A look at three keys for each team Saturday in the SEC championship game:
1. Shut down Lattimore: It’s no coincidence that in South Carolina’s three losses this season that freshman running back Marcus Lattimore averaged just 47.3 rushing yards per game. Lattimore missed the Vanderbilt win. But in the four SEC wins he played in for the Gamecocks, he averaged 167.8 rushing yards and scored eight touchdowns. Auburn shut him down last time, holding him to 33 yards on 14 carries. That will be the Tigers’ priority again: make South Carolina one-dimensional and put everything on Stephen Garcia’s shoulders.
2. Red-zone success: The Tigers have been a better red zone offense this season than the statistics show, and scoring touchdowns against the Gamecocks when they get down there will be critical. Auburn is ranked 25th nationally in red zone offense, converting 50 of 57 opportunities (87.7 percent). However, four of Auburn’s seven missed opportunities were instances in which the Tigers took a knee inside the opponents’ red zone to run out the clock at the end of a game. Therefore, when trying to score in the red zone, the Tigers are 50-of-53, which would rank third nationally. South Carolina has been stingy around its own goal line and is tied for sixth nationally in red zone defense. The Gamecocks have given up just 17 touchdowns in 39 red zone trips.
3. Eliminating big plays: Only once this season has Auburn allowed a running play of 30 yards or longer, but it’s been a different story when it comes to giving up big plays in the passing game. South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffery certainly has big-play capability and lit the Tigers up in the first game. Auburn does not want a repeat of that performance, and as good as the Tigers have been this season at coming from behind, the last thing they want to do is give up a bunch of big scoring plays and have to dig their way out of a deep hole for the second week in a row.
1. Win the turnover battle: Nobody needs to remind the Gamecocks that their past four possessions against the Tigers in the first game ended in turnovers -- two Garcia fumbles and two Connor Shaw interceptions. South Carolina recovered from that debacle and has been on the plus side more than the minus side of the turnover battle down the stretch. The Gamecocks have forced 24 turnovers and lost 19 for the season. Protecting the football is a given if they are going to win this game, but they also need to create some turnovers and give the offense some short fields.
2. Establish the run: The best way to defend Cam Newton is to keep him on the bench. The only way to do that is to keep the football, drive the football … and successfully run the football. South Carolina offensive line coach Shawn Elliott said earlier this week that his guys had to “play their butts off.” He’s right. The Gamecocks have been solid up front and have certainly improved over the past two years. But this needs to be their best game yet, and Lattimore needs to get the football at least 25 times. When he is moving the chains and making yards on first down, it just opens up things for everybody else, and more importantly, keeps Newton off the field.
3. Sure tackling: The Gamecocks had one of their poorest tackling performances of the season against Auburn the first time around. Of course, Newton has made poor tacklers out of a lot of people this season. The Tigers love to play fast, which means quick runs and quick throws. Not only do the Gamecocks need to tackle better in this game, but they need to get off blocks and be in position to make tackles. Staying home on the back side is another key, because the Tigers also love to hit you with misdirection. Obviously, the Gamecocks need their front four to man up and keep Newton from gashing them like he did the last time to the tune of 176 rushing yards and three touchdowns. The defensive backs also have to tackle well, and that includes Antonio Allen, their hybrid linebacker/safety or what they call the Spur. He’s playing his best football right now.