PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. -- Auburn is a one-man team. There, I said it and you read it. If Cam Newton doesn't make it to Auburn this season, well, let former Tigers assistant Bill Oliver tell you ...
"If they didn't have Cam, I guarantee you, I think seven ballgames would be the very most they would win with [that] defense," Oliver told me in November.
We can quibble about the quality of that defense and the actual number of wins -- seven wins? eight? nine? -- but you know what? During the first round of BCS title game press conferences here Wednesday there were few who disagreed. Oregon cornerback Talmadge Jackson III came down definitively -- not -- when asked if Auburn would be here without Cammy Cam Cam.
"Um," he said, pausing. "They could be."
Sure, and 5,000 dead birds could fall out of the sky in Arkansas. OK, that happened, but you get the point. One man was the difference in Auburn's five-game improvement from last season (8-5 to 13-0). One man held the fate of a program and a $21 million BCS bowl in his hands. One man came out through the NCAA wringer and emerged smiling.
Heady stuff for a junior whose background includes a stolen laptop and alleged academic fraud but whose best quality at Auburn has been leadership. In this age of spread options, zone reads and quarterbacks who never get under center, all this basketball-on-grass thing needed was a point guard. At 6-feet-6, Newton even looks the part. He wrung a life-changing, career-altering season out of the change in those athletic market forces. Even Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn wasn't insulted that he has reached the pinnacle of his career because of one guy.
"It's hard to think where we'd be without him," Malzahn said, "he is a big, big reason we're here. I think everybody knows that."
Malzahn was already good, having risen through the ranks from Springdale (Ark.) High School to Arkansas to Tulsa to Auburn in five short years. The Newton Effect touched him, perhaps, the most. This season Malzahn won the Frank Broyles Award as assistant coach of the year. Suitors began falling over themselves trying to get him as a head coach. Malzahn reportedly turned down Vanderbilt and was in the mix for Maryland.
"People can say it's a one-man team. That's fine with us, because we've got that one man," Auburn offensive lineman Ryan Pugh said. "We probably wouldn't be in this situation, we realize that."
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And there should be no shame in that. Newton is that rocket-armed, hard-to-tackle example of where the game is headed, which is closer to basketball. One or two guys can make a difference? Where would Florida have been without Tim Tebow? What about Texas without Vince Young? Even at Michigan, Denard Robinson was arguably the difference between a bowl and another losing season. Unfortunately, Michigan's one man couldn't save Rich Rodriguez's job. Newton saved everything at Auburn except perhaps his reputation. Through the grace of the NCAA, he is on the field. All we can do is debate that at another time and appreciate his talents now.
This might seem like an elaborate way of saying the obvious: The quarterback is key. But this is also the game that claims to be the ultimate team sport. Auburn wouldn't be No. 1 without No. 2. Cam Newton is the big brother no one could tackle in sandlot football. He's also the most deadly opening-drive quarterback in at least five years. According to cfbstats.com, Newton is a perfect 19-for-19 (300 yards, three touchdowns) on opening drives this season. The website could not find a quarterback who had not thrown an incompletion over a full season on opening drives since at least 2005.
It's a long way, then, from Newton to sophomore backup Barrett Trotter (nine passes in 2010). So long that it's hard to imagine, as Malzahn reminded reporters, that Trotter "battled Cam throughout the spring." There have been a lot of "Aha" moments since then.
"Coach Malzahn came up to us, probably after the Alabama game and said, 'We're going to win it all,'" Pugh said. "I said, 'That's a little premature, but yeah, let's go win it all."
What's changed for Auburn since Oliver made his statement? Not much, defensively. The Tigers defense has given up a combined 43 points and 795 yards to Alabama and South Carolina. Meanwhile, Cam has won the Heisman and Auburn is one game away from adding a national championship banner to the last one that is 53 years old.
"The thing that Cam has done, he's elevated every guy on that football team. I've never seen anybody like him before," Oliver said.
This has been the first BCS title game without at least one top 10 defense on the field. Auburn's unit improved over the last month, particularly against the run. Oregon's D has been more of a finesse unit. The point being, both programs are here because of their ability to outscore anyone. They are No. 1 (Oregon) and No. 4 (Auburn) in scoring offense.
May the best one-man team win ...
" ... if they consider one man five people, because obviously the offensive line is the best part of the team," Pugh said trying to keep a straight face. "There's no doubt that if they could have given out five Heisman Trophies they would have given them out to the offensive line ... We believe as an offensive line, we control how we play on offense. Even if Cam was not at Auburn we would be in the same situation. Having Cam is kind of like a bonus, a big bonus."
There's a believer in a multi-layered Auburn. He's wrong, of course, but still a believer.