ATLANTA -- As the final seconds ticked off of Auburn’s 56-17 rout of South Carolina in the SEC championship game, offensive linemen Mike Berry and Byron Isom hoisted quarterback Cam Newton upon their shoulders for an impromptu victory parade through a cascade of confetti falling from the Georgia Dome ceiling.
For once, Newton’s teammates were carrying him.
Newton, the star quarterback who has spent the last month embroiled in a recruiting scandal, was as masterful as ever Saturday, accounting for 408 yards and six touchdowns to earn the contest’s MVP award as Auburn (13-0) secured a spot in the Bowl Championship Series national title game Jan. 10 against Oregon.
“A wise man told me, if God is with me, who can be against me?” Newton said during the trophy presentation, his first public comments since Nov. 9.
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Flanked by Newton at the postgame press conference, Auburn coach Gene Chizik didn’t hold back his praise of the player who transformed the Tigers from a team on the rise to national title contender in less than a year.
“He can’t get too big of a head with one game left,” Chizik said, “but I can say he’s probably the best football player I’ve ever seen.”
Newton did nothing to dissuade the argument Saturday.
The junior quarterback, who grew up not far down the road from the Georgia Dome in College Park, beat South Carolina (9-4) in every way imaginable, throwing for a career-high 335 yards and four touchdowns and adding 73 yards and two more scores on the ground.
“I’ve coached some great quarterbacks, but, talent-wise, he’s tough to top,” offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said.
Newton showed no ill effects from the NCAA investigation that has grabbed headlines the past month and reached a partial conclusion this week. After Newton was ruled ineligible Tuesday, the NCAA reinstated the quarterback’s eligibility Wednesday with no conditions after determining he had no knowledge his father engaged in pay-for-play talks with Mississippi State last year.
His month-long gag order lifted, Newton read from a prepared statement after the game, thanking his teammates, family and coaches for their support throughout the ordeal.
“It means a lot to me to be on this team and be a part of the Auburn family,” he said. “As I said before, I’ve done nothing wrong.”
He concluded by saying he would answer questions about only football-related matters. Asked whether his dad, whose access to the program was limited in the NCAA’s ruling, would be at next week’s Heisman Trophy presentation, Chizik interjected with a testy response.
“We’re going to stay away from those questions right now and stay football related, please, with all due respect,” Chizik said.
Newton and Auburn answered every question about their national title worthiness on the field, however.
The quarterback came out firing, leading a 21-point first-quarter frenzy , the most points scored in the opening quarter of an SEC title game. Onterio McCalebb scored on a 12-yard catch, Newton on a 5-yard run and Darvin Adams on a 54-yard reception as Auburn built a 21-7 lead. Adams finished with 217 receiving yards, an SEC title game record.
South Carolina appeared to seize the momentum before halftime. After Wes Byrum missed a 36-yard field goal, the Gamecocks drove the length of the field in less than two minutes, getting a 1-yard touchdown pass from Stephen Garcia to Alshon Jeffery with 16 seconds remaining.
But the Gamecocks left too much time. A squib kick and short pass gave the Tigers one last chance. On the half’s final play, Newton rolled to his right and heaved a Hail Mary. South Carolina’s DeVonte Holloman tipped it at the goal line, right into the arms of Adams for a 51-yard touchdown and a 28-14 halftime lead.
Just how Malzahn drew it up, right?
“Well no,” he said with a laugh. “It worked out like we wanted it to. Let’s put it that way.”
The outcome was never in doubt after that. The Tigers outscored the Gamecocks 28-3 in the second half. Newton added a 1-yard touchdown run and a 6-yard scoring pass to Emory Blake. His six touchdowns accounted for tied Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel’s SEC title game record set in 1996.
Newton also joined the 20-20 club, with 28 touchdown passes and 20 rushing touchdowns this season. In college football history, only Tim Tebow (2007) had accomplished that feat.
Wueffel and Tebow won the Heisman Trophy those years. Newton, the frontrunner for the award, likely will claim his next Saturday.
A perfect record, a national title game berth, the Heisman -- Newton couldn’t ask for a better season.
“Honestly, it hasn’t even sunk in right now,” he said. “I’ve just been living the dream this whole year.”