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Previewing the SEC Championship Game: Three Keys and What It Means

As you know, my usual weekly preview includes a Prediction in addition to Three Keys and What It Means. In honor of the momentous occasion in Gamecocks football history that is this Saturday, the Prediction will be forthcoming tomorrow in its own post. For now, here are the other two parts of my preview.

Three Keys to Victory

3. Figure Out a Way to Contain Cameron Newton

This one is obvious, but you really can't discuss Auburn without mentioning it. Newton is the centerpiece of the Tigers' offense, and no one has found a way to stop him. When we played Auburn earlier this year, the Gamecocks actually did a fairly admirable job for three quarters of slowing everyone except Newton down. The final stats show big numbers for Michael Dyer, but those stats belie the fact that we bottled him up until late in the game; in fact, I recall the announcers talking a good bit about how badly we were stuffing him in the second quarter. What happened to us defensively is that Newton got enough first downs on his feet through the first three quarters to wear our defense out, eventually opening things up for the rest of the Auburn offense. (Our offense's inability to sustain drives int the second half also contributed to this problem.) This time around, we need to figure out how to keep Newton from doing the same. I'm not sure what to expect from Ellis Johnson in this game, as he's discounted the possibility of using a spy on Newton, which would have seemed like the most obvious choice. I'm not sure that Johnson isn't right, though. His approach last time was misplaced; soft zone coverage and infrequent run blitzes won't work because you really can't give Newton any cushion or he'll hit you up for seven yards every time. But do we need a spy? We have enough speed and hard hitters to stop Newton without a spy as long as our guys play him aggressively. Isn't a QB like Newton exactly what the 4-2-5 is designed to stop? Johnson was, after all, recruited partially because Spurrier thought he might be able to stop Tim Tebow; Newton is simply Tebow 2.0 in many senses. (Yes, I said it. I think Newton is better than Tebow.) In short, we may give Auburn some room to gain yards in other ways if we forego the zone coverages, but I don't think you can expect to have any success if you don't key on Newton; history is against you there.

2. Stephen Garcia

For the past few weeks, I've called the run game a key to victory. Auburn, though, has one of the best rushing defenses in the country. I don't expect that to change this week; the Tigers will key on Marcus Lattimore and they have the front line to stop him. (I do think we need to get him involved through the air, though.) However, just as there was last time we played Auburn, there should be plenty of opportunities to gain yardage through the air. That means that Garcia needs to be at the very top of his game. This game is his to win for the 'Cocks. And why shouldn't he be able to? He may have a checkered past, but now he's all grown up. This is his chance to shine.

1. Don't Take the Foot Off the Gas

Over the past two weeks, we've seen Georgia and Alabama come very close to ending Auburn's run at the national title by jumping out to big leads against the Tigers. In both cases, a combination of resorting to vanilla playcalling and self-inflicted wounds allowed Auburn to hang around and eventually take the game when their offense finally got warmed up. We can't let that happen. It should now be completely apparent that Auburn is capable of making up almost any deficit. That means that if we build a lead, we need to try to extend it. (History says that we will build a lead; that's what's happened to Auburn all year long.) Have a 21-point lead and a chance to extend it? You better get another seven if you want to beat the Comeback Kids.

What It Means

What doesn't it mean? It's hard to say that this is bigger than a championship, as SEC championships are pretty big in and of themselves. The SEC Title, after all, has essentially meant that you're the best team in the land over the past few years. An SEC Title is what everyone wants short of the national title itself.

This game is even more than that for Carolina, though. In a year when the Gamecocks have accomplished numerous firsts, the most important first remains on the table this Saturday. This is a chance to complete the clean break with history that Carolina has been trying to make all season. This is it, folks. This is the chance to accomplish the kind of thing that Carolina has been searching for for its entire history.