ATLANTA (AP) — Cam Newton still seems a little dazed by it all, how a guy who was playing at a junior college in Texas just a season ago has the Heisman Trophy in his grasp, his team just one win away from the national championship.
With his best performance yet in a week when NCAA pronounced him good to go, Newton accounted for six touchdowns in the Southeastern Conference championship game to lead No. 2 Auburn to a 56-17 rout of 18th-ranked South Carolina on Saturday.
“It’s not even sunk in,” said Newton, who threw for a career-best 335 yards and four touchdowns, plus ran for a pair of scores. “I’ve just been living the dream.”
An even bigger game looms on Jan. 10.
Auburn, which came into the day leading the Bowl Championship Series standings, wrapped up its spot in the title game against top-ranked Oregon, which secured a trip to Glendale, Ariz., with a 37-20 victory over Oregon State.
The Ducks will be facing a player that Auburn coach Gene Chizik calls the best he’s ever seen at the college level. That includes Vince Young, who was at Texas when Chizik was the Longhorns’ defensive coordinator.
“When you look at the 13-game span, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Chizik said. “It’s running the ball. It’s throwing the ball. Usually great quarterbacks do one or the other better. What God has blessed Cameron with is the ability to be really, really good at both.”
He’ll certainly get no argument from coach Steve Spurrier and the Gamecocks, who gave Auburn a tough game in the opening month of the season but never had a chance in this one.
“You can’t tackle him,” Spurrier said after being denied his seventh SEC title. “He’s almost a one-man show but those guys really help and their receivers are really good. With that offensive line and him, it’s hard to stop him.”
The wins by Oregon and Auburn denied another team with a perfect record, TCU, a shot at becoming the first school from a non-BCS conference to play for the title.
Before the national title is decided, Newton will likely be picking up the college game’s top individual honor when the Heisman Trophy is awarded next weekend in New York City — especially after the NCAA cleared him of any wrongdoing in a pay-for-play recruiting scandal involving his father.
Hard to imagine the Heisman vote even being close after the 6-foot-6, 250-pound junior followed Tim Tebow as only the second player in the history of football’s top division to run AND pass for 20 touchdowns in a season. He slipped away from defenders with his surprising quickness, buying extra time to throw. He broke tackles with his power, not at all shocking given that he outweighed all three of South Carolina’s starting linebackers by at least 25 pounds.
Or he just ran right over ’em.
Newton guided the Tigers (13-0) to touchdowns on their first three possessions, though South Carolina (9-4) was in the game as halftime approached. Trailing only 21-14, the Gamecocks simply had to knock down Newton’s last-gasp heave on the final play before the break.
They couldn’t even do that.
Newton launched one up and 6-foot-2 DeVonte Holloman, standing in front of Terrell Zachery, leaped to tip it away. But the deflected ball went right to Darvin Adams for an improbable 51-yard touchdown that changed the complexion of the game. After South Carolina missed a field goal on the first possession of the second half, it was all Tigers.
“That was huge momentum swing right before the half,” Chizik said.
Maybe there’s a bit of karma in how things worked out.
While many will surely consider any title to be tainted because of Newton’s father seeking illegal payments during the recruiting process, the Tigers can counter that this makes up for the 2004 season.
Auburn went 13-0 that year but didn’t get a chance to even play for the national title. Instead, USC and Oklahoma met in the Orange Bowl, with the Trojans winning in a 55-19 romp.
This game was nearly as lopsided. In the second half, Newton ran right over Antonio Allen on a 1-yard touchdown, sending the linebacker tumbling onto his back to make it 35-14. The Auburn star finished his day with a nifty little 7-yard scoring pass to Emory Blake in the right corner of the end zone for a 49-14 lead.
Well, there was one more snap to take.
Newton was sent out only so he could come right back off to a fitting ovation for the Auburn side of the Georgia Dome. He waved his arms, pumped his fists and was wrapped up in a big hug from Chizik when he got to the sideline. Then he yucked it up with 1985 Heisman winner Bo Jackson, who watched the game standing on the Tigers bench.
“Heisman! Heisman! Heisman!” the orange-clad fans roared.
Newton spoke with the media for the first time in nearly a month, but he refused to take questions about the allegations that threatened to wreck his glorious ride. The NCAA ruled that his father, Cecil Newton, concocted a payment scheme for his son to sign with Mississippi State, but also ruled that neither Cam nor Auburn knew anything about it.
“I’ve done nothing wrong,” Newton said, reading from a statement. “I will only answer questions about football and this game. I ask that you respect that.”
Newton won the SEC title in his hometown of Atlanta and just one year removed from Blinn Junior College in Texas, where he spent last season after beginning his college career at Florida as a little-used backup behind Tebow.
Boy, the Gators would sure like to have Newton now.
Auburn will give the SEC a chance to add to its already unprecedented streak of four straight national titles, which began with Florida in 2006 and was carried on by LSU, Florida again and Alabama last season.
Spurrier was denied another SEC title. The offensive mastermind who led Florida to a half-dozen championships in his 12 years at the Swamp was a flabbergasted, visor-throwing mess on the sideline. His Gamecocks — possibly headed to the Outback Bowl — were blown out by an Auburn team that had struggled to beat the Gamecocks in the opening month of the season.
In fact, the Tigers have played from behind much of the year, overcoming double-digit deficits four times — most notably, rallying from 24 points down against Alabama — and smaller margins in four other wins.
The drama was lacking in this one. It became a full-fledged rout when the defense took aim at South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia, whose attempt at flipping away a screen pass under heavy pressure wound up right in the arms of cornerback T’Sharvan Bell, who returned it 10 yards for a touchdown and a 42-14 lead midway through the third period.
Newton could have some fun. After his final run — a typical effort in which he faked out one defender and jumped over another — he flipped the ball to an official and inadvertently knocked off his cap. No problem. Newton scooped it up, put the hat back on his head and, with a big smile, gave the official a pat on the backside.
The Tigers set an SEC championship game record for points and piled up 589 yards. Newton had a hand in 408 of them, breaking his previous best of 317 yards passing against Chattanooga and leading Auburn in rushing with 14 carries for 73 yards. Despite two big drops, Adams set another SEC championship record with 217 yards on seven receptions.
After picking up his MVP award, Newton headed off on a familiar victory lap. He ran all the way to the opposite end of the Georgia Dome, slapping hands with the Auburn fans gathered along the railing.
Now, it’s on to the Big Apple, and then to the Arizona desert.