SEC Football Preview: Auburn at South Carolina
COLUMBIA, S.C. ó No. 10 South Carolina wants more than pay back for losing twice to Auburn last season. It also hopes to duplicate the defending national champs’ under-the-radar rise to the top, too.
The Gamecocks (4-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) can match their best start in 10 years with a victory over the Tigers (3-1, 1-0) at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday. And they’ve already got part of Auburn’s winning formula from last year down pat after squeaking through several of their games so far.
South Carolina stands 99th nationally and ninth in the SEC in passing, despite having fifth-year senior quarterback Stephen Garcia and receiving star Alshon Jeffery.
Then again, there were plenty of people this time last year who expected Auburn’s luck to run out well before things got serious. Instead, the Tigers kept improving until they captured the SEC title (a 56-17 victory over the Gamecocks) and the BCS crown by defeating Oregon.
“They’ve certainly got all the pieces of the puzzle in place,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “They’ve got a football team that has a chance obviously to be extremely involved in the race at the end of the year.”
There were plenty of questions about that for Auburn the first time around against the Gamecocks in 2010. Cam Newton was a raw talent finding his way instead of the confident Heisman Trophy winner he’d become and defensive tackle Nick Fairley hadn’t fully emerged as the SEC “bad boy” who tear up offenses each week.
Even some Auburn fans were on the fence from a week earlier when the Tigers had to rally from 17-0 down to defeat Clemson in overtime, 27-24.
Auburn opened slowly against South Carolina, too, trailing 20-7 midway through the second quarter. But the Tigers bounced back again for a 35-27 victory, getting a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions to seal victory.
Chizik said sometimes how you win is as important as the win itself. Auburn’s players gained the belief they could win in any situation, no matter how large the deficit. That attitude proved invaluable in the Iron Bowl, when the Tigers trailed rival Alabama, 24-0, on the way to a 28-27 victory to keep their perfect season alive.
“I think a lot of times, it’s not just that you win, it’s how you win and the confidence that it gives your team when things aren’t necessarily looking real good,” Chizik said.
Using that standard, South Carolina’s players are gaining confidence game after game.
The Gamecocks trailed at the half in each of their first three games before rallying to win, largely on the strength of star running back Marcus Lattimore, the SEC’s leading rusher.
South Carolina’s defense stole the show last Saturday night, holding Vanderbilt to 77 yards in a 21-3 victory. Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier called it the best defensive performance of his seven seasons.
Now, if only Spurrier’s offense could follow suit.
“We’ve certainly not played our best,” Spurrier said. “We’re certainly not sitting around here patting each other on the back, but we’re as good as we can be at this point, win-loss record-wise. If we can get better, get some things worked out, maybe we can go on and have a big year.”
Does that mean undefeated? Why not, says Lattimore.
“We’ve got the players to do it. We’ve got the coaches to do it. So we just have to continue to get better. It’s possible for us to go undefeated,” he said.
Right now, the players are fighting to improve each week, offensive lineman Terrance Campbell said. They see the breakdowns and mistakes and are committed to fixing them. But they don’t want to lose sight of where they are, Campbell says ó and that’s undefeated in the country’s toughest league.
“We’ve got a lot to look forward to,” Campbell said. “We’re not playing as good as we should, but we believe we can do nothing but get better.”
Auburn feels that way, too.
The Tigers were embarrassed two weeks back at Clemson in a 38-24 defeat that ended their 17-game winning streak. Auburn gave up 624 yards of offense and a season’s worth of big plays in the defeat.
The Tigers regrouped last week with a 30-14 victory over Florida Atlantic and are ready to get back to the SEC, where they’ve won 10 in row counting the title game victory.
The game features a third matchup between two of the league’s top runners in Lattimore and Michael Dyer of Auburn. Dyer is third in SEC rushing and Chizik says he may take on a similar workload as Lattimore, who already has rushed 107 times this year. Dyer has 62 carries so far.
Auburn hasn’t yet matched last year’s production. It’s 78th in total offense and 80th in passing this year. Still, receiver Emory Blake thinks the team’s close to clicking the way it did last year. “We’re going to get that going, and it’s coming soon,” he said. “It’s going to come.”