Controversy can't stop Auburn -- and neither can putrid defense
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And on the seventh day, he played.
Following a week of intense speculation over the status of embattled Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, the presumptive Heisman frontrunner skipped on to the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium for Saturday's game against Georgia wearing his usual ear-to-ear smile. Once again he dominated, rushing for 148 yards, throwing for 151 and accounting for four touchdowns in the Tigers' 49-31 victory. No. 2 Auburn (11-0) wrapped up the SEC West title and moved one step closer to a possible BCS National Championship Game appearance.
In the days leading up to the game, as more people claimed on the record that Newton's father, Cecil, had solicited six-figures for his son's commitment to Mississippi State; as the Auburn administration went into "no comment" mode; and as the NCAA stated emphatically that "Solicitation of cash or benefits by a prospective student-athlete or another individual on his or her behalf is not allowed under NCAA rules," many assumed Auburn would sit Newton pending the ongoing investigation.
But he played. And barring some dramatic turn, he's going to keep playing. According to the Birmingham News, the NCAA interviewed Newton and his father this week, during which Cecil admitted to the pay-for-play solicitation but insisted that his son had no knowledge of it. The NCAA briefed Auburn on the situation. And despite all that, Newton still played.
Clearly, Auburn is standing by its man.
In the most telling "report" yet, Charles Robinson of Yahoo! Sports, the guy who broke the Reggie Bush story in 2006 and nailed ex-North Carolina assistant John Blake earlier this fall -- in other words, an extremely credible reporter who knows a little something about NCAA investigations -- tweeted this Saturday: "Interesting note about Auburn, they have hired ex-NCAA [Committee on Infractions Chairman] Gene Marsh to work on Cam Newton issue. They intend [to] fight it all the way."
Marsh, it should be noted, is a law professor at archrival Alabama. (Update: The Birmingham News reported Monday that Auburn retains Marsh's law firm to handle compliance issues but that sources say Marsh is not directly involved with this case.)
So that's where we stand. Auburn has been accused of no wrongdoing. Newton is eligible and will likely remain so right up through Jan. 10, since NCAA investigations take months, if not years, to be resolved. No one can say with any certainty how this might play out. In the meantime, Newton will keep playing, and his BCS and Heisman pursuits will continue unabated, albeit under a cloud of suspicion.
On the field Saturday, Auburn did what it's done all season: put the ball in Newton's hands and let him do his thing. No amount of hyperbole can properly describe what Newton has done this season, but the most simplistic analogy is that he's Auburn's Vince Young. He's also the first player in SEC history to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000.
Georgia actually played relatively good defense in the first half. The Dawgs held the Tigers' running backs in check, intercepted Newton once and forced two punts in jumping to an early 21-7 lead. But Auburn clawed back, and Newton fired an 18-yard laser to tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen for the tying touchdown just before halftime. An understandably worn-down Georgia defense offered little resistance the rest of the way, allowing touchdowns on five straight Auburn possessions.
Of course, just as we can count on Newton to rack up 300 or so yards of offense every week, we can count on the Tigers' shaky defense to keep its opponent in the game. Auburn, the No. 2 team in the country, possesses the nation's 99th-ranked pass defense. It showed Saturday, as Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray fired three first-quarter touchdowns to wide open receivers, including two to star A.J. Green, who torched the Tigers for a season-high 164 yards on nine catches.
The rare occasions when Auburn stopped Murray usually involved intimidator Nick Fairley bursting through the line and barreling into Murray -- more than a few times, after Murray had released the ball. A nasty brawl broke out in the final minutes when, after Fairley took out Murray's legs, Georgia's offensive linemen intentionally went after Fairley on the next play. Two Tigers defensive linemen (Michael Goggans and Mike Blanc) were ejected for throwing punches. By rule, they will miss the first half of the Nov. 27 Iron Bowl.
It's that suspect Auburn defense that is keeping alive a steady stream of skeptics who assume the Tigers will eventually go down, most likely against 8-2 Alabama in two weeks, or possibly against 7-3 South Carolina in the SEC title game. Surely a team with the nation's 51st-ranked defense won't play for the national title, right? (Worth noting: Bitter Auburn fans often lament being left out of the 2004 title game in favor of an Oklahoma team that gave up 55 points to USC. That Sooners defense finished the season ranked 13th.)
But while Auburn has yet to show it could slow explosive teams like Oregon, Boise State or TCU, no one has provided any evidence that Newton can be stopped. Not upcoming opponent South Carolina, against which Newton posted 334 total yards in a 35-27 win on Sept. 25; not LSU's fifth-ranked defense, against which Newton ran for 217 yards; and apparently not even a slew of unseemly allegations.
In baseball, they sometimes play games under protest. In college football, Auburn will continue to play under suspicion -- regarding both Newton's eligibility and its defense. But neither has stopped Auburn yet, and there's no sign that they will.