," said Spurrier. "It gives the players something to rally around, talk about through the summer, through all the workouts they go through. That's why I really like our division play. If you do well enough to win the division, you get to play for a championship. You don't have to rely on how sportswriters vote or how other coaches vote. You just go play for it. That's really the nature of all sports, it is settled on the field and that's what the SEC does with this championship game."

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