Auburn's Michael Dyer and South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore hoped to share success in the same backfield. The friends will settle for an SEC title showdown at the Georgia Dome on Saturday.
While their roles differ, the freshmen have had big impacts.
Lattimore is second in the SEC in rushing yards per game — behind Auburn quarterback Cam Newton — and has 1,114 overall with a school-record 19 touchdowns as No. 18 South Carolina's featured back. Dyer has fewer yards (886) and touchdowns (five) as he splits carries in a talented backfield for No. 2 Auburn.
"As the season's moved on, I think (Dyer has) really come on in terms of … 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 pledged early to Auburn and tried hard to convince his pal to do the same.
When announcing his 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 is a big reason for his team's breakout season, which has included its first victory over a No. 1 team (Alabama), first win at Florida and first SEC East 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."
Dyer is part of Auburn's talented four-pack of runners that includes Mario Fanin and Onterio McCalebb. Newton triggers the offense, but Dyer is right behind in a role Chizik envisioned for him.
"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 record of Bo Jackson two games ago. Jackson kissed Dyer's head and raised his arm to the 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 win in September — would move it into the national title game.
Dyer had the better of Lattimore in their first matchup, the 20-year-old notching his first 100-yard game. Lattimore was held to 33 by the Tigers, 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 for Auburn.
"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."