An SEC championship game that has it all

It’s an SEC championship game that has it all.

What’s not to like about the Auburn-South Carolina matchup on Saturday in the Georgia Dome?

The drama surrounding Auburn quarterback Cam Newton only thickened Wednesday when the NCAA announced Newton’s eligibility had been reinstated after Auburn briefly declared him ineligible Tuesday for violating NCAA amateurism rules.

That means game on for Newton and Tigers, who can advance to the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 10 with a win over the Gamecocks.

“We haven’t gotten ahead of ourselves all year, and we’re not going to start now,” Auburn senior safety Zac Etheridge said. “The only thing that matters is South Carolina, nothing else.”

While the teams are different, the feel surrounding the game is a familiar one.

It’s the first time since 2004 that either Alabama, Florida or LSU hasn’t played in this game.

Yet, it’s the fifth straight year that the game has carried national championship implications. The last two contests were essentially play-in games between Alabama and Florida.

This year, it’s a play-in game for Auburn, which is working on a perfect season, not to mention a season of living on the edge.

The Tigers' comeback from 24 points down last Friday at Alabama was standard operating procedure. They rallied from two-touchdown deficits in three other games this season, including their 35-27 win over South Carolina back on Sept. 25 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

“That’s how we’ve been doing games all year, finishing and coming out and knowing in the second half, regardless of what the scoreboard says, that we'll come back and win,” Auburn linebacker Josh Bynes said. “That’s always on our mind -- winning.

“No matter, any shape, form or fashion, as long as we know we're on top at the end of the day on the scoreboard, that's what we're going to fight for and that's what we'll fight for until we get there. That’s what we've been doing all year, and that’s the kind of attitude this team has.”

Indeed, it’s been that kind of season for the Tigers, who last won an SEC championship in 2004 and haven’t won a national championship since 1957.

For the Gamecocks, it also has a chance to be a dream season, even though there’s no trip to the BCS National Championship Game at stake.

They’re making their first-ever trip to the SEC championship game and are led by a guy who knows his way around this game.

Steve Spurrier, in his sixth season as the South Carolina coach, played in seven SEC championship games when he was at Florida. He won five of them, and counting the title he won in 1991 before the inception of the SEC championship game, he collected six SEC championship rings in his 12 seasons as the Gators’ coach.

If the Gamecocks can pull off the upset Saturday, that would give Spurrier seven SEC titles, which would move him into sole possession of second place all-time behind only Bear Bryant, who won 14 SEC titles (13 at Alabama and one at Kentucky).

Spurrier, who also won a national championship at Florida, said the SEC championship game ranks behind only the national championship game in his mind.

“For us in the SEC, this is as big as it gets,” Spurrier said.

The Gamecocks (9-3, 5-3) haven’t appeared to be star-struck by being on what Spurrier calls the big stage. Granted, the true test comes Saturday at 4 p.m. when they kick it off.

But whereas they have historically faded down the stretch, they’ve only seemed to get stronger this season, starting with their 36-14 battering of Florida in the Swamp on Nov. 13 to clinch the East title.

Moreover, the South Carolina players have embraced the historical significance of it all.

“We have the opportunity to open up doors for Carolina football and this program,” sophomore receiver Tori Gurley said.

Some might say the Gamecocks have already done that by keeping homegrown stars such as Marcus Lattimore, Alshon Jeffery and Stephon Gilmore at home the last two years.

“We wanted to be part of building something new here,” Jeffery said earlier this season. “That’s why we all came.”

What’s not new is the anticipation that surrounds this game. That’s the case every year.

But throw in the Newton saga, the Head Ball Coach’s return and the fact that a fifth straight national championship for the SEC could be on the line, and it’s a game that can’t get here soon enough.