ATLANTA -- Cam Newton got an early start on awards week.
Already the overwhelming favorite for the Heisman Trophy, Newton was a unanimous choice Monday for offensive player of the year on The Associated Press All-Southeastern Conference team, leading top-ranked Auburn’s domination of the individual awards.
Teammate Nick Fairley was chosen as defensive player of the year, while Gene Chizik was the pick as top coach after guiding the Tigers to a 13-0 season, the SEC championship and a spot in the national championship game at Glendale, Ariz., on Jan. 10.
Preventing an Auburn sweep was South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, selected unanimously as the freshman of the year.
In addition to Newton, Fairley and Lattimore, five other players were named to the first team on every ballot. Auburn offensive lineman Lee Ziemba and Arkansas tight end D.J. Williams were joined by three LSU players: defensive tackle Drake Nevis, cornerback Patrick Peterson and kicker Josh Jasper.
Newton, who played sparingly at Florida and spent last season at an obscure junior college in Texas, emerged as the game’s most dominating player after returning to the SEC.
The 6-foot-6, 250-pounder turned out to be a dynamic dual threat. He led the conference in rushing with 1,409 yards, scored 20 touchdowns and often ran right over smaller linebackers and defensive backs. But he was no slouch when he dropped back to throw, either, leading the SEC in passing efficiency with 67 percent completions, 28 touchdowns and just six interceptions.
Newton was at his best in the SEC championship game, throwing four touchdown passes and running for two scores in Auburn’s 56-17 rout of South Carolina that clinched a trip to the desert to face No. 2 Oregon for the national title. He also is one of three players in the history of the NCAA’s top division to run AND throw for 20 touchdowns in a season; the first was Tim Tebow. The other was also this season, Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick.
“You can’t tackle him,” Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier marveled. “He’s almost a one-man show.”
This will likely be the first of many rewards for Newton. In addition to the Heisman, which is considered a foregone conclusion, he is a finalist for the Davey O’Brien, Maxwell, Manning and Walter Camp awards.
Newton’s season wasn’t all smooth sailing. He was tarnished by allegations that his father, Cecil, wanted a $180,000 payoff from Mississippi State for his son to sign with the Bulldogs. The NCAA ruled that Cecil Newton violated the rules, but also said neither the player nor Auburn knew anything about the scheme, allowing Cam Newton to remain eligible.
Chizik, who was an assistant at Texas when Vince Young led the Longhorns to the national title, said Newton has put together an even greater season.
“If you look over a 13-game span, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Chizik said. “We have one game left, so he can’t get too big of a head, but I can say he’s probably the best football player I’ve ever seen.”
Fairley also played a junior-college season before joining the Tigers. The 6-5, 298-pounder came on strong at the end of his sophomore year, then emerged as one of the SEC’s most fearsome defenders as a junior.
Despite facing persistent double teams, Fairley had an astonishing 21 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, including 10.5 sacks. He also made two fumble recoveries, caused a fumble and came up with an interception.
“He’s obviously a very gifted athlete,” Chizik said. “He got used to the system, he got used to college football and the speed of the game at this level, and he just continued to get better.”
Fairley was also one the SEC’s most polarizing figures, with some opponents accusing him of being a dirty player.
He knocked three quarterbacks out of games and faced the biggest outcry for his actions against Georgia, when he was called for a late hit and sent Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray to the sideline with a knee injury in the closing minutes.
Chizik was a disputed choice to take over as Auburn’s coach two years ago, having posted a career record of 5-19 during a brief tenure at lowly Iowa State. He went 8-5 in his inaugural season on the Plains, but the signing of Newton was the catalyst for the school’s first perfect mark since 2004.
“Our football team has been probably one of the most resilient group of young men I’ve seen in 25 years of doing this,” said Chizik, whose squad came from behind to win eight times -- including four double-figure deficits.
Lattimore helped lead South Carolina to the first division title in school history, ranking second in the SEC behind Newton with 1,198 yards rushing and scoring 19 touchdowns.
Spurrier said it was important to sign players such as Lattimore, who was one of the most touted prospects ever to come out of the Palmetto State.
“We’ve been able to get a lot of the best players the last three years,” Spurrier said, also mentioning another pick to the All-SEC team, sophomore receiver Alshon Jeffrey.
“Prior to that, most of the players were going to Georgia, somewhere else. Tennessee used to get a bunch of them.
“We’re starting to keep a lot of the good players in state.”
Three first-teamers from the previous year slipped to the second team: Georgia receiver A.J. Green, Florida center Mike Pouncey and Alabama running back Mark Ingram, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner.
The 78th annual AP All-SEC team was selected by a regional panel comprised of a dozen reporters and broadcasters.