For the sixth time since the inception of the SEC championship game in 1992, we have a rematch of a regular-season meeting.
And in four of the five previous rematches, the team that won the first game also won the title game.
That bodes well for No. 1 Auburn, which has a lot more at stake than merely winning its first SEC title since 2004. If the Tigers can beat South Carolina for a second time this season on Saturday in Atlanta, they will move on to Glendale, Ariz., to play in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 10.
To do that, the Tigers have to beat a South Carolina team playing its best football -- a team that took them to the wire the first time in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Auburn rallied from a two-touchdown deficit in the first half to win that game 35-27 back on Sept. 25, but both of these teams are different than they were nine weeks ago.
For starters, South Carolina had no idea what it was dealing with in Auburn quarterback Cam Newton.
In reality, the Auburn coaches weren’t completely sure what they had in Newton at that point, either, even though he’d already shown flashes of greatness the week before in the comeback win against Clemson.
Auburn coach Gene Chizik said Tuesday that Newton’s performance against the Gamecocks was “eye-opening,” and for good reason. Newton rushed for 176 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries and was 16-of-21 passing for 158 yards and two touchdowns.
“It was a learning moment for us as coaches on what he was going to be able to do,” Chizik said.
It was the first of four straight games against SEC opponents that Newton carried the ball at least 25 times.
In a lot of ways, it was his coming-out party.
The Gamecocks had few answers for him in that game. But, then, very few teams have. He’s two rushing touchdowns away from becoming just the second player in NCAA history to pass for 20 touchdowns and run for 20 touchdowns in the same season.
But when Ellis Johnson aligned his defense to stop Newton nine weeks ago, he did so thinking Newton was going to fall in love with the pass.
So the Gamecocks wound up dropping a bunch of defenders, played a good bit of zone, and Newton proceeded to have a field day running against that alignment. He had a 54-yard touchdown run on Auburn’s first possession, and the Tigers finished the game with 334 rushing yards.
Newton was also effective throwing the ball, tossing a pair of touchdown passes in the fourth quarter.
While the Gamecocks are sure to play Newton differently than they did the first time, the Tigers say they have a better feel for what South Carolina will try to do on offense.
They’re sure to see more of freshman running back Marcus Lattimore, who carried the ball only three times in the second half of the first game.
But Auburn also did an excellent job of not allowing Lattimore to ever get started. He finished with just 33 rushing yards on 14 carries.
The Gamecocks did all of their damage through the air against an Auburn pass defense that has given up yards in chunks all season, but always seems to deliver when needed.
And whereas Lattimore wasn’t much of a factor in the first game, sophomore receiver Alshon Jeffery had his way with the Auburn secondary. He had eight catches for 192 yards and two touchdowns.
Auburn linebacker Josh Bynes said the key is not allowing both players to have big games.
“It’s just like when we played Alabama. Julio (Jones) had a great day,” Bynes said. “But we definitely stopped the run. They knew the running game wasn’t it. It was more the passing game Alabama wanted to emphasize.
“So I think it was the same thing earlier in the year when we played Lattimore. They couldn’t run the ball, so they threw the ball and (Jeffery) was the guy to throw to. It’s going to go either way.”
The other thing that’s different about South Carolina is that junior quarterback Stephen Garcia is playing better and doing a better job of protecting the football and not taking as many sacks.
The Gamecocks turned the ball over on their final four possessions of the game back in September, but Garcia was only in there for two of them after fumbling the ball away for a second straight time. Spurrier pulled Garcia and went with freshman Connor Shaw, who threw a pair of interceptions on the Gamecocks’ final two drives.
“I think it's going to come down to the team that plays the best, plays with the fewest turnovers, fewest crucial penalties and makes the big plays," Spurrier said. "So far, they've had a knack of making the big plays every game. A few games we've not quite done that.
“Every game stands on its own merit, and we'll see how this one plays out.”