ATLANTA — South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier flashed a big smile Friday and said his team was ecstatic to finally be on 'the big stage.'
That was before the Gamecocks took a nosedive off it, leaving Auburn and Cam Newton to shine in the spotlight Saturday evening.
Newton, who will likely claim the Heisman Trophy in six days, accounted for six total touchdowns, and the No. 2 Tigers rattled off 28 consecutive points to rout the No. 18 Gamecocks, 56-17, in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game in front of 75,082 fans inside the Georgia Dome.
'I ain't never got beat like this before,' said South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery, who had only four catches for 36 yards after catching eight passes for 192 yards in the teams' first meeting in September.
The Gamecocks took the Tigers to the brink in that game, forcing Auburn to rally from 13 points down for a 35-27 victory at Auburn. But things have changed since then.
South Carolina believed it had improved, illustrated by a three-game November win streak. Then it saw Auburn.
'Auburn was too good for us,' said Spurrier, who was coaching in this game for the first time since 2000 and missed his chance to win an SEC title for the sixth time — but first with the Gamecocks.
Auburn (13-0) will now move on to play in the BCS national championship game against Oregon (12-0). The Gamecocks (9-4) await a bowl invitation, from likely the Outback Bowl or Chick-fil-A Bowl.
That's not what USC wanted. It wanted to be in the BCS, in the Sugar Bowl. But the Gamecocks admitted after Saturday's game that Auburn is just better.
'Maybe if we played these guys 10 times, they may win nine of them — or more,' Spurrier said.
Newton has a lot to do with that statement. The 6-6, 250-pound quarterback did USC in with his legs the first time, his arm the second.
Coverage breakdowns — something consistently bad all year for the Gamecocks — were major issues throughout. And it began early.
Newton sold a fake handoff expertly and hit Darvin Adams for a 62-yard gain on the second play of the game. It set the tone for what was to come in a half that included 217 yards receiving for Adams and 281 passing for Newton.
'He can just make you look silly sometimes,' USC defensive head coach Ellis Johnson said of Newton.
Auburn scored two plays later on a 12-yard pass from Newton to Onterio McCalebb, and it was 7-0 less than two minutes into the game.
South Carolina appeared up for a track meet early on, racing down the field for its own touchdown on the first possession. Stephen Garcia found Pat DiMarco for a 25-yard score 3½ minutes after Auburn was in the end zone.
Late in the second quarter and trailing 21-7, the Gamecocks struck for a quick drive, executing well in the two-minute offense. Garcia lobbed the ball up well for Alshon Jeffery, who snared a 1-yard score that was set up by Marcus Lattimore's 26-yard catch on third down.
It was a manageable 21-14 deficit. USC was renewed. And the Gamecocks were getting the ball to start the second half.
But it was Auburn's day. That became glaringly obvious when Newton launched a 51-yard Hail Mary pass on the final play of the first half that Adams pulled in for a touchdown. Safety DeVonte Holloman got a hand on the pass in the end zone, but he wound up batting it in the air to Adams.
A squib kick that Spurrier called a 'miscommunication' helped Auburn get in position for Newton's heave. The Tigers started on their own 41-yard line.
Gamecocks spur Antonio Allen called it a 'lucky pass.' He also said it torpedoed South Carolina's energy.
'We just tried to put it behind us, as much as possible,' Allen said. 'It was hard to do. We had the momentum going in. They just took it right back.'
And then the Tigers just kept taking and taking and taking. Starting with the Hail Mary, they reeled off four consecutive touchdowns, including a Garcia interception to Auburn sophomore T'Sharvan Bell. Garcia was facing a heavy rush and tried to get rid of the ball, but it shot straight into Bell's waiting arms. He returned it 10 yards to put Auburn up 42-14 with 7:23 to go in the third quarter.
'They got away from us,' Spurrier said.
One last Newton touchdown — his sixth and final TD — extended the lead to 35 points.
The day hadn't gone as the Gamecocks expected. They presumed they could at least hang with Auburn.
But this Auburn team, all but unstoppable, was purely different. The Tigers converted 9 of 12 third downs. Newton outgained the Gamecocks, 403 to 349.
South Carolina also missed two long field goals, including one that came after Newton's first career fumble. Nothing went right for the first-timers in the SEC title game.
'I knew they were going to score points, but I thought our defense could contain them a little bit more,' said DiMarco, the senior captain. 'I thought we could put more points up.
'None of that happened.'
No, South Carolina gave the stage to Auburn.
'So,' Spurrier said, 'just give Auburn credit.'