There were no indications on Sept. 25 that we were watching a preview of the SEC Championship Game. South Carolina's 3-0 start could be chalked up to a schedule that included enough challenges in Southern Miss and Georgia to show that they might have a solid team, but nothing that suggested that there was much substance behind the annual hype that this might be "the year" for the Gamecocks. And Auburn and Cam Newton were talented -- but they were still coached by Mr. 5-19, coming off an okay 8-5 season, with an annihilation of Arkansas State and a pair of three-point wins against Mississippi State and Clemson on their resume.
These were two good teams. One of them might even compete for a divisional title before losing against the favorites in Gainesville and Tuscaloosa. But it was only a matter of time before order was restored in the East and West and we were back to our regularly-scheduled title bout.
And yet the team that will be wearing a red uniform this week will be the Gamecocks. And the team wearing some blue and orange will be the Tigers. And no one is quite sure how we got here.
Sure, we know the dates and the times and the scores. We know when Alabama and Florida lost, when the divisions were locked up by the underdogs, when the wheels came off for the favorites to return to Atlanta. But the twin collapses in Gainesville and Tuscaloosa were so unforeseeable, and really unprecedented, that it's no wonder they caught us by surprise. Have two teams ever been such heavy favorites -- and even with its offensive makeover, Florida was still seen as the class of the East -- only to have neither make the Championship Game? And has one of the replacement contenders ever been so unlikely?
In some ways, this game is not really a rematch. Sure, the players and the teams on the field are the same, but the stakes are much higher and the competitors viewed much differently than they were two and a half months ago. South Carolina would lose the game at Auburn in such heartbreaking fashion that you wondered if their season would ever recover. Earlier editions of the Gamecocks would have folded up and ended the year 7-5, off to another bowl game in Birmingham or Memphis. That's what South Carolina does.
Instead, this team followed up that loss by upsetting Alabama convincingly. They lost to Kentucky -- then bounced back to defeat Vanderbilt and Tennessee, two teams that have given the Gamecocks trouble even in down years. They got shellacked at home by Arkansas to start November, and it looked like the inevitable November slump was in progress.
But it never happened. The next week, South Carolina won for the first time ever at the Swamp. And for the first time since 2001, the Gamecocks never went on a losing streak. A team known for watching its season slip away at the first sign of adversity was instead the picture of resilience. "New Carolina," indeed.
The Tigers, meanwhile, kept winning. They nearly gave up leads, they rallied from a deficit, but they always won, with the magnetic smile of Cam Newton leading the way.
When adversity came for Auburn, it was not an opponent on the field. Instead, it was the NCAA and questions about how the Tigers had convinced this singular athletic talent to come to the Plains. We all know the Cam Newton story well enough not to have to repeat it here. But what was amazing is how the Tigers and Newton responded to the charges: They seemed to just get better. Whether it was motivational fuel or a noise that they were able to block out, the investigations and stream of negative reports would not derail the Tigers' magical season.
Meanwhile, the Heisman campaign that began against South Carolina continued through the rest of the year. Newton's game against South Carolina marked only the second time he had rushed for more than 150 yards (176) -- the other time was against Arkansas State. He would pass that mark four more times against SEC defenses. In all, he would pile up 3,590 yards and account for 43 TDs -- including one off of a 22-yard reception. He had a 22-yard punt.
And when it mattered most, with his team's chance at a clear shot to the national championship on the line, Newton rallied his team from down 24-0 to a one-point Iron Bowl win. If it wasn't more than we expected from Auburn, it was only because we had come to expect so much.
So what do we make of these teams now?
South Carolina might still have some big issues in the secondary -- Florida and Clemson aren't exactly the Colts, and so it's hard to tell the difference between the Gamecocks' success and their opponents' miscues. And Newton is the rare dual-threat quarterback who less a running back who can play quarterback and more a quarterback who could play running back.
But Auburn seems to be living on borrowed time, and the South Carolina fan in me wants to believe that time is about to run out. How many times can Auburn climb out of a multiple-touchdown hole? And how many times has the same team defeated Steve Spurrier twice in one season? (The answer, at least in the SEC, is once. Alabama did it in 1999, in another championship game rematch.)
With Cam Newton leading the way, I like their chances. Stephen Garcia is better than you think, Marcus Lattimore is easily the freshman of the year, and Alshon Jeffery is as good as advertised.
Unfortunately for the Gamecocks, so is Newton.
Auburn 34, South Carolina 30