Auburn moved ahead of Oregon in the Bowl Championship Series standings Sunday night, but there was no celebrating on the Plains.
South Carolina is giving Gene Chizik's Tigers too much to think about leading up to Saturday's Southeastern Conference championship game in Atlanta. The Gamecocks nearly beat Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Sept. 25, and they're playing a lot better now.
"I just think overall from top to bottom that they've improved drastically," Chizik said Sunday, "and they were a really good football team the last time we played them."
While Auburn wrapped up a 12-0 regular season with Friday's 28-27 comeback win at Alabama, the Gamecocks were continuing their late-season surge. Two weeks after humiliating Florida 36-14 in the Swamp to clinch their first SEC East title, they rolled to a 29-7 victory Saturday night at Clemson.
South Carolina is 9-3 and can set a program record for single-season victories with triumphs in the Georgia Dome and a bowl.
"We've played very well these last three games," Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said. "We've played about as well as we've played all year, which is where you hope to be at the end of a season."
Auburn and South Carolina had 3-0 records when they met. The Gamecocks made a statement in their second game, powering past Georgia 17-6 behind freshman tailback Marcus Lattimore's 182 yards, while the Tigers were fortunate to be undefeated after surviving Clemson in overtime the previous week.
Midway through the first quarter, Auburn quarterback Cam Newton made his first highlight-reel run against a league foe, scoring from 54 yards out.
"He sort of broke up the middle, and our safety had him," Spurrier said. "Then our strong safety was coming outside, and he put a side step on them and juked both of them, and they ran into each other. He skirted down the sideline and dove into the end zone for a touchdown, so we were like, 'Wow.'
"Then we found out he was doing that to everybody as the season progressed."
South Carolina responded to score 20 straight points, but four turnovers ultimately undid the Gamecocks as Auburn rallied for a 35-27 win. Newton finished with 25 carries for 176 yards and three touchdowns, and he completed 16 of 21 passes for 158 yards and two scores.
Freshman tailback Michael Dyer added 100 yards on 23 carries for Gus Malzahn's offense, which compiled 492 yards.
"Gus and the guy at Oregon, Chip Kelly, are the two guys probably who coach that spread offense the best in the country," Spurrier said. "I know there are a lot of other good guys out there, but they're 1-2 in the nation right now."
Sophomore receiver Alshon Jeffery led the Gamecocks with 192 yards and two touchdowns on eight receptions, but Lattimore only had 33 yards on 14 carries. Spurrier said the rash of turnovers resulted in fewer opportunities for Lattimore as the game progressed.
6. Ohio State
8. Michigan State
Chizik isn't expecting another 33-yard performance, and he knows Jeffery could be even better this time.
"I don't know that you can stop both of them," Chizik said. "Obviously you can make an attempt and that's everybody's goal, but that's a phenomenal 1-2 punch."
South Carolina bounced back from its loss at Auburn to stun top-ranked Alabama on Oct. 9, but the Gamecocks lost the very next week at Kentucky. The dreaded "Chicken Curse" was expected to settle in at that point, but this year wound up being a little different.
Make that a lot different.
"I think the biggest improvement we've probably made is in pass defense," Spurrier said. "After we left Kentucky, we were sort of in disarray. Arkansas picked us apart pretty well, but they've picked apart everybody, so maybe we shouldn't go by that game. Our pass defense has really improved these last three games, and that's what has given us a chance to win."
SEC title notes
Spurrier said quarterback Stephen Garcia has a sore right hand and a sore left shoulder and may miss the first couple of practices this week. ... South Carolina is 1-7-1 lifetime against Auburn and has defeated every team but the Tigers since joining the SEC in 1992. ... Chizik said tailback Onterio McCalebb and receiver Darvin Adams have the bumps and bruises expected this time of year but that each will play. ... The Gamecocks are the home team Saturday, so Auburn will wear its road white uniforms. ... The Arkansas Razorbacks are pulling for Auburn this week, because a win by the Tigers would result in the Hogs playing in their first Sugar Bowl in more than 30 years.
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.