- Greg Ostendorf, ESPN Staff Writer
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Before the season, Saturday’s Auburn-South Carolina matchup looked like one of the best we’d see all year. Two top-10 teams, two great offensive minds and a rare cross-division game that hasn’t been played since 2011.
Despite losing its last time out, Auburn held up its end of the bargain. The Tigers are ranked No. 5 in the latest AP poll. The same can’t be said for South Carolina, though. The Gamecocks are nowhere to be found in the Top 25 after a 4-3 start. It doesn’t help that Gus Malzahn is a perfect 12-0 at home since becoming the Auburn head coach prior to last season.
Key player: RB Cameron Artis-Payne
Everybody is talking about freshman running back Roc Thomas after his short but impressive stint at Mississippi State -- the coaches have even said that he’ll have a bigger role in the second half -- but don’t forget about Artis-Payne. He’s fifth in the SEC with 664 yards rushing, and he’s had over 100 yards in four of Auburn’s first six games. He’s also the type who plays better with a chip on his shoulder. He’s heard all the Roc Thomas hype, too. Saturday will be his chance to go out and prove that he is still the team’s No. 1 running back.
Key question: How much will Jermaine Whitehead play?
We know that Whitehead has been reinstated to the team after missing the last four games due to suspension. Malzahn announced the news Tuesday. But what the Auburn coach didn’t specify was how much the senior would play Saturday against South Carolina. All he said was that Whitehead would have to earn back his playing time. There have been reports that the former starting safety will play special teams for the immediate future, but for how long? When will he crack the defensive back rotation? The Tigers could sure use him next week.
Key stat: South Carolina has allowed opponents to complete 50 percent of its passes thrown 10 yards or longer this season (38-of-76), worst in the SEC according to ESPN Stats & Info.
This stat should make Nick Marshall’s eyes light up. The Auburn quarterback has always been criticized about his accuracy throwing downfield. He can throw a great deep ball, but his completion percentage on longer passes doesn’t always reflect that. Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee will likely try to take a couple of shots Saturday, looking to exploit the Gamecocks’ secondary which has been prone to giving up the big play. That also means that D'haquille Williams and Sammie Coates could both be in for a big night.