Ordinary programs can thank stars for their rise

Dearly beloved football fans. We are gathered here today at the Georgia Dome because of two people -- Cam Newton and Marcus Lattimore.

Of course, we all understand that technically it's Auburn and South Carolina who have attracted more than 70,000 faithful to celebrate the Southeastern Conference championship game. It's a team sport after all, and no two guys could get there all alone.

But neither Auburn nor South Carolina would be here today without Newton and Lattimore. It's that simple. That cut and dried. If Newton were at Mississippi State and Lattimore had chosen Florida, we would be watching the Bulldogs and Gators getting it on this afternoon.

I believe this so completely that I already turned in my Heisman Trophy votes before Monday's official deadline. And while there were plenty of other team MVPs to consider for the three slots available on the ballot, just being here made these two locks on my list.

The Heisman Trophy is presented to the "most outstanding player" in college football, and it is certainly a subjective decision that the hundreds of voters have to make based on their on criteria. Every one of the candidates makes his team better. Stanford isn't 11-1 without Andrew Luck. Kellen Moore did everything asked of him to keep Boise State undefeated (unfortunately he wasn't asked to kick). LaMichael James has been every bit as impressive for Oregon as Mark Ingram was last year for Alabama.

In recent years, it's been popular to give the trophy to the best player on the best team -- a trend that I utterly despise. It's simply lazy logic. Just because A.J. Green played for a 6-6 Georgia team doesn't mean he's not the most outstanding wide receiver in the country.

But there is a strong case to be made for any star player who elevates his team. And few have elevated their respective programs more than Newton and Lattimore.

Newton, frankly, is unchallenged in this department.

He is hands down the most outstanding player in college football -- described often as a "bigger, stronger version of Michael Vick."

Newton would be in this SEC Championship game today no matter what team in the conference he was playing for.

Newton stays at Florida, the Gators breeze to the SEC East title.

If Newton had sold his wares to Mississippi State, the Bulldogs would be undefeated and unquestionably the No. 1 team in the nation with a defense Auburn only wishes it had.

On the flip side, if Newton doesn't go to Auburn, the Tigers would be irrelevant. They probably wouldn't even be bowl eligible.

Ridiculous? Hardly. Auburn was 7-5 last year. They've had six games this season decided by one score, and Newton's heroics have been pivotal in all of them. Without Newton's poise and skill, the Tigers probably don't win the Mississippi State, Clemson, South Carolina, Louisiana State and Alabama games. They might not beat Kentucky, Arkansas or Georgia either. Maybe they pull off a couple of those with Barrett Trotter at the offensive helm, but it really took a singular talent like Newton to offset the deplorable defense that Auburn has.

If you don't believe me, watch what happens next year when Newton is in the NFL and Auburn returns to mediocrity. Let's see how much they love Gene Chizik then.

Lattimore is a different story, and he's not nearly on the Heisman radar of most voters. He climbed onto the top 10 watch list after his 40-carry bludgeoning of Florida to clinch the SEC East title, but he disappeared a week later because unfamiliar voters weren't impressed with his seven-carry, 102-yard, three-touchdown effort against Troy.

Lattimore is the missing ingredient in South Carolina's long-standing plight as an SEC also-ran. The freshman is the hammer that nailed down the first division title in the school's mostly moribund history, and for that he earned my third-place vote on the Heisman ballot as an honorable mention nod in what is truly a one-man race.

"We won this division the day we signed him," said noted authority Steve Spurrier after the Florida game.

The Gamecocks are much more a sum of their parts than Auburn. Lattimore alone was not enough to lift South Carolina to this lofty a status.

Heck, sophomore receiver Alshon Jeffery is at the very least his superlative equal. But Jeffery is the latest in a long line of outstanding receivers that the Gamecocks have produced with no SEC trophy. And there have been plenty of quarterbacks in Columbia as good, if not better, than Stephen Garcia.

Lattimore is the key. He makes everyone around him better. And when he's not healthy or at his best, the Gamecocks are quickly diminished.

The Gamecocks fell apart when Lattimore left with injury against Kentucky. They were ineffective after falling behind in the second quarter to Arkansas, taking the running game off the table. South Carolina lost its lead when it stopped feeding the ball to Lattimore in the second half of the first meeting against Auburn.

But in the critical victories over Georgia, Alabama and Florida, it was Lattimore who delivered the Gamecocks to this stage today just as Newton carried Auburn on his shoulders.

Elevating two ordinary programs to the biggest platform in the nation's best football conference is an extraordinary feat. They got my votes, but only one of them will get to bring his team an SEC title.

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