COLUMBIA -- Nick Fairley, the outstanding Auburn defensive tackle, was asked this week about Marcus Lattimore, the outstanding South Carolina running back.
"Who?" Fairley asked.
Whether Fairley meant any disrespect by that isn't clear, even though Lattimore very strongly considered Auburn.
Regardless, don't you think Fairley might have more immediate name recognition if Lattimore had run for more than 33 yards on 14 carries against Auburn in the teams' first meeting back in September?
The week before, Lattimore had rushed for 97 yards against Furman in limited time. The week before that, he'd broken out by running for 182 yards against Georgia.
In short, Fairley and Auburn were ready. The Tigers stacked the line of scrimmage, limiting Lattimore to 2.4 yards a carry.
At the same time, because of the attention on Lattimore, it meant better matchups for receiver Alshon Jeffery. The sophomore had his best game of the season, catching eight passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns.
For this week's SEC title game, ideally, South Carolina would like to get both going, to achieve a level of balance it didn't have in the first game -- a 35-27 Auburn victory.
"We always want to get the run game established. It's going to be important to do that," Gamecocks running backs coach Jay Graham said. "We've been working really hard in practice to make sure we've got everything covered."
Of course, Fairley and Auburn are a pretty substantial wall. The Tigers are second (to South Carolina) in rushing defense, giving up 108 yards a game on the ground.
Partially in an attempt to rile his players, Gamecocks offensive line coach Shawn Elliott has told the group that Fairley is the best defensive lineman in the conference. Hey, it worked last week against Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers. Bowers entered with 15 1/2 sacks and had zero against USC, not even getting close to quarterback Stephen Garcia.
Then again, Bowers and the Tigers completely stifled Lattimore. He ran 23 times for 48 yards for a season-low 2.1 yards a carry. Spurrier stuck with the running game, unlike Auburn, but it just wasn't there.
That's happened at times this season, and it hasn't worked out well for South Carolina most of the time.
In USC's three SEC losses -- one was when Lattimore was injured in the second half at Kentucky -- he averaged just 47.3 yards a game.
So, in other words, right at his Clemson total. But the Gamecocks won that one handily. So, there's a thought that Lattimore might not be required to defeat Auburn. But he'd sure like to help, even if it's by grinding out yards to keep the clock moving and the ball out of quarterback Cam Newton's hands.
"It's hard, but you've got to keep fighting for those extra yards, try to get those tough yards," Lattimore said. "Eventually the pass will open up and (you) throw it on them."
But maybe there are more direct ways he could impact the game. After all, Graham says Lattimore is more knowledgeable of the playbook now compared to late September. Back then, the Gamecocks didn't try much beyond the zone read that worked so well against Georgia.
Additionally, Lattimore has become more of a weapon out of the backfield in the second half of the season. He has 332 receiving yards to go with his 1,114 rushing yards.
"He's a great football player, there's no question," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said this week. "They do a great job of utilizing him the right way. They run a great screen game with him. They just do a great job. He has great hands. He's an all-around football player. … He has become, obviously, a very effective player in the league."
In South Carolina's five SEC wins -- he played four, missing the Vanderbilt game with an injury -- Lattimore averaged 168 rushing yards a game. He scored eight touchdowns in those four games, including three in the division-clinching win at Florida.
He's been a special addition to the team, without question. The Gamecocks were last in the SEC in rushing in each of the past three seasons, and now they're at least up to eighth. Lattimore, though, is second in the league, behind only Newton.
"We knew Marcus was an outstanding running back," Spurrier said. "We didn't know he could carry the team in several big games the way he has this year."
Lattimore didn't decide until the Sunday before National Signing Day that he would go to USC over Auburn. It's funny to think that Lattimore would have been in this championship game either way.
"I think about that all the time," he said. "I knew this was the right place for me. No doubt in my mind that I'm supposed to be here right now."
Now, can Lattimore make a name for himself in Auburn's minds?
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