Think about Auburn now and compare to a year ago.
Think about South Carolina now and compare to a year ago.
Each team has shown all season that one player really can make a huge difference in major college football, and they will show it today in the Georgia Dome.
South Carolina freshman running back Marcus Lattimore has been “off the charts” this season, according to Auburn coach Gene Chizk.
Auburn junior quarterback Cam Newton, who played junior college ball a year ago, “deserves to win the Heisman,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said.
Based on Newton’s and Lattimore’s on-field performance in their first seasons as SEC starters, who could argue?
Maybe the best argument is to recall where their teams stood in the SEC just a year ago.
Auburn, led by average-to-decent quarterback Chris Todd, lost five of its final eight games en route to a surprisingly good 8-5 record. The closest the Tigers came to Atlanta was nearly handing Alabama a major upset on its way to the SEC final.
South Carolina was, well, South Carolina — always a decent team but never a threat to win the SEC East Division and represent in the Georgia Dome.
Then a player here and player there made all the difference as a 7-6 team morphed into the East champion.
South Carolina benefited when Florida’s best player, one-time Heisman winner Tim Tebow, ran out of eligibility.
Then Georgia’s best player, wide receiver A.J. Green, drew a four-game suspension for selling a jersey to an agent.
Tennessee already had issues, so the East powers were ripe for the plucking. So was one of the nation’s top running back prospects, who happened to come from South Carolina.
Spurrier has said publicly that South Carolina won the East Division on Feb. 3 of this year. That’s the day Lattimore signed with the Gamecocks and became the difference maker.
He’s the SEC’s second-leading rusher at 101.3 yards a game — just 10 yards a game behind Newton — but numbers only tell part of the Lattimore story.
His rushing and pass receiving have made Stephen Garcia a better quarterback. All of that has helped to make Alshon Jeffery become the SEC’s leader in receiving yards a game.
Lattimore proved worth all the recruiting effort that finalists South Carolina and Auburn and others put into him, and imagine Auburn’s season with Lattimore and Newton.
As it was, running back Michel Dyer broke Bo Jackson’s freshman rushing record at Auburn, but there’s no doubt which newcomer made all the difference for the Tigers.
Newton’s rare combination of running and passing brilliance made him the clear Heisman front-runner and lifted a still-rebuilding team to the top of college football.
The undefeated Tigers top the Bowl Championship Series standings and stand two victories shy of a national championship.
Newton ran wild on LSU, one of the nation’s top rushing defenses. He passed Auburn back from a 24-0 deficit against Alabama.
He kept doing it through weeks of controversy as the NCAA and media have probed his recruitment, and his poise under scrutiny only enhanced his meaning to Auburn’s team.
“I think Cam has been a tremendous leader for our football team, and I think our football team sees that,” Chizik said. “… He’s just an unbelievable competitor. I think everybody sees that.
“And when a group of people see that in any situation, if you’re not particularly where you want to be at that moment, they’re looking for leadership and guys that have that look in their eye.”
The value of Newton and Lattimore to their teams showed when Auburn played South Carolina on Sept. 25. Newton had his breakout game, accounting for five touchdowns, and Auburn managed to hold Lattimore to 33 yards.
No shock. Auburn won, but still needed to rally from a 20-7 hole to win 35-27.
South Carolina needs more Lattimore today, and Auburn needs Newton to be Newton.
Regardless the outcome, both players have lifted their teams. Lattimore has South Carolina in position to win its first SEC title, and Newton has Auburn in position to win its first national title since 1957.
Not bad for two of 2009’s also-ran teams.
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @Jomedstar.