First, an Iron Bowl primer: For decades the University of Alabama has been held up as the state's flagship school, where the professionals—its doctors and lawyers and captains of industry—sent their children. Auburn, né the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama, drew from a more middle- and lower-class pool. Yet there was nothing genteel or civil about the Crimson Tide's welcome for Tigers quarterback Cam Newton in Tuscaloosa's Bryant-Denny Stadium last Friday afternoon for the 75th edition of this Skoal-fueled, intrastate jihad. (If they'd gone easy on him, of course, this wouldn't have been the Iron Bowl.) $scam newton T-shirts sold briskly. Stepping onto the field for warmups, Newton was greeted by the Steve Miller Band's Take the Money and Run, followed by Dusty Springfield's Son of a Preacher Man.
By the end of the game, of course, most of the junior's critics had fallen silent. Just before disappearing into the tunnel, Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley surveyed a cluster of Crimson-clad fans and baited them, cupping his hands to both ears, as if to say, "I can't hear you!"
And what to make of Cam Newton's own gesture only moments before? In a game fraught with Heisman and national title implications, Auburn had just completed a 28--27 win and the most dramatic comeback in the history of the rivalry. As shell-shocked partisans in houndstooth accessories filed glumly out of the stadium, Newton turned their precious turf into his own private playground. After a succession of midfield embraces with teammates and opponents alike—"Good game, big dog," said one 'Bama player, "you're the best player in the country"—Newton bolted toward the flash mob of Tigers fans in a corner of Bryant-Denny, stopping along the way to perform a kind of flying hip bump with Fairley. Newton would then embark on a clockwise victory lap, theatrically holding one hand over his mouth as he did so.
Was he mocking the Tide faithful for their silence? Was it Newton's way of signaling that he'd been gagged by Auburn coach Gene Chizik? Was he about to throw up?
No one knows; Newton didn't speak with reporters after the game. Despite his natural exuberance, Newton hasn't spoken publicly since Nov. 9, as a series of accusations have buffeted him and Auburn's football program. They include allegations that his father, Cecil, a pastor in Newnan, Ga., solicited up to $180,000 from Mississippi State in a pay-for-play scheme last year. (The elder Newton has denied any wrongdoing.)
Even as the accusations have sparked investigations by the SEC, the NCAA and the FBI (with Interpol surely to follow), Auburn is standing steadfastly by its man. Despite sanctions that could include, among other things, forfeited victories if Newton is later ruled ineligible, Chizik and his superiors remain convinced of their quarterback's innocence.
With this tawdriness as a backdrop, the most intriguing matchup of the 2010 regular season kicked off. Led by their freakishly talented 6'6", 250-pound quarterback, the Heisman Trophy front-runner, the No. 2 Tigers are legitimate national title contenders. To get to the BCS title game, they'd have to get past the defending national champions, led by tailback and 2009 Heisman winner Mark Ingram.
During a first half that had college football fans whooping for joy in Fort Worth and Boise, the No. 9 Tide flat out embarrassed the visitors, taking a 24--0 lead midway through the second quarter. "We were on the verge of being terrible," said Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. "But [give] credit to our guys—they came back in the second half and played fairly solid football."
Two sentences, two profound understatements. The Tigers didn't verge on terrible in the first half. They embodied it. 'Bama was up 21--nil before Auburn mustered a single first down. And the Tigers weren't "fairly solid" in the second half. They were astonishing—Newton in particular.
What were Alabama's defenders doing early in the game to stifle the visitors? "They were whipping our butts, is what they were doing early," explained Malzahn. Due in large part to the occluding, disruptive presences of defensive linemen Marcell Dareus and Josh Chapman, 'Bama took away the inside runs that have been Newton's bread and butter this season. Bowing to this reality, Malzahn decided to attack Alabama's perimeter in the second half, moving the chains with quick passes to, and sweeps by, sophomore tailback Onterio McCalebb.