USC passing game vs. Auburn secondary
The Gamecocks passing game starts and mostly ends with Alshon Jeffery (above), who leads the SEC and is fifth in the nation in receiving yards per game (112.6). Jeffery has 75 catches this season, 36 more than the next closest Gamecock. Quarterback Stephen Garcia is fifth in the nation in passer rating but is playing with a bruised left shoulder and right thumb. Auburn’s secondary has not done well against big-time receivers this year: Jeffery had 184 yards, Georgia’s A.J. Green had 164 and Alabama’s Julio Jones had 199.
Edge: South Carolina
USC running backs vs. Auburn linebackers
Freshman Marcus Lattimore (left) has 1,114 rushing yards and has been the difference-maker for the Gamecocks’ offense this season. With 20 yards today, he will have the third-best rushing season in school history behind only George Rogers’ 1979 and 1980 seasons. Auburn handled Lattimore well in the first matchup, holding him to 33 yards on 14 carries, a 2.4-yard average. Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens played a big role in holding Alabama’s Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson to 60 yards last week. Add a resurgent Eltoro Freeman, who had nine tackles, two for loss, and a sack against the Tide, and Auburn’s linebacking trio is stout.
Auburn passing game vs. USC secondary
Quarterback Cam Newton’s has thrown 11 touchdowns the past four games and one interception, a ball that went through the hands of a receiver. Auburn has had a different leading receiver the past three weeks. Add in a healthy Philip Lutzenkirchen at tight end and the Tigers have a versatile attack. The Gamecocks have fluctuated from average to terrible in the secondary. The Tigers are one of the few teams that have not exploited South Carolina’s propensity to blow coverages.
Auburn running backs vs. USC linebackers
The Tigers have proven they can run the ball against the Gamecocks. Newton had 176 yards in the first meeting. Running backs Mike Dyer and Onterio McCalebb (right) added 100 and 55 yards, respectively. Dyer is 114 yards shy of 1,000 for the season. The Gamecocks linebacking corps of Josh Dickerson and Tony Straughter has been good but not great. They are undersized but athletic. Throw in Spur Antonio Allen, who is having a great year, and the group gets better.
USC offensive line vs. Auburn defensive line
The Gamecocks have given up 25 sacks. Only three teams in the SEC allowed more. South Carolina has paved the way for a 1,000-yard rusher, but even the offensive linemen say Lattimore has more to do with that than they do. Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley added to his reputation as a disrupter against Alabama, finishing with two sacks and bringing his tackle-for-loss total 20 this year, a school record. Auburn has 30 sacks this year, fifth in the SEC.
Auburn offensive line vs. USC defensive line
The Tigers’ physical edge has been well-documented. This is the kind of game where the experience of four seniors who have made a combined 157 starts pays off. Despite last week’s hiccup, Auburn averages 291.3 rushing yards per game. This group has allowed 21 sacks, third fewest in the league. The Gamecocks defensive line is their strength. Tackles Travian Robertson and Ladi Ajiboye are strong and have excellent technique. Ends Devin Taylor and Cliff Matthews are a threat on every snap, and versatile backup Melvin Ingram leads the team with eight sacks.
USC return units vs. Auburn coverage teams
The Gamecocks have gotten nothing from their return teams. Starting punt returner Ace Sanders has 13 return yards this season. Kickoff returner Bryce Sherman is ninth in the SEC. Auburn is second in the SEC in kick coverage but last in punting average.
Auburn return units vs. USC coverage teams
Demond Washington and McCalebb give Auburn the 16th-ranked kick return unit in the nation, averaging 24.4 yards. But the Tigers still have a mess on punt returns. Quindarius Carr (right) fumbled a punt against Alabama. Darvin Adams could step in, but he has only returned one punt in his career. South Carolina has not made any big plays in its coverage teams. Spencer Lanning is fifth in the SEC in punting.
South Carolina is getting double-duty out of Lanning, who is 15-for-20 this year and hit three 40-plus yard kicks against the Gators. He is coming off SEC Special Teams Player of the Week honors against Clemson. Auburn’s Wes Byrum is 15-for-19 this year, but you have to wonder if he’s getting rusty. The senior has not had a field goal attempt since the Mississippi game on Oct. 30.
South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier will be coaching in his eighth SEC title game. The Gamecocks’ coach has a lot of momentum, having led the team to its third season with more than eight victories. Spurrier had the right plan against Auburn the first time around (scoring 27 points despite four fourth-quarter turnovers) and he will again. Auburn’s Gene Chizik has been an coordinator in big games before on Auburn’s unbeaten 2004 team and on Texas’ national championship 2005 team, but he’s never been the one in charge in a big game. The lack of experience in these types of games compared to Spurrier is hard to overlook.
Edge: South Carolina