ATLANTA -- Whether Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton should have played Saturday in the SEC Championship Game is a debate that will not end anytime soon. But this much we know: When No. 2 has been on the field, nobody, but nobody, has had an answer in the 2010 college football season.
A week that saw Newton declared ineligible on Tuesday only to be reinstated by the NCAA on Wednesday, ended as every other week has this season. For the 13th time, Newton was simply a force of nature as he led the No. 1 Tigers (13-0) to an overwhelming 56-17 rout of South Carolina in the SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome.
The last time Auburn won the SEC championship (2004) the Tigers went 13-0 but did not get a chance to play for the BCS title. This time they will.
This time, Auburn will advance to the Jan. 10 BCS Championship Game in Glendale, Ariz., where they will play No. 2 Oregon (12-0). A win in the Duel in the Desert will give Auburn its first national championship in football since 1957 and only the second in school history.
Newton most certainly locked up the Heisman Trophy, which will be presented next Saturday in New York. Newton would become the third Heisman Trophy winner in Auburn history after Pat Sullivan (1971) and Bo Jackson. Newton finished the game with 335 yards passing (with four touchdowns) and 73 yards rushing (with two touchdowns). He was an easy pick for the game's Most Valuable Player.
After the game, Auburn coach Gene Chizik, who was the defensive coordinator in 2005 when Texas and Vince Young won the national championship, was asked if he had ever seen a better football player than Newton.
"No," Chizik said. "It's as simple as that. We have one more game to play, so I don't think Cameron can get that big a head. I can say that he is the best football player I have ever seen."
It has really been a remarkable ride for Auburn. In early November, the story broke of allegations that NCAA rules had been broken during Newton's recruitment out of Blinn College in Texas. The story had every element of the weekly drama that is big-time college football in the South. There were allegations that the father, a minister from the Atlanta area, had shopped the son to the highest bidder. There were multiple schools (Auburn, Mississippi State, Alabama, Florida) in the discussion. There were charges and counter charges and more rumor and innuendo that the human brain could possibly comprehend. God invented Twitter just for a story like this.
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And through an incredibly intense November, with so much swirling around him, Newton just kept playing and Auburn just kept winning. On Nov. 26 in Tuscaloosa, Newton was at his absolute best as Auburn rallied from a 24-0 deficit to beat Alabama 28-27 and set up this game, where Auburn had its best afternoon of the season.
"I can't believe how blessed I am," Newton said in his first public comments since the story broke. "I am so lucky to have my teammates, my family and my Auburn family."
In a prepared statement before the postgame press conference, Newton again said, "I've done nothing wrong." He and Chizik said they would take no questions about the NCAA investigation and the controversy.
On Monday, after investigating the case since last summer, the NCAA enforcement staff told Auburn it had three findings in the Cameron Newton case:
• Cecil Newton, the father, had had talks with someone (multiple media reports identified this person as former Mississippi State player Kenny Rogers) about a pay-for-play deal for the son.
• Cameron Newton, according to the NCAA, did not know of these discussions.
• Auburn was not involved in, and had no knowledge of, these talks.
And that was it. On Tuesday, Auburn declared Newton ineligible, as the rules said it must, and petitioned for reinstatement. That reinstatement was granted on Wednesday based on the information the NCAA, according to its release, "has at this time."
There was serious disagreement over the ruling. USC athletic director Pat Haden, whose school got hammered because Reggie Bush's parents had their hands out, was not happy. Three major conference commissioners -- Jim Delany (Big Ten), Larry Scott (Pac-10), and John Swofford (ACC) -- expressed surprise and puzzlement at the ruling.
But SEC Commissioner Mike Slive stuck by his guns and said the NCAA ruling was correct. It was simply an unprecedented situation: A parent attempting to solicit one school while the kid went to another.
This game, quite frankly, was never a contest. Steve Spurrier, who had South Carolina a victory away from its first major conference title in 117 years of football at the school, tried to dial up enough ball plays to keep pace. There was simply no way. South Carolina picked up a touchdown late in the first half to make it 21-14. But then, after a short kickoff, Newton launched a 51-yard pass that was tipped in the end zone and caught by Darvin Adams (seven catches, 217 yards) with no time left on the clock. That gave Auburn a 28-14 lead at halftime.
"It was a huge momentum swing at the half," Chizik said.
In the second half, Newton had South Carolina defenders gasping for air.
On one play early in the fourth quarter, a South Carolina defensive back ran up to tackle Newton, and the 6-6, 250-pound man simply stopped and let the defensive back just run on by.
A human being that large is simply not supposed to be able to stop on a dime like that. But Newton can and Newton did.
The second half was reminiscent of the scene in Remember the Titans when the assistant turned to Coach Boone (Denzel Washington) and said: "Leave no doubt."
Auburn left no doubt it is the No. 1 team in college football and Cameron Newton left no doubt he is the best college football player on the planet.
In a season filled with drama, the Cameron Newton story has one more chapter to be written -- on Jan. 10 in Glendale, Ariz.
"There was no doubt in my mind that tonight was going to be our finest hour," Chizik said. "You could see it in their eyes."
Watch The Tony Barnhart Show each Tuesday at 9 p.m. on The CBS College Sports Network.