AUBURN, Ala. -- Here's No. 12 South Carolina's chance to take another step out of Florida's shadow in the SEC East. And perhaps No. 17 Auburn can make a little noise in the SEC West and share some of the glory with that other team in the state.
Both league hopefuls have a chance to continue their bids for national respect and stamp themselves as legitimate contenders in the divisional hunt when they meet tonight in an appropriately overshadowed Top 25 SEC clash.
Auburn (3-0, 1-0 SEC) tried to make some headway with an overtime escape against Clemson last weekend, but instead dropped a spot in the rankings.
"I really don't pay attention to the polls. I really don't understand it," Tigers defensive end Antoine Carter said. "It's just another chance for us to go out and prove ourselves. We'll stay under the radar for now. We don't like to be the talk. We'd rather just go under the radar and prove ourselves on the field."
The game lacks the national profile of No. 1 Alabama versus No. 10 Arkansas kicking off 45 minutes earlier, but there's plenty at stake for an early out-of-division SEC game.
"When you get this type of attention for this type of game, it's really a statement game," Auburn guard Byron Isom said.
South Carolina (3-0, 1-0) is seeking its first 4-0 start since 2001 and only the ninth in school history, which would be yet another step up the ladder for the program. Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks have lost their last five SEC road games.
"Obviously we have a huge, huge challenge in front of us, with the best football team we've played up to date," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. "I don't think there's any question about that. They're just a very sound, solid football team with a lot of talent, and very well coached."
The two teams have only met four times since South Carolina joined the SEC in 1992, and Auburn has won all four.
Spurrier is more worried about the mundane little elements that help win games one at a time than the big picture. South Carolina already has respectable wins over Southern Miss and Georgia, but hasn't played on the road yet.
"Well, we have been in loud places before," Spurrier said. "We haven't tested our new at-the-line, call the plays up there on the road yet and we haven't used a silent count yet. Hopefully, we can pick up our foot and snap it, stay onside and things like that."
Boring, maybe. Practical, definitely.
The game pits the SEC's best against the SEC's best in one statistical category. Led by elusive, imposing quarterback Cam Newton, Auburn has the league's No. 1 running team and three of its top 10 rushers.
But South Carolina hasn't even come close to giving up Auburn's 259-yard average through three games. The Gamecocks are allowing just 59.7 yards a game -- or 179 total -- on the ground without yielding a rushing touchdown.
The 11 sacks are proof South Carolina can get after quarterbacks, but the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Newton is harder to chase down than most. He trails only Arkansas' Ryan Mallett in the SEC in total offense and is the No. 5 rusher.
"We've definitely got to stay in coverage a little bit longer just in case he decides to throw it or scramble," safety DeVonte Holloman said.
The game will also showcase probably the two top freshman tailbacks in the league.
South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore is the league's No. 2 rusher and has more carries than any other SEC back. Auburn's Michael Dyer hasn't gotten nearly as many chances but he took over the starting job against Clemson.
Lattimore's college choice came down to Auburn and South Carolina. They were considered two of the nation's top running back prospects.
Despite the success running the ball, Chizik's message this week to his team has been to play more physical on the front lines.
"Everything starts in the SEC on the line of scrimmage," he said. "I'd say that anywhere in football starts at the line of scrimmage. Certainly in this league with so many great inside defensive linemen as well as defensive ends and the big, physical offensive lines that we face as a defense every week. (The Gamecocks) play on the other side of the line of scrimmage. There's no question about that."
STAR QBS COLLIDE AS N.C. STATE VISITS TECH:
ATLANTA -- The last two ACC first-team quarterbacks will meet for the first time when Joshua Nesbitt leads Georgia Tech against Russell Wilson and North Carolina State today.
The winner could emerge as an early favorite in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Georgia Tech (2-1 overall, 1-0 ACC) is the defending ACC champion and has won eight straight conference games, including its win over Clemson in last year's ACC championship game.
"We're hoping we can make a statement in the ACC we're the team the beat," Nesbitt said.
Wilson has led North Carolina State to its first 3-0 start since 2002 as it enters its ACC opener. Georgia Tech and N.C. State have not played since 2006.
Nesbitt, who leads Georgia Tech's spread option offense, was the 2009 first-team all-ACC quarterback. Wilson was voted the league's top quarterback as a freshman in 2008, when he threw for 17 touchdowns and only one interception.
Wilson has six career games with at least 300 yards passing, including two this season. Nesbitt has six career games with at least 100 yards rushing, including two this season.
"I think each program asks each one to do something a little different," said Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson. "I think they are both really good players. Certainly, Joshua is not going to throw it as many times as Russell Wilson will. Hopefully we can be efficient when we throw it, and I hope our quarterback will have more rushing yards then theirs. If we don't, we will be in trouble."
Nesbitt, who ran for 18 touchdowns and more than 1,000 yards last season, already has 267 yards rushing and six touchdowns for Georgia Tech. He averages only 66.7 yards passing per game and has completed a dismal 36 percent of his passes, but Georgia Tech's average of 20.4 yards per completion concerns N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien.
"When you're averaging 20 yards a completion, that's a big-play pass offense," O'Brien said. "It's the same thing: They run the ball, they run the ball, they run the ball, they run the ball. And they lull the secondary to sleep, not reading their keys because then they start drifting and not having the mental toughness they need to have each and every play. Once they miss a key, (Georgia Tech receivers) run by you and they complete a pass and it's devastating."
Wilson has completed 57 of 101 passes for 744 yards and eight touchdowns. He hasn't thrown an interception.
Johnson said the Yellow Jackets must respect Wilson's potential as a passer and a runner.
"We've got to pressure the guy," Johnson said. "We can't just stand there and let him hold the ball. He'll kill us.
"When we do bring pressure and we rush the passer, we've got to stay in our lanes. We can't jump underneath and try to grab him by the arm or whatever and let him jump outside. He kills us."
Wilson has the potential to elude the pass rush and break free on outside runs.
By contrast, Nesbitt plays with the fearless toughness of a linebacker disguised as a quarterback. At 6-foot-1 and 218 pounds, he prefers to lower his helmet and run over tacklers, especially in short-yardage situations. If the Yellow Jackets come up short on third-and-2, Nesbitt is the best bet to keep the ball on fourth-and-1.
"He's not only a good runner, he's a powerful runner," O'Brien said. "He runs through tackles and he's been in the offense for a couple years, so he feels very comfortable with what his job and assignment is. He's very difficult to get down."
O'Brien has found some new help for Wilson this year.
Freshman Mustafa "Moose" Greene led the Wolfpack with 84 yards rushing and a touchdown and five catches for 54 yards in a 30-19 win over Cincinnati on Sept. 16.
Greene and another freshmen, Dean Haynes, have combined for more than 300 yards rushing and five touchdowns.
The Yellow Jackets fell from No. 15 out of the Top 25 following an unexpected 28-25 loss at Kansas on Sept. 11. Georgia Tech recovered to win 30-24 at North Carolina last week as Nesbitt threw and ran for touchdowns. Anthony Allen had 20 carries for 115 yards and Nesbitt added 26 carries for 104 yards.
"We just talked about our backs were against the wall," Johnson said. "We lost a game on the road that we felt we probably had a chance to win and we didn't want to dig ourselves into a deeper hole. Plus it was the first conference game.
"I think they responded with the attitude and the intensity that they needed to from the start of the season. Now the big question is can you maintain it? Is it a one-time deal or can you maintain it?"