This Saturday's Southeastern Conference football championship game may have the most appreciative participants in the 19-year history of the event.
South Carolina has earned its first title-game berth since joining the SEC in 1992, while Auburn is just two years removed from a 5-7 season in which its only victory after September came at the expense of UT-Martin. Neither team was picked to win its division or finish runner-up during the league's media days event in July, making this the most unexpected SEC championship yet.
"Our players set lofty goals this year," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said Tuesday. "They set goals a lot of people maybe would have laughed at in the beginning of the year."
Spurrier's Gamecocks (9-3) were picked to finish behind Florida and Georgia in the East, while Gene Chizik's Tigers (12-0) were picked behind Alabama and Arkansas in the West.
A gargantuan driving force behind South Carolina's first trip to the Georgia Dome is its 2007 signing class, which has shaped up as the greatest in program history. The recruiting haul was rated No. 7 nationally by Rivals.com and includes quarterback Stephen Garcia, fullback Patrick DiMarco, backup tailback Brian Maddox, safety Akeem Auguste, defensive end Cliff Matthews and defensive tackles Ladi Ajiboye and Travian Robertson.
"It's been a long process for us, and we lost a few players in that class, but we always stuck together and tried to figure out what we could do to change the program," Robertson said. "This year was the year. We got together as captains and talked about how we wanted to make a difference."
Said DiMarco: "Coach Spurrier always told us our main goal would be to win an SEC championship one of these years. It's our last year, so we've got to go out there and give it our all."
Unlike South Carolina, which is the first East team other than Florida, Georgia or Tennessee to play in the SEC title game, Auburn has a history in the event. The Tigers lost to Tennessee in the 1997 matchup and lost to Florida in 2000, but they defeated the Volunteers in 2004 on their way to a 13-0 season.
Yet four years after being so powerful, Auburn briefly became pathetic.
The '08 Tigers went 2-6 in league play, with one of their victories being a 3-2 laugher over equally inept Mississippi State. They lost to Vanderbilt for the first time in 53 years and were hapless in a 36-0 loss at Alabama, which was followed by the resignation of coach Tommy Tuberville.
Athletic director Jay Jacobs was mocked for hiring Chizik, Auburn's defensive coordinator in '04 who had gone 5-19 at Iowa State during the '07-08 seasons, but Chizik quickly tabbed the touted Gus Malzahn as offensive coordinator. The Tigers have gone from averaging 17.3 points a game in '08 to 33.3 last season to 41.6 this year.
"We have come a long way," Tigers senior tackle Lee Ziemba said. "Our coaches have done a great job of rebuilding this program and getting us on the right track. We're happy to be where we're at."
This is just the third SEC title game, excluding the inaugural pairing between Alabama and Florida in '92, in which no player has competed previously in the event. Other such cases were the Tennessee-Auburn contest in '97 and Georgia-Arkansas in '02.