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The way he nervelessly rolls the dice on huge stages, the 45-year-old Malzahn might as well still be coaching at Springdale (Ark.) High, where he won a state title in 2005 before bringing his brand of innovation to the college ranks. The man who popularized the Wildcat formation and wrote the book on the no-huddle offense (it's titled The Hurry-Up, No-Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy) also has a penchant for understatement. After noting last Saturday that the Tigers are dangerous on the ground and through the air—"South Carolina rolled their safeties down to stop the run, so we threw the ball"—Malzahn made this observation: "We're flexible. And it doesn't hurt to have Cam."
No, it doesn't hurt to have the most dominant college football player not just of this season, but of any season in recent memory. Quarterback Cam Newton, a junior, put a capstone on his spectacular first—and likely only—Auburn season last Saturday in Atlanta, accounting for six touchdowns and 413 yards of total offense (a career-high 335 through the air; 78 on the ground). Given the magnitude of the moment, it was, quite simply, college football's top performance of the year, and one that displayed all his talents. He threw gorgeous deep balls, including a 62-yarder to wideout Darvin Adams on the game's second play. He alternately beat defenders around the corner and bowled them over, such as on his second touchdown run, when he deposited 201-pound linebacker Tony Straughter on his keister.
The moment the final whistle blew, Auburn's offensive linemen carried the 6'6", 250-pound Newton off the field. Then, for the first time in more than a month, Newton addressed the media. He was flanked by coach Gene Chizik and Auburn associate AD Tim Jackson, who whispered in the quarterback's ear like a lawyer during a deposition.
Newton was nothing if not disarming, noting that it had been a year to the day since he'd led tiny Blinn College of Brenham, Texas, to the junior college national championship. "It's a wonder what God can do in a person's life, in such quick fashion," he said.
He and Chizik made repeated mention of the Almighty's beneficence in helping Auburn get to Glendale. While it remains unclear whether God is a Tigers fan, this much is certain: All of us are going to a better place if He is as merciful as the NCAA's reinstatement staff.
Five days before the SEC title game the NCAA informed Auburn that a violation of amateurism rules had taken place. The NCAA's investigation determined that Newton's father, Cecil, had offered his son's services to Mississippi State late last year for up to $180,000 in a pay-for-play scheme. Auburn declared its quarterback ineligible—and ineligible he remained, for all of 24 hours, until being reinstated by the NCAA, which did not have evidence to indicate that either the son or the school knew of his father's illicit conduct. ("I've done nothing wrong," Cam declared at that press conference. The investigation is ongoing.)
For their part, the Tigers were overjoyed at the passing of a cloud that has followed them since early last month. "It was such a relief for all of us this week to have the NCAA come out and say he's eligible to play," says right guard Byron Isom. "You could see it in Cam's eyes that he was really ready to go today. He's so special. He's taking us to the Promised Land."
To reach there, the Auburn defense will need to slow an offense whose normal tempo is best described as hyperspeed.
Oregon right tackle Mark Asper was on the phone with his insurance agent earlier this season, and he was hot. If he took out some life insurance, he'd been told, he would get a discount on his car insurance. A 25-year-old junior who had been on a two-year Mormon mission, Asper is married to Michelle, who is due to deliver their second child any day. Sure, he said, I'll sign up for some life insurance.
He was weighed and measured. The insurance company took his blood and blood pressure. As an elite athlete, Asper was told, he would almost certainly qualify for a discount.