Cam Newton saga takes another turn

How quickly things have changed for Auburn — and for all of college football.

Just a short while ago, the Tigers were a gutsy, come-from-behind ballclub with a new-age college football superman whose coach was invoking favors from God on national TV, and they were positioning themselves to dethrone defending national champion Alabama.

The size, the speed, the arm, heck, just all of the talent that is Cam Newton kept the Tigers winning out Saturday after Saturday (just as they did against Georgia on Saturday). And the smile, oh, the smile!

And now, suddenly, at best they are the black hats, absorbing the arrows of jealous rivals.

At worst, they are all that is wrong with college football.

One way to look at it, the way Auburn hopes we all look at it through Jan. 10, 2011: No matter what might have occurred in the recruiting process with Mississippi State last winter, it has no bearing on Auburn or Newton now.

Another way to look at it, the way that quickly brings the bile into the back of my throat: This goes on all the time.

And, finally, the way that seems to be most difficult to ignore: In contrast to what happened to USC and Reggie Bush, who accepted money from an agent based on his future NFL earnings, these allegations are of a whole different universe. Extra benefits are one thing, but alleged six-figure payments to sign a letter of intent to attend college are quite another.

Over the years, Auburn has rarely been accused of having much institutional control of its football program, anyway. Two of its greatest seasons were short-circuited because the program was on probation, and all the shenanigans that have surrounded Bobby Lowder, Auburn’s infamously powerful booster, make this seem a little too familiar.

• Auburn went undefeated in 1957 … when the Tigers were on probation.

• Auburn went undefeated in 1993 … when the Tigers were on probation.

• Auburn went undefeated in 2004 … and finished second behind USC. The Trojans, of course, were later found to have used an ineligible player, so they had to forfeit their title.

• Auburn is 10-0 in 2010 … stay tuned. It’s instructive to remember that USC’s 2004 title was vacated and Bush sent back his Heisman Trophy five years after the transgressions took place.

The worst part for college football fans is that unless Alabama or South Carolina beats Auburn, this line of conversation is going to dominate the next two months, right up to the national championship game.

Just in case we had forgotten all of that while watching the game, two Auburn players were kicked out of the Georgia game for throwing punches in two different incidents.

THIS VOTER WANTS MOORE: As a Heisman Trophy voter, I don’t know what to think about the Cam Newton situation quite yet.

But in light of the Heisman’s mission statement of recognizing "the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity," Boise State’s Kellen Moore is looking better all the time. He hasn’t been arrested, and no major programs even recruited him out of high school because he was barely 6 feet tall and didn’t seem to have a rocket arm, so he probably wasn’t bought off. In the meantime, he has become unbelievably good: He leads the nation in passing efficiency and has guided his team to 23 consecutive victories.

IT’S LOOKING LIKE DUCKS, TIGERS: The remaining schedules and recent history suggest that Oregon and Auburn will wind up in Glendale, Ariz., for the BCS national championship game. In five of the first nine years of the BCS system, the top two teams at this point in the season have advanced to the final; in two of the other four years, the top two teams were in the same conference, so it was virtually impossible for both to get there.

While Oregon’s offense was not its point-a-minute self in the 15-13 victory over Cal, the Ducks’ defense certainly showed its stuff. Oregon’s remaining opponents, Arizona and Oregon State, are not as imposing as they were earlier. Arizona is wilting in November (a narrow victory over UCLA, losses to Stanford and USC), and Oregon State’s season is in a free fall after losses to UCLA and Washington State – with games against USC, Stanford, and Oregon still to come.

Auburn, meantime, has two weeks to enjoy the SEC East title and to try to sort out some of this cloud over Newton’s head before playing at Alabama and then the SEC championship game against South Carolina.

CAN GAMECOCKS SHOW UP VS. TIGERS? South Carolina might just be the team to bump off Auburn. That is, of course, if the Gamecocks team that shows up in Atlanta on Dec. 4 is the team that showed up against Alabama last month and Florida on Saturday.

The combination of tailback Marcus Lattimore, receiver Alshon Jeffrey, and (yes) quarterback Stephen Garcia offers the kind of balanced challenge that can beat Auburn, even though the Tigers won the first go-round, 35-27.

It’s difficult to understand why South Carolina has looked so bad at times this year, but by and large the Gamecocks are the best example of what college football is this season — incredible and horrific, wrapped in one package.

GO FOR TWO! Oregon’s penchant for going-for-two after the Ducks’ first score of the game has been more than a little aggravating at times, but it paid off richly Saturday in the two-point victory over California. Oregon took an 8-7 lead and later expanded that to 15-7 in the third quarter, prompting Cal coach Jeff Tedford to go for two when the Bears scored to make it 15-13. California’s two-point conversion failed, and that’s the way the game ended.

That Cal later missed a field goal was also significant, but Oregon’s successful two-point conversion put pressure on the opponent. That’s something we expect will become a trend before long.

UGLY DOINGS IN BIG TEN: Ohio State certainly looked like a powerhouse in the second half against Penn State while rolling to the 38-14 victory. Significantly, Terrelle Pryor announced this week he intends to return for his senior season, and presumably, so will junior tailback Dan Herron, who rushed for 190 yards against the Nittany Lions.

The Buckeyes, though, are looking up at Wisconsin in the Big Ten race, as is Michigan State in the three-way tie, since the team ranked highest in the BCS rankings wins the tie-breaker in that particular conference. Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema seemed to misplace his moral compass in pouring it on Indiana 83-20. He already has been accused of padding the score late in a 41-20 decision over Minnesota, and putting up 70 against Austin Peay early in the season was bad enough, but 83 in a conference game?

There’s a reason no Big Ten team had scored that many points in a league game in more than a half-century: Because in conference games, coaches know they haven’t seen the last of that opponent, and eventually what goes around, comes around.

BIG EAST, ACC MIGHT BE AT ROCK BOTTOM: The Big East and the ACC are being overshadowed by the Mountain West and Western Athletic conferences this season, and for good reason. The Big East is still led by Pittsburgh, a 5-4 team that couldn’t beat Connecticut this week, and the ACC is being dominated by Virginia Tech, a team that has won eight in a row but can’t be taken seriously nationally since it lost to James Madison in September.

SEAT-OF-THE PANTS WIN: A bit of a weird ending to the Stanford-Arizona State game, but will it cost the Cardinal in the polls as teams vie for votes with style points? The Cardinal led 17-13 and had the ball at the ASU 23 with 1:21 remaining, when tailback Anthony Wilkerson broke free and had a clear path to the end zone and a 24-13 victory. But he stopped and sat down on the 4-yard line. Wilkerson apparently recognized that ASU could conceivably score twice in the final minute, so he prompted the Cardinal to secure the narrow victory instead of trying for the more impressive, 11-point triumph (with the risk that the Sun Devils could rally).

NOT CRYING WULFF: Washington State broke through under coach Paul Wulff, snapping a 17-game Pac-10 losing streak by handling Oregon State 31-14. The outcome rewards the patience of athletic director Bill Moos and puts the Cougars in a remarkably good mood for their remarkably long three-week preparation period heading into the Dec. 4 Apple Cup against Washington. Wulff never knew being 2-9 could feel so good; the emotional triumph almost certainly will keep him in charge of the Cougars next season.

BUFFS RESPOND TO CHANGE: At the same time, Colorado seemed to reward its coaching change. The 34-14 victory over Iowa State came under interim coach Brian Cabral, as Cody Hawkins threw three touchdown passes. Earlier in the week, Cody’s dad, Dan Hawkins, was fired after a 19-39 five-year stint and an epic collapse against Kansas last week, when the Buffs blew a four-touchdown lead in the last eight minutes.

THIS WEEK’S BIGGEST GAMES

Thursday, Nov. 18
Georgia State at Alabama –
Nothing more, nothing less than a tune-up for the Iron Bowl.
UCLA at Washington – Locker returns from broken rib; both teams in pursuit of a bowl.

Friday, Nov. 19
Fresno State at Boise State –
Second of three straight Friday night TV shows for Broncos.

Saturday, Nov. 20
Stanford at California –
Big Game Week; Cal looking for bowl eligibility.
Wisconsin at Michigan – Can Denard Robinson & Co. slow down the runaway Badgers?
Nebraska at Texas A&M – Aggies have won four in a row, but Big Red is a machine.
Ohio State at Iowa – Could have been a monster game, but Hawkeyes are now 7-3.
Oklahoma at Baylor – Potent Bears find themselves in a prime-time matchup.
Virginia Tech at Miami – Hokies riding high, wide, wave of momentum.