This Southeastern Conference championship game features national title stakes, a Heisman Trophy candidate and a few of college football's bigger stars.
No. 2 Auburn and No. 18 South Carolina just aren't the usual participants. The past two seasons had pitted No. 1 versus No. 2 matchups between Florida and Alabama, with the winner — whoever it wound up being — guaranteed of a national title shot.
Only the Tigers (12-0) are in that position going into Saturday's surprising matchup of two teams picked to finish third in their respective divisions. Auburn is the SEC's last hope for a fifth consecutive national champion.
"They have found a way to win all of their games," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said Sunday. "They've had a tremendous year. I really respect what they have done this year. They have been one of the best teams in the country, if not the best team, through the course of the first 12 games."
This SEC title game offers Marcus Lattimore and Cam Newton instead of Mark Ingram and Tim Tebow, Stephon Gilmore and Nick Fairley instead of Joe Haden and Terrence Cody.
The Gamecocks (9-3) are trying to win their first SEC title after emerging as the only Eastern Division team with fewer than five losses. Auburn hasn't won one since 2004, a perfect season that ended without the BCS title shot that awaits with a victory this time.
The Tigers were only ranked 17th when they rallied for a 35-27 win over the Gamecocks on Sept. 25, one of four double-digit comebacks so far. The Gamecocks clinched the East by beating Florida, then finsihed the season with wins over Troy and rival Clemson.
"It's going to be a huge, huge challenge for us," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. "They're a whole football team from top to bottom. Offense, defense, special teams. I think they're playing as good of football as they've played all year."
The Tigers, meanwhile, staged the biggest comeback win in school history with a 28-27 victory at Alabama last Friday after falling down 24-0.
"That was crazy to watch," Gamecocks quarterback Stephen Garcia said. "There's a reason they're No. 2 in the country and they probably should be No. 1."
Newton accounted for all four touchdowns.
Last year's SEC game helped propel Ingram to the Heisman. Newton's spectacular season might mean he has little if any more need to state his case for the award. He doesn't in Spurrier's eyes.
"I think he's been the most dynamic player in college ball this year," said Spurrier, who has a vote as a former winner.
He's also impressed that Newton has managed to keep rolling over the past three games despite intense media scrutiny over allegations that his father, Cecil, sought $180,000 from Mississippi State when that school was recruiting him.
"Obviously he's had the ability not to let any of that bother him," Spurrier said. "He acts like he doesn't read the newspapers or hear any of it. He's a sharp young man that has the ability to focus on helping his team win the game, so that's what he's done ever since that's come out."
And that South Carolina game was practically a coming-out party for him. Newton ran for 176 yards, passed for 158 and produced five touchdowns, including an early 54-yard run.
Newton isn't the only offensive star in the game. The freshman Lattimore and receiver Alshon Jeffery have been the league's most productive players at their positions.
Lattimore trails only Newton among league rushers while Jeffery's 1,351 receiving yards easily tops the SEC.
Garcia is nursing a sore right hand from the Clemson game, but Spurrier thinks he'll be OK for the game.
"He probably won't do too much first couple of days this week," Spurrier said. "But hopefully by midweek he should be very close to full-go."
Garcia & Co. are preparing for the kind of game only Spurrier's been involved with before among the Gamecocks, though they did win handily in a hostile environment at Florida. He won six SEC titles when he was coaching the Gators.
"I told them the other night, we're going to the biggest stage in the South for college football, the SEC championship game," Spurrier said. "If you want that big stage, we've got that coming up this week. Our guys have played very well in that atmosphere."
AP Sports Writer Pete Iacobelli in Clemson, S.C., contributed to this report.
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