SEC Football Insider: South Carolina, Auburn Wrap Up Championship Game Berths

South Carolina does something it's never done before, while Auburn wraps up the SEC West and goes for a boxing title at the same time.

There's something to be said for a team that does something the first time. Fans look at it differently than do those who have been there before, and the players and the coaches can be confident that they will go down in history as one of the best teams that ever played for the school.

That was what Steve Spurrier wanted when he shocked the college football world by accepting the head coaching job at South Carolina in late 2004: The daunting challenge and the potential reward. Over and over, Spurrier said that what drew him to Columbia was the chance to do something that had never been done before, rather than the opportunity to go back to Gainesville and constantly be trying to get out of his own shadow.

It took him longer than he expected. Spurrier publicly said in the lead-in to the 2007 season that his team wanted to win the SEC East that year, though he originally made the promise after thinking Sidney Rice would pass up the NFL and stay in Columbia for his senior season. Rice didn't return, and the Gamecocks threw away a 6-1 start with an 0-5 skid that let them out of the postseason.

About that time, Spurrier started to look tired. His temper started to show a bit more and the famous shots at other teams grew less frequent. Speculation that Spurrier would retire was a regular topic of winter discussion, and some South Carolina fans were beginning to wonder if that would be such a bad thing.

The Spurrier that spoke to his players in the locker room this past Saturday, after his team and Auburn had sewn up trips to Atlanta, was energized. That glimmer had returned to his eyes, and he seemed unable to contain his pride and collect his thoughts. There are plenty of challenges ahead of this Gamecocks team. There are still two games to play, including the showdown with arch-rival Clemson, and Auburn will be heavy favorites for the game in the Georgia Dome. But for now, the Gamecocks stand higher than they ever have before.

AND YOUR 2010 SEC EASTERN DIVISION CHAMPIONS ...
South Carolina 36, Florida 14

South Carolina joined the SEC in 1992. Since then, it has never appeared in the SEC Championship Game. In fact, the Gamecocks have just three seasons with winning records in conference play since signing up with the league. Their fourth will be the most meaningful for South Carolina, because it will finally bring their SEC East title drought to an end. Down year or not for the division powers, the Gamecocks should be applauded for finally breaking through and achieving something that they have not been able to do even in other subpar years for the East.

Those were just a few of the unprecedented things about South Carolina's victory Saturday night. The Gamecocks had never won in the Swamp before, and the man who led them won for the first time in that stadium with a team other than Florida. That coach would be Steve Spurrier, who won plenty of games in Gainesville in another job he had -- you might have heard something about that.

As for the game itself: The final score still might not reflect just how much the Gamecocks controlled things. They had 15 first downs in the first half to Florida's two. South Carolina held the ball for almost 41 minutes and continued to rule third down, converting eight of their 16 attempts, while the defense allowed Florida just a pair of conversions on 14 third downs.

The Gamecocks also avoided the errors that have too frequently killed them in this game: No turnovers, despite a bad throw by Garcia that was nearly picked before the call was (correctly) overturned, and just three penalties for 20 yards.

Instead, South Carolina crafted a game plan that would have been unrecognizable during Spurrier's time in Gainesville but was perfect for this team: they handed the ball to star freshman running back Marcus Lattimore. A lot. In fact, Lattimore carried the ball 40 times for 212 yards and three touchdowns in the latest leg of his freshman of the year campaign. Stephen Garcia was 15-of-22 for 156 yards. Yes, a Steve Spurrier team ran the ball 54 times and passed it 22 times. You can debate amongst yourselves whether you're more surprised by South Carolina winning a division in football or that kind of play-calling ratio from Spurrier. Not that the passing game was unimportant; Alshon Jeffery had some key catches among his six receptions for 53 yards.

Lattimore also caught the ball twice for 31 yards, giving him 243 all-purpose yards on the game. Which was 17 more yards than the Florida offense gained on the night. John Brantley was erratic, Trey Burton was rarely seen and Jordan Reed was largely a non-factor. The ground game was basically non-existent, with Florida gaining just 35 yards on 20 carries. Florida didn't do enough to challenge a secondary that was leveled at home against Arkansas the week before. The defensive line helped, sacking Brantley three times and tipping some passes, including one that Brantley caught for reasons passing understanding as he was going down 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage.

There was a question coming into the game about whether Florida's post-bye offensive revival was a function of actual improvement or games against Georgia and Vanderbilt. We can now pretty safely answer that question. When faced by a decent team, even with a struggling secondary, Florida couldn't move the ball.

Gamecock fans have watched their teams do things they never thought were possible -- both for better and for worse. But Garnet And Black Attack will take the bad with the good.

The only negative thing I can think of right now is that I really don't understand why this team is so inconsistent. I mean, we've now convincingly beaten Alabama, absolutely crushed Florida, lost to Kentucky, and been crushed by Arkansas. The highs and lows with this team have been astounding. Tonight made it all worth it, though.

Alligator Army focuses mostly on Florida's shortcomings -- or one shortcoming in particular (mild language warning).

Instead, this was and has been professional malpractice. Meyer cannot see that his best friend [Steve Addazio is] not qualified to be a college coach and they have ruined Brantley to the point that he cannot be a long term solution at quarterback. In addition, this has stunted the growth of the offense, since Florida will have to do something completely different for next season, if not next week.

Both teams take a breather after an emotionally and physically exhausting week, with South Carolina returning to Columbia to face Troy and Florida hosting Appalachian State a week after the program's most significant loss in years. Good luck to the Mountaineers with that one.

IT'S FIGHT NIGHT IN OPELIKA
Auburn 49, Georgia 31

Despite the broad final margin, this was a game that had something for everyone: Georgia fans, Auburn fans, Fight Club fans ...

The Georgia fans had a good time in the first quarter. The Dawgs scored three times in the last eight and a half minutes en route to a 21-7 lead. Georgia gained 162 yards in that quarter. But they seemed to forget they were playing Auburn, and Auburn has been in that situation a couple of times before. Both teams from the state of South Carolina can attest to the Tigers' comeback bona fides.

Then it was Auburn fan's turn to have some fun. Auburn reeled off 21 points over the next 20 minutes of game time to take the lead; they would never trail again. In retrospect, the Georgia field goal as time expired in the third quarter was probably the end of the game, an indication that the Dawgs just couldn't keep up with Cameron Newton and Co. Auburn tacked on two more touchdowns in the fourth quarter to officially put the game out of reach. Newton added 299 total yards and four total touchdowns to his Heisman resume.

Fight Club fans were next. On the final series, after a few "questionable" hits on Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray by defensive lineman Nick Fairley, things got a bit heated between the two teams. Auburn's Michael Goggans decided to take a swing at a Georgia player, which is smiled on in hockey, but this is not hockey. Mike Blanc followed up shortly thereafter with another attempted punch, which made it a very bad day to be an Auburn player named Michael. In any case, both players are ejected and will not play the first half of the Alabama game.

The game locked up one of the most important things for Auburn this year, as long as this year stands in the official NCAA record book: The SEC West. But if the pair of missing defenders helps cost Auburn an undefeated season, Cameron Newton's alleged letter-of-intent telethon might not be the worst thing to happen to the Tigers this year.

It has largely overshadowed what was otherwise a pretty good game, with star turns by Newton and Georgia's A.J. Green, who grabbed nine receptions for 164 yards and 2 TDs. Dawgs' quarterback Aaron Murray was also pretty good, going 15-of-28 for 273 yards and 3 TDs. In addition to Newton, Onterio McCalebb had a solid day for Auburn, rushing for 71 yards and three scores on 12 carries. But the talk afterwards has, of necessity, at least included some nod toward the brawl.

At Dawg Sports, the Mayor pairs optimism about the future with an upbraiding of the team he has long said he hates.

The 2010 Georgia squad will finish with the worst record of the Mark Richt era, but it is a much better team than the 2006, 2008, or 2009 editions of the Red and Black, which bodes well for the future. ... Right now, I feel about as good as it is possible to feel in the wake of a loss to a despised rival. ...

The Plainsmen's late-game extracurriculars, though, serve as a reminder of the truth of all the criticisms of Auburn I have offered over the years, so, when you see the words "I hate Auburn" appear here, you should understand that I mean them, and that I have valid reasons for the sincerity of the sentiment.

While being sure to criticize the Auburn players involved in the back-and-forths, Track Em Tigers returns fire.

I think its amusing that the UGA fans are calling us "classless," "thugs," and "cheaters," especially after some of the Bulldog antics the past few years. And which team's bench emptied late? Not Auburn's. However, I did NOT approve of our players engaging in extracurricular melee with the Georgia guys. ... Having said that, we also saw one of the dirtiest quarterback hits of the year out of our own Nick Fairley. It was not the play that injured Murray, though. It was the helmet hit in the back that negated a stop by the defense in the 3rd quarter. It was a brutal, dangerous, needless play.

The Dawgs and the Tigers will both return to their respective corners take a bye before fighting playing age-old rivals, with Georgia facing Georgia Tech and Auburn taking the field against Alabama in the Iron Bowl.

ONE TEAM IS HAPPY THIS ONE DOESN'T COUNT FOR MUCH
Alabama 30, Mississippi State 10

With the result in Auburn, this game didn't actually mean anything in the race for the SEC West. But in the bigger picture, it was meaningful; we were going to find out if Mississippi State was real and if Alabama could recover from taking its second loss the week before.

With 12 minutes left to go in the fourth quarter and the score 30-3, both questions had been answered to a certain extent. Alabama was not at all bothered by losing as many games this year as the Tide had the last two seasons combined. And Mississippi State is not exactly a mirage, but they're also not quite ready to be added to the ranks of the conference elite.

Alabama rang up 452 yards of total offense, despite the fact that Trent Richardson did not play and Mark Ingram gained just 53 yards on 18 carries. The beleaguered Greg McElroy was 12-of-18 for 227 yards, 2 TDs and an interception. Ingram made up for his slow day on the ground by turning a screen pass into a 78-yard touchdown. Which was really just par for the course for the Alabama offense, which had eight plays of 15 or more yards. That's off 59 total offensive snaps.

Mississippi State's offense was largely shut down by the Tide defense. State's quarterbacks were as awful as ever -- a combined 12-of-23 for 150 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. But the normally solid running game was made average by the Tide; the Western Division Bulldogs averaged just 3.0 yards a carry.

Maybe it was too much to ask that Mississippi State look crisp after two weeks of "What did they know about Cam Newton, and when did they know it?" and the tragic death of Nick Bell, though For Whom The Cowbell Tolls notes that no one is using that as an excuse.

Dan Mullen admitted after the game that it had been a very emotional bye week, but stopped short of blaming that for the loss. It was just a sloppy game and the Tide were clearly the better team last night.

Meanwhile, Roll Bama Roll is having deja vu after the game reminded Bama fans of the big-play-fest in 2009.

The same basic story repeated itself last night, as the Bullies allowed two short throws to turn into long touchdown passes while also allowing a jet sweep to Julio Jones -- a play that we've tried four times earlier in the year with no real success -- to turn into a 56-yard touchdown run. Give Dan Mullen and company credit for showing up prepared to play, but for the second year in a row a handful of key lapses cost them an otherwise solid performance.

At least it's not like Mississippi State is facing a big-play offense next week. Let's see, their scheduled to play -- Arkansas. Well then. Alabama welcomes Georgia State and some old football coach to Tuscaloosa.

OUR QUARTERBACK LOOKS SMALL, BUT HE'LL SLICE UP YOUR SECONDARY
Tennessee 52, Ole Miss 14

There were plenty of reasons before now to think Ole Miss was going through a bit of a lost season. Before this weekend, they needed to win this game and split the last two at LSU and against Mississippi State to go to a bowl. And if that was a daunting prospect, they now have to win out after Tennessee dropped 52 on the Rebels. And, really, once that sentence can be written about your season, it's pretty much over.

As long as an opposing defensive lineman doesn't snap him in half, Vols quarterback Tyler Bray looks very much like a player that will pay off in the long run. Bray was 18-of-34 for 323 yards and 3 TDs against the Rebels -- his second straight game with over 300 yards -- as part of a Tennessee offense that stacked up 441 yards Saturday. Four players had at least three catches in the receiving game, while running back Tauren Poole added 107 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries.

Meanwhile, the Rebels offense had what you might call an off day. If, by "off day," you mean "the recently concussed quarterback threw two interceptions returned for touchdowns and another interception before his backup threw a fourth pick." Five of Ole Miss' seventeen drives covered fewer than 20 yards.

We could go on and on with this game, but the simplest way to say it is that this game was a rout from beginning to end. The Vols are clearly improving, gearing up for a run at the wide-open SEC East next year, while the Rebels appear to be going the wrong way in the incredibly competitive SEC West.

That has Tennessee fans drinking the Kool-Aid, and clearly thinking that Tyler Bray will not break like a Wal-Mart home accent.

That's what happens when your true freshman quarterback completes 18 of 34 passes for 323 yards, three TDs, and no interceptions while your defense forces the other guy into three interceptions, two of them pick sixes. That's what happens when your offense hits 50 points and your defense holds the opponent to 14 two weeks in a row when they were averaging 22 and 30 a mere fortnight ago.

Ole Miss travels to LSU, about which we'll have more to say in a moment, this weekend. Tennessee goes to Nashville to play Vanderbilt, a team that has no discernible offense taking the field at any time.

WAKING THE DEAD, WINNING ANYWAY
Kentucky 38, Vanderbilt 20

First, let's take a moment here to recognize what is a high point for the Kentucky football team for most of our lives. The last time Kentucky had been on this sustained a streak of success -- five years with at least a .500 record -- Dwight Eisenhower was president and the run had started under a guy named Paul Bryant.

But let's also not fail to call attention to the fact that the Wildcats have put together this record at least partly based on the modern NCAA. They can throw an FCS team in there, put a couple of mid-majors on the schedule and all they have to do is defeat Louisville and win a couple of conference games to be bowl-eligible. That's not to shrug off what Kentucky has done, simply to put it in context.

Also to say this: If Randall Cobb goes pro after this year, it will be very hard to keep the success going if this offense doesn't find some other weapons between now and then. Cobb and senior Derrick Locke accounted for 397 rushing yards Saturday, or 68 percent of the Wildcats' total. And while the 580 yards Kentucky gained were impressive by any stretch, the 400 yards allowed to the once-somnambulant Vanderbilt offense is a sign that all might not be well in Lexington once they start losing some of their marquee offensive players.

Part of that stems from the Commodores having run 81 plays; the quarterbacks still combined to complete less than half their passes, so it's not like they were the picture of offensive efficiency. But the Cats allowed a team ranked next-to-last in third down conversions to make 7-of-17 in that department, which is one way that an absolutely awful offense gets 81 plays to begin with.

So even if the Wildcats are headed to the postseason again, that doesn't mean that everyone is completely happy, as A Sea Of Blue's attitude toward the team illustrates.

They do the most senseless things, from drive-killing penalties to end-zone celebrations to dropped passes to fighting and getting ejected. It's just not what we are used to seeing, and I am not really enamored of this new "Catitude" that I have been seeing lately. Kentucky has been whistled for a ton of personal fouls this year, and I am getting sick of it.

Of course, Kentucky could be like Vanderbilt, which currently sits at 2-8 on the year and 1-6 in the SEC. Both teams have a game against Tennessee next, though Kentucky takes a bye week before heading to Knoxville. The Commodores get the Volunteers in Nashville this weekend, which might be the last chance for a win that would redeem yet another lost season for the Vanderbilt faithful.

LSU'S POINTS EFFICIENCY
LSU 51, Louisiana-Monroe 0

This game is one of those statistical oddities that can really only happen in college football, though whether that's good or bad for the sport depends on your perspective. In any case, LSU put up 51 points while gaining 251 yards, or less than five yards per point. Their two quarterbacks combined to go 8-of-22 for 95 yards. That's a passer rating of 72.64, which is Vanderbilt-esque. No player rushed for more than 67 yards.

But when it comes to the "hidden yardage," LSU had it in spades. The Tigers had three picks for 128 yards and a touchdown. Lavar Edwards returned a fumble 29 yards for a touchdown, and Pep Levingston also recovered a fumble with no return. Combine all those numbers with the punt and kick returns and the total offense, and you get to 462 yards. Throw in Louisiana-Monroe's penalty yardage, and you're up over 500.

But it was Louisiana-Monroe, so And The Valley Shook isn't taking too much away from the game.

LSU didn't play perfectly, but they didn't play poorly either. ... I think the coaching staff wanted to use this game to further iron out kinks in the passing game. It didn't work. Both QBs were woeful. Neither was accurate. Both were missing their targets.

LSU next plays Ole Miss, which might not look like an interesting game until you consider that Houston Nutt has won his last three games against Les Miles. And when you remember that a faceoff between those two is a game of chaos vs. chaos.

BEWARE OF ARKANSAS' GROUND GAME?!?
Arkansas 58, UTEP 21

If you take away the five touchdowns -- and that's a heck of a caveat there -- Ryan Mallett had what he might consider a pedestrian day. After all, he was "only" 19-of-26 for 215 yards. Meanwhile, Arkansas ran 41 times for 326 yards and 3 TDs. Knile Davis had 182 yards and a score on 11 carries, including one for 70 yards. In all, the Hogs had 577 yards and 31 first downs.

Ah, but the defense could still be an issue for this team if there were still division races to be decided. As it is, it could be in for a long against LSU, with the only positive for Arkansas' defense in that game being that LSU still has LSU's offense. The Razorbacks trailed twice in the first quarter and allowed UTEP to gain 355 yards, or almost seven yards per offensive snap.

Razorback fans, like the guys over at Arkansas Expats, didn't set very high goals for the Hogs, but the team met all of them.

1. rack up an impressive-looking win

2. avoid any major injuries (although Ryan Mallett's arm is likely a little sore after throwing for 5 TDs)

More will likely be asked of the Razorbacks next week, when they travel to Starkville for a key battle in terms of bowl pecking order with Mississippi State.

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