ATLANTA -- There was no way to know.

Standing on the Jordan-Hare playing surface, just minutes before South Carolina's first game with Auburn back on Sept. 25, the Gamecocks couldn't have known what was about to come at them. After all, even Auburn didn't know what it had in Cam Newton.

South Carolina's coaches saw a 6-6, 250-pound quarterback who wanted to throw first and run second. The new JaMarcus Russell, they called him. That's what film against Arkansas State, Mississippi State and Clemson had shown them.

But they were mistaken.

"The first time we played them, they did a good job and wore us out," Gamecocks defensive assistant Shane Beamer said Monday.

"We probably didn't have as much respect for him as a runner as we did a passer."

Newton rushed for 176 yards and three touchdowns, Auburn had 334 yards on the ground -- and, most important, the Tigers rallied for a 35-27 victory.

Of course, Newton -- the odds-on favorite to win the Heisman Trophy next week -- has gone on to do that against just about everyone on the schedule.

But South Carolina gets something that no other team will against Newton: a second chance.

The No. 18 Gamecocks (9-3) and No. 2 Tigers (12-0) will meet Saturday in the SEC championship game in Atlanta.

"Our whole persona has changed, man," USC safety Akeem Auguste said. "We're really playing at a high level right now. I can't wait to see what we do when we're playing at our best and they're playing at their best."

As you look back, it's actually a statistical marvel what Newton and the Tigers did to the Gamecocks.

South Carolina is fifth in the country (first in the SEC) against the run, having given up 1,118 rushing yards (93.2 yards a game) in 12 games.

Without Auburn's 334 rushing yards, the Gamecocks have given up only 71.3 yards a game in the season's other 11 games.

In other words, roughly 30 percent of USC's rushing yards allowed came in that one game. And it's because Newton, quite literally, caught the Gamecocks flat-footed.

"Me?" Auguste said. "I didn't think he was that fast."

Auguste and the Gamecocks figured that part out early in the game. Newton rushed around the right side for a 54-yard touchdown, running away from even USC's fastest defensive backs.

It wasn't just a moment that grabbed South Carolina's attention.

"That was an eye-opening run when you know you're playing against such a great defense with tons of speed," Tigers coach Gene Chizik said earlier in the week. "That was eye-opening for us at that point in time, and that was one of his games that I think we were able to look back and say, 'Wow, these are some of the things we can really build on for the next seven or eight weeks.'

"At that point in time, I think it was definitely a teaching moment for us as coaches, or a learning moment, I guess you'd say, on what he was going to be able to do."

Through 12 games, Newton has thrown for 2,254 yards and 24 touchdowns. He has run for another 1,336 yards and 18 touchdowns.

He's the SEC's leading rusher and top-rated passer. Even when Alabama held Newton to 39 rushing yards last week, he was able to make enough plays with his arm to lead the Tigers back from a 24-0 deficit in Tuscaloosa.

Newton will resemble a different player than he did even in the first meeting. Remember that Newton, talented as he is, is still a first-year player in offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's system after transferring from a Texas junior college.

"I think Cam has totally gotten better as a quarterback and learning the system," USC secondary coach Lorenzo Ward said. "He's getting better at throwing the football. He can throw it, beat you running. He's a complete quarterback right now. He's definitely different than he was than the first time."

Even after the swell of attention and turmoil concerning his father, Cecil, soliciting payment for Newton to play at Mississippi State, he has continued to excel. Newton hasn't flinched, even as his eligibility was thrown up in the air.

The NCAA ruled Wednesday that Newton was eligible until further notice.

"He's a sharp young man that has the ability to focus on helping his team win the game," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said, adding that Newton will get his Heisman Trophy vote as a former winner.

Naturally, the question is this: How can South Carolina stop -- or at least slow -- Newton?

In the first game, Newton's ability to sell the fake, often keeping the ball, killed the Gamecocks. Will they be more diligent in watching the ball and being quicker to it once Newton makes a decision whether to keep or give on the option?

"It's our defensive scheme, our assignments," Auguste said. "A lot of people blew their assignments. Our coaches put us in the right positions. We've got to make plays. It's that simple."

SEC Championship coverage:

The Post and Courier's Travis Haney, Gene Sapakoff and Andrew Miller will provide complete coverage with stories, analysis, statistics and more from Saturday's SEC championship game in Atlanta.

For live updates before, during and after the game, go to postandcourier.com or follow Travis Haney on Twitter (@gamecocksblog).