Here’s a look at what to watch in Saturday’s SEC championship game between Auburn and South Carolina:
1. Red-hot Newton: The scary part for South Carolina is that Cam Newton just seems to get better every game. The more that’s out there swirling around, the more dynamic he’s been. Well, the NCAA has handed down a ruling now and says he’s eligible. Will he take it to another level? It’s hard to imagine there is another level than the one he’s been playing on the last few weeks. He’s throwing the ball right now as well as he has all season. In his last four games, he’s completed 72.5 percent of his passes for 890 yards, 11 touchdowns and one interception. That’s a passer efficiency rating of 208.82.
2. Manning up in the trenches: Nobody needs to remind South Carolina’s defensive players how many rushing yards Auburn piled up on the Gamecocks the last time they met. The Tigers rolled up 334 yards on the ground, and Newton had 176 of those yards and three touchdowns. It’s paramount that the entire South Carolina defense man up this second time around, but particularly the Gamecocks’ defensive front. That’s been the strength of their defense, and those guys are playing better than they were back in September. Tackle Melvin Ingram and end Devin Taylor have combined for 15.5 sacks, and the Gamecocks lead the SEC with 39 sacks. When they get Newton bottled up on Saturday, they have to finish the play. South Carolina has 18 sacks on third down this season, tying LSU for the FBS lead.
3. Jeffery takes his shot: Auburn’s secondary has faced its share of marquee receivers this season and been torched by those receivers. South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffery takes his second shot at the Tigers after catching eight passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns in the first game. Jeffery is one of four SEC receivers this season to finish with at least 160 receiving yards against the Tigers, joining Alabama’s Julio Jones, Georgia’s A.J. Green and Arkansas’ Greg Childs. Each of those players averaged more than 18 yards per catch against Auburn. And on deep balls (passes that traveled at least 20 yards) in that first game, South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia completed 3 of 4 passes for 122 yards and a touchdown to Jeffery.
4. Leaning on Lattimore: South Carolina wants to get freshman running back Marcus Lattimore involved early and keep him involved. In the three games the Gamecocks lost this season, he didn’t carry the ball more than 15 times. In fact, in the loss to Kentucky, he injured his ankle and didn’t play at all in the second half, and the Gamecocks blew an 18-point lead. South Carolina will also utilize Lattimore in the passing game, and even though he’s a first-year player, he can handle all the touches you want to give him. Auburn is ranked 10th nationally in rushing defense and shut Lattimore down in the first game. He was held to 33 yards on 14 carries. The Tigers have been particularly stout when it comes to eliminating big plays in the running game, giving up just one running play of 30 yards or longer all season.
5. Striking quickly: Making Auburn earn its points will be as important as anything for South Carolina. The Tigers strike so quickly that they can turn a close game into a rout in a hurry. Just ask Arkansas. Auburn leads all FBS teams with 23 offensive touchdowns of 30 yards or longer. Yes, that’s more than even Oregon, which has 21. Newton is the Tigers’ obvious big-play artist, but running back Onterio McCalebb and receivers Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery have also struck for their share of big plays. And even when he’s not going the distance for touchdowns, Newton has been better than anybody in the country at gaining yards in chunks. He has 27 runs of 15 yards or longer, which tops all FBS players. Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson is second with 25.