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Young runners to meet in SEC championship
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Auburn's Michael Dyer and South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore hoped to share Southeastern Conference success and the same backfield.

Instead, the friends and rising star tailbacks will settle for an SEC title showdown at the Georgia Dome on Saturday.

While their roles differ, they've each had major impacts on their division-winning teams.

Lattimore is the second in SEC rushing yards per game behind Newton as No. 18 South Carolina's featured back. He was the Gamecocks first to surpass 1,000 yards in 10 years and set a single-season school record with 19 touchdowns. Dyer has fewer yards (886) and touchdowns (five) as he splits carries in an exceptionally talented backfield for No. 2 Auburn (12-0).

"As the season's moved on, I think Michael's really come on as a player in terms of just week by week feeling better and fitting better in the offense," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. "You can tell his comfort level has improved drastically."

Both nearly wore the same uniform in college.

Dyer, of Little Rock, Ark., and Lattimore, of Duncan, S.C., came to know each other as two of the nation's most sought after high school runners. Dyer had pledged early to Auburn and tried hard to convince his pal to do the same.

When announcing his college decision, Lattimore showed an Auburn cap to the frantic crowd of hundreds at his church. Moments later, he slipped the South Carolina hat from beneath the other, setting off a frenzied hometown celebration.

"He wanted me to come there real bad," Lattimore says, "but it was just a comfort level here. I loved it here."

Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said Lattimore's a big reason for his team's breakout season, which has included its first victory over a No. 1 team in Alabama, its first win at Florida and its first SEC Eastern Division title.

Lattimore has a maturity and steadiness uncommon for 19 year olds.

"You don't see him in any kind of wild celebrations," Spurrier said. "He scores, throws the ball to the ref, gives a little high five to his teammates, so forth, and he's ready to keep on playing."

Lattimore has rushed for 1,114 yards and seems to save his biggest games for the most important moments. He had 182 yards and three touchdowns in a September victory over then ranked Georgia. He gained 93 yards, many of them to control the clock, in that 35-21 win over the top-ranked Crimson Tide. And he posted a career-high 212 yards and three TDs in the rousing, 36-14 win at The Swamp last month to lock up the East and a spot in Saturday's title contest.

His biggest misstep this season wasn't one he made at South Carolina.

He was late to a team meeting at his former high school, Byrnes, during Clemson week. Lattimore walked in, head down and humbled, as he apologized: "Sorry, I'm late coach."

"I start getting on him for being late," Byrnes coach Chris Miller said smiling. "Of course, I didn't know he was going to be there and all the kids start busting out laughing."

Bobby Bentley, former Byrnes coach and the Rebels offensive coordinator, watched Lattimore grow up with his son, Chas Dodd, currently Rutgers' starting quarterback.

"When I think of Marcus, it's more of the person he is, polite, humble," Bentley said.

Dyer's part of Auburn's talented four-pack of runners that also includes Mario Fanin and Onterio McCalebb. Newton triggers the offense and leads the way, but Dyer is right behind in a role Chizik envisioned for him.

And Dyer was more than ready to shine.

"My part so far has gotten bigger and bigger every week," Dyer said. "I feel like our team's play has gotten better and better. So it's just one of those seasons where it's been good."

Dyer broke the Auburn freshman rushing mark of the great Bo Jackson two games ago against Georgia. Jackson kissed Dyer's head and raised his arm to the joyous fans on Jordan-Hare Stadium's sidelines.

"He was just saying, 'I'm really proud of you and the team, with all you've accomplished,'" Dyer said of his talk with Jackson.

There could be more congratulations ahead.

A second victory over South Carolina — Auburn took a come-from-behind 35-27 victory in September — would move the Tigers into the national title game.

Dyer had the better of Lattimore in their first matchup, the 20-year-old Auburn back notching his first 100-yard game in college. Lattimore was held to 33 yards by the Tigers defense, Auburn end Nick Fairley even joking "Who?" when asked this week about the South Carolina back.

Lattimore said he and Dyer have texted each other a few times this week, but likely won't talk until Atlanta. Lattimore knows how close he came to playing on Auburn's sidelines in this one.

"It's crazy. I think about that all the time, how it was down to Auburn and South Carolina," he said. "No doubt in my mind that I'm supposed to be here right now."

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