HE ARRIVED AT AUBURN AS AN UNKNOWN QUANTITY, A PROMISING BUT unpolished athlete from an obscure junior college. His periodic lapses in judgment were quickly forgiven by Tigers fans and coaches starved for success. And on the biggest stage of his life, in Auburn's most important game in half a century, he played out of his mind. Tigers defensive tackle Nick Fairley picked a good night to turn in the performance of his career. The team's usual hero, quarterback Cam Newton, was surprisingly ordinary, mortal, un-Camlike in Auburn's heart-stopping (and surprisingly low-scoring) 22--19 win over Oregon in the BCS title game on Jan. 10. The Heisman winner, though limited at times by back pain brought on by Oregon hits, made any number of nice plays, but the freakish talent who rushed for 108.4 yards per game in 2010 was limited to 64 yards on 22 carries. He missed open receivers and—shockingly—coughed up a fumble with less than five minutes remaining that nearly cost the Tigers the championship.
"I don't want anybody to feel sorry for me," Newton said afterward. "Throughout this year nobody [felt] sorry for Auburn. And we got the last laugh."
Not to worry, Cam. Very few people at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., wasted pity on you in the moments after the game. Newton's fumble, forced by middle linebacker Casey Matthews and recovered by cornerback Cliff Harris, led to Oregon's final touchdown, a two-yard shovel pass from Darron Thomas to tailback LaMichael James. But that score only cut the lead to 19--17. Lining up for a two-point conversion, Thomas made a deft snag of an errant shotgun snap, rolled right and then, with a Tiger in his face, uncorked a sensational, against-the-grain fastball into the hands of leaping wideout Jeff Maehl. With 2:33 left to play, the game was tied. Oregon's D needed one stop—one lousy stop—to force overtime.
And the Ducks got it. Well, it sure looked as if they got it. But in a sequence more surreal than the lime-green Day-Glo stockings that Oregon's marketing gurus unveiled for the occasion, running back Michael Dyer took a handoff from Newton, only to be wrestled to the turf by rover Eddie Pleasant. Play came to a stop. The Ducks' defense relaxed. From the Tigers' sideline, however, coaches could be heard screaming, "Go! Go! Go!" So Dyer did, regaining his feet and trucking up the right side for a 37-yard gain. No whistle had blown after Pleasant's almost-tackle. Dyer's right knee and leg had swept over the turf, not quite grazing the blades of grass. A prolonged video review confirmed that the play had still been alive.
Five snaps later Auburn kicker Wes Byrum casually slotted the game-winner from 19 yards out as time expired, and Pleasant lost his will to move. As pandemonium erupted around him, he knelt near the south goal line for several minutes, finally bestirring himself to walk to the bench. There he sat, catatonic, mocked by an eruption of Auburn-colored confetti from a nearby cannon, mocked by his very surname.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL FANS WILL BE OF TWO minds concerning the Tigers' second national title, their first since 1957 and the SEC's fifth in a row. Members of the extended Auburn "family," to use the word preferred by coach Gene Chizik, believe that a great injustice has been redressed. Recall that the 2004 Tigers beat three top 10 teams and dispatched 15th-ranked Tennessee in the SEC title game, yet were excluded from the national championship game in favor of USC and Oklahoma. Auburn finished the season 13--0 and ranked No. 2, behind the equally unbeaten Trojans.
Coach Terry Bowden's 1993 Tigers won all their games as well but performed that feat under the cloud of NCAA probation. They were paying for the sins of Bowden's predecessor, Pat Dye, who'd been forced to resign in the wake of a pay-for-play scandal. Ineligible for postseason play, Auburn finished 11--0 and ranked No. 4 in the AP poll.
But let the record show that in the early morning of 1/11/11—what better day to be crowned No. 1?—perfection finally paid off for the Tigers. There was Nick Saban, coach of the archrival Alabama Crimson Tide, on an ESPN set grimacing as he bestowed bouquets upon the Tigers. Just 12 short months after 'Bama had brought home the national title trophy, and less than five months after the Tide had begun the season as favorites to repeat, Saban was relegated to analyzing the BCS title game rather than coaching in it. Back in Auburn, after the final second ticked off the clock, at least some of the bathroom tissue designated for the ceremonial rolling of Toomer's Corner was used, instead, to wipe away tears of joy.
Those fans not in the habit of using War Eagle! as an all-purpose greeting may regard Auburn's triumph with a more jaundiced eye. They could note that Newton started the game 41 days after his own school declared him ineligible, following the discovery that his father, Cecil, had shopped him to Mississippi State for up to $180,000 in an attempted pay-for-play scheme.