The Tigers finished the regular season 12-0 but didn't earn a spot in the national championship games. Instead, USC smashed Oklahoma in the BCS title game, while Auburn beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl to finish 13-0 and No. 2 in the nation.
Auburn won't be left out of the big game if it beats South Carolina in the SEC title game on Saturday in the Georgia Dome. A victory sends the Tigers to the Jan. 10 national championship game in Glendale, Ariz., and would give them a chance for their first national crown since 1957.
The Tigers are coming off perhaps their best effort of the season; they roared back from a 24-0 second-quarter deficit at Alabama last Friday in claiming a 28-27 triumph in the Iron Bowl. Then, the program got big news Wednesday, when the NCAA announced that Heisman front-runner Cameron Newton is eligible despite the determination that his father attempted to solicit money in an alleged pay-for-play scheme.
Now, the full focus for Auburn is beating South Carolina and advancing to the BCS title game for the first time.
"Obviously, it's a very exciting time for our players and our fans, for the Auburn family, just being able to be blessed enough to play in this game," Tigers coach Gene Chizik said. "As you know, it's going to be a great, great challenge for us. South Carolina is probably playing the best football they've played all year."
These teams met Sept. 25 in Auburn, with the Tigers taking a 35-27 decision. Auburn fell behind 20-7 in the first half and trailed 27-21 entering the fourth quarter before rallying to score 14 points off of four Gamecocks turnovers in the period. It was one of four double-digit comebacks this season for Auburn (Clemson, Georgia and Alabama were the others).
"I've never quite been around any group of guys that has that resolve and the ability to do that week in, week out," Chizik said. "I've never really seen it done this many times, to be honest with you."
For Steve Spurrier, this game is about validation of his work at South Carolina. It looked as if he never was going to get the Gamecocks over the hump. In his five previous seasons in Columbia, he had gone 35-28, never had won more than eight games and had a collection of middle- and lower-tier bowl trips. But this season, Spurrier has broken through with a 9-3 record and the school's first trip to the SEC title game. In fact, the SEC East crown is the Gamecocks' first title of any kind since they were ACC champs in 1969.
"Well, that was our goal here at South Carolina, to be there [Atlanta] and to win the game there," he said. "And it's obviously still our goal. And we didn't think we had a team until maybe this year.
"Our guys in preseason, I sometimes allow the team and captains to set their goals maybe a little higher than what's realistic. Our guys set a goal of winning the East, winning the SEC and beating Clemson and doing a lot of things."
With an upset of Auburn, Spurrier will win his seventh SEC crown, moving him past Georgia's Vince Dooley and Ole Miss' John Vaught on the league's career list and leaving him behind only Alabama legend Bear Bryant and his 14 SEC titles.
"It had been a struggle a little bit, although we've been bowl-eligible every year. ... In reality, we've done OK," Spurrier said. "But obviously this year's been the best we've been thus far. And hopefully we can finish it off this Saturday afternoon/night there in Atlanta."
WHO GETS THE EDGE?
Auburn rush offense vs. South Carolina rush defense: This will be strength on strength and worth the price of admission. The Tigers possess the league's top rushing attack (291.3 ypg), while the Gamecocks are the SEC's stingiest against the run (93.2 ypg). QB Cameron Newton is the centerpiece of an Auburn rushing attack that also features freshman Michael Dyer as well as Onterio McCalebb and Mario Fannin. When these teams met in September, Auburn shredded South Carolina for 334 rushing yards. Edge: Auburn
Auburn pass offense vs. South Carolina pass defense: Newton doesn't get enough credit for his accuracy, pocket presence and arm strength. The guy can sling it. Witness the Alabama game, when his early second-half 70-yard bomb to Terrell Zachery for a touchdown set the tone for the big comeback. Newton has some good targets in Zachery, Darvin Adams and Emory Blake, the son of former NFL QB Jeff Blake. Don't be shocked if Auburn goes over the top early to loosen the Gamecocks' front seven. South Carolina has struggled to stop the pass all season. Losing senior CB Chris Culliver to a season-ending pectoral injury against Tennessee on Oct. 30 hasn't helped. South Carolina leads the SEC and is third nationally in sacks, but Newton's mobility makes him hard to sack. Edge: Auburn
South Carolina rush offense vs. Auburn rush defense: While junior QB Stephen Garcia's continued development has been key to the Gamecocks' surprising season, the arrival of stud true freshman RB Marcus Lattimore has had a bigger impact. Lattimore is the second-leading freshman rusher in the nation (1,114 yards) and has rushed for 17 touchdowns. His presence demands the attention of defenses, opening the passing game for Garcia. But a Tigers defense that has been surprisingly stout against the run (No. 2 in the SEC at 108.0 ypg) kept Lattimore in check in September, limiting him to 33 yards on 14 carries. Edge: Auburn
South Carolina pass offense vs. Auburn pass defense: Is Garcia 100 percent? He injured his right (throwing) thumb and left shoulder in last week's victory over Clemson, and is listed as probable for the game. The Gamecocks need Garcia, who has hit 65.4 percent of his passes and has thrown for 2,646 yards and 18 TDs to rank 14th nationally in passing efficiency. Garcia could hook up often with star WR Alshon Jeffery, who feasted on Auburn's mediocre secondary in the earlier meeting by grabbing eight passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns. Lattimore is an excellent receiver out of the backfield. Auburn is fourth in the SEC in sacks, and DT Nick Fairley is the guy to watch on the pass rush. Edge: South Carolina
Auburn special teams vs. South Carolina special teams: Each team has a good kicker. The Gamecocks' Spencer Lanning has nailed 15-of-20 field-goal attempts. Auburn's Wes Byrum has hit 15-of-19 field-goal attempts and has five game-winning kicks in his career. South Carolina has better punting, with Lanning doing double-duty and ranking fourth in the SEC with a 43.8-yard average. Auburn is better in the return game; Demond Washington has taken back a kickoff for a score. Auburn also has better coverage units. Edge: Auburn
Auburn coaching staff vs. South Carolina coaching staff: Both staffs are star-studded. Chizik has perhaps the hottest assistant in the nation in offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who has devised some great plans for Newton. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof showed his considerable acumen with his astute second-half adjustments in stifling Alabama last week. After surrendering 379 yards to the Tide in the first half, the Tigers held Alabama to 67 yards in the second half. Spurrier is an all-time great, and the Gamecocks may have the best defensive coordinator in the SEC in Ellis Johnson. Edge: South Carolina
X-factor: Is Garcia OK? South Carolina expects him to play and thus extend his 26-game starting streak. But will he be fully effective? If not, the Gamecocks' offense may become too reliant on the ground game.
Auburn will win if: Newton's passing is going to be big; if he throws 200 yards, the Tigers win. That's all it will take to loosen the Gamecocks' rushing defense, and Newton and his array of running backs will find ample room to run.
South Carolina will win if: The Gamecocks must run the ball effectively. A strong ground game means more open spaces for the wide receivers and it also will keep the ball away from Newton, which is the biggest key to victory for the Gamecocks. It's all about shortening the game.
KEY TO VICTORY
Olin Buchanan: South Carolina's defense. No one has been able to contain Cameron Newton, so it will be intriguing to see if South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson comes up with an effective strategy in his second go-round against Newton. Newton rushed for 176 yards against the Gamecocks on Sept. 25 and passed for another 158 in an eight-point Auburn victory. If Johnson, who is among the premier coordinators in the country, can devise an effective game plan to limit Newton, the Gamecocks will have a chance to pull an upset.
Tom Dienhart: Auburn's defensive line. In the first meeting between the teams, the Tigers held South Carolina to 79 yards rushing on 28 carries (2.8 ypc). Much of that credit goes to Auburn's line, which is led by star T Nick Fairley. The unit needs to have a repeat effort so the Gamecocks' ground game led by Marcus Lattimore (33 yards rushing on 14 carries in the first meeting) doesn't get on track.
David Fox: Alshon Jeffery. Alabama's Julio Jones caught 10 passes for 199 yards and a touchdown against Auburn, Arkansas' Greg Childs and Georgia's A.J. Green had identical stat lines of nine catches for 164 yards and two touchdowns. Jeffery had eight catches for 192 yards and two scores in a September loss to Auburn. Still, all those big opponent passing stars haven't hurt Auburn. At some point, though, allowing an elite receiver that kind of freedom will have consequences, right? Maybe the second time around, Jeffery can translate those chunks of yards into an upset.
Mike Huguenin: Marcus Lattimore's production. South Carolina cruised past Clemson despite minimal production from Lattimore last week, which says more about Clemson than it does South Carolina. Well, the Gamecocks won't beat Auburn unless they get a big game from Lattimore - at least 80 rushing yards. Auburn's secondary is mediocre and the Gamecocks are going to be able to throw successfully. But unless they have a balanced attack, they're not going to win. They almost certainly are going to need to score in the 30s, too.
Steve Megargee: South Carolina's ball security. If South Carolina had taken better care of the football on Sept. 25, Auburn might not be undefeated right now. South Carolina led Auburn 27-21 at the end of the third period, but Auburn rallied for a 35-27 victory after the Gamecocks turned it over each of their four fourth-quarter possessions. The meltdown was uncharacteristic of this South Carolina team, which is tied for 32nd nationally in turnover margin (plus-five). South Carolina has enough firepower to pull the upset, but the Gamecocks must play mistake-free football. Auburn's offense is explosive enough as it is. There's no need to give Auburn more opportunities by coughing up the football.
Olin Buchanan: Auburn 34, South Carolina 24. The Gamecocks' defense will find a scheme to contain Cameron Newton as a rushing threat. But Newton has progressed amazingly as a passer since the first time these teams met. He'll make big plays with his arm again.
Tom Dienhart: Auburn 38, South Carolina 30. Led by Cameron Newton, the Tigers won't be denied in their quest to play for the national championship. Yes, the Auburn defense isn't a steel curtain, but the Tigers have more than enough offense to slip by the Gamecocks.
David Fox: Auburn 38, South Carolina 31. I was tempted to pick South Carolina. But if Cameron Newton can lead a second-half comeback at Alabama with an NCAA investigation lingering, I'm not going to pick against him on a neutral field, against a team he already has beat.
Mike Huguenin: Auburn 34, South Carolina 27. South Carolina is going to have success throwing the ball against Auburn's suspect secondary. But the Gamecocks also need a big performance from Marcus Lattimore; they can't be one-dimensional. The Gamecocks will score, they just won't score enough.
Steve Megargee: Auburn 34, South Carolina 31. Alshon Jeffery should have a huge game, and I also expect Marcus Lattimore to run much more effectively against Auburn this time after the Tigers held him to 33 yards on 14 carries during their regular-season clash. This game should follow a familiar script for Auburn, as Cameron Newton again makes the difference in a down-to-the-wire battle.