Sunday November 14th, 2010

AUBURN, Ala. -- The posters were everywhere Saturday. When Cam Newton entered the stadium to a cheering throng. When Newton led Auburn back from a two-touchdown deficit to a 49-31 win against Georgia. When Aubie, the Tigers' mascot, donned a preacher's robe and quoted Newton: "When God be blessin, the devil be messin'." When a smiling Newton conducted the band after the win. When Newton Jordan-Hare Jumped into the student section to celebrate.

They said this: "AU Family. All in."

That second phrase summed up the day. Because when Newton set foot on the field Saturday, the Tigers pushed all their chips into the middle of the table. In spite of the fact that several people went on record this week to implicate Newton's father, Cecil, in a pay-for-play scheme during Newton's recruitment from junior college last year, Newton played and Auburn ran its record to 11-0 and clinched the 2010 SEC West title. But in five years, what will Auburn's record book say?

Will it commemorate the division title? The SEC title? The national title? Or will it include a nasty little punctuation mark (*) and celebrate no titles whatsoever?

We don't know. Auburn doesn't know. The NCAA doesn't know.

We want to know. Auburn wants to know. TCU and Boise State -- the two teams who could benefit most from a negative ruling -- want to know. The NCAA wants to know, too, but it also wants to get this correct. That means this mess could drag out past Nov. 26, when Auburn plays Alabama in the Iron Bowl. It could drag out past Dec. 4, when Auburn plays South Carolina in the SEC title game. It could drag out past Jan. 10, when a 13-0 Auburn -- if it wins those games -- would play for the BCS title.

According to Yahoo! Sports' Charles Robinson -- one of the guys who broke the Reggie Bush story -- Auburn has lawyered up. Robinson reported Saturday that the school has retained Gene Marsh, a former chair of the NCAA's Committee on Infractions, to deal with the Newton investigation. How serious are the Tigers about this fight? When Marsh isn't working for the Birmingham firm of Lightfoot, Franklin and White, he's a law professor emeritus at the hated University of Alabama.

In most NCAA cases, the major parties are gagged. That certainly seemed to be the case Saturday when Auburn coach Gene Chizik refused to answer any investigation-related questions. "I'm only taking questions about this football game," Chizik said when a reporter invoked Cecil Newton's name. After Chizik departed, Auburn spokesman Kirk Sampson said Newton wouldn't be made available for interviews. (Auburn later provided canned Newton quotes.) How clammed up are the Tigers? Asked to confirm whether Auburn had hired Marsh, Sampson said, "No comment."

Auburn has known for months about an accusation from Mississippi State boosters that Cecil Newton sought money in exchange for his son signing with the school. The case turned into a rolling ball of butcher knives this week when the FBI got involved. Suddenly, stories began to change. On Thursday, Kenny Rogers, the former Mississippi State player and agent runner alleged to have been the middleman in the no-go deal, flipped and told a Dallas radio station that Cecil Newton had asked for between $100,000 and $180,000. Bill Bell, another former Mississippi State player, confirmed to that he had been approached about the deal and that he had met with the NCAA. On Saturday, reported that Cam and Cecil Newton met with NCAA investigators on Thursday.

So far, Auburn has not been implicated in the pay-for-play scheme. But by the letter of the NCAA's law, an athlete is ineligible the moment a rule is broken. Even if Newton didn't know about his father's request, this is the word the NCAA put out Thursday: "The solicitation of cash or benefits by a prospective student-athlete or another individual on his or her behalf is not allowed under NCAA rules," NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn wrote. It is up to the athlete's school to declare him ineligible and apply for reinstatement.

But this is a strange case. Auburn likely will argue that based on the information it had prior to this week, it saw no reason to apply for reinstatement. Whether the NCAA accepts that argument is another question entirely. In fact, it is the crux of this issue. Another argument Auburn can -- and should -- make is that Newton is a mere pawn in all this. As Exhibit A, it could hold up Newton's quote to SI that his father chose his school for him. (Of course, Auburn shouldn't use this defense unless it is a million percent sure it doesn't have any rogue boosters who might have acquiesced to such a deal.)

Newton proved again Saturday that if his father did indeed request a low six-figure payment, his asking price didn't come close to fair market value. The 6-foot-6, 250-pounder rushed for 151 yards and two touchdowns. Six times, Newton converted third downs on the ground. Newton, the SEC's most efficient passer, also completed 12 of 15 passes for 148 yards and two touchdowns. One incompletion was a drop that should have been a long touchdown.

The Tigers played with a purpose Saturday. They came out a bit too excited and fell behind, but they settled in the second half. Auburn's defense finally kept Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray from finding receiver A.J. Green wide open on every play. Auburn's offense scored touchdowns on every second-half possession. Tailback Mike Dyer broke the school rushing record for a freshman. On the sideline, he was congratulated by the previous record-holder, Vincent Edward Jackson. You might know him better as Bo.

On the field for 3½ hours, the distractions of the past two weeks melted away.

"The mindset was to beat Georgia and to do everything in our power to do that," Auburn offensive tackle Lee Ziemba said. "It wasn't on outside distractions. You didn't see any different Auburn football team out there [Saturday]."

After the final whistle, Newton and his teammates raced to conduct the band. Auburn students shook their orange pom-poms. Later, Newton raced back and forth along the front row, slapping five with any student in reach. Everyone smiled and laughed as they celebrated an SEC West title just two years after a 5-7 season.

A few minutes later, Chizik seemed more relieved than elated. Just before he entered, a flat-screen on the wall of the interview room showed a Wheel of Fortune rerun. The puzzle was a phrase. The answer was ON THE HORIZON. Chizik probably would give anything to know what lay over the horizon for the Tigers.

Chizik did address one negative situation in that press conference. He expressed his disappointment in defensive linemen Michael Goggans and Mike Blanc, who were ejected late in the fourth quarter for extracurricular roughness. "Just really disappointed in that," Chizik said. "That's a lot of reflection on us as coaches, and I'm embarrassed by it. That's not who we are. That's not the way we carry ourselves, and we will address it."

Chizik may not have to worry about lingering disappointment. In two weeks or two months or two years, those ejections may be stricken from memory. Auburn beat Georgia on Saturday. It's quite possible that a future may exist in which -- at least officially speaking -- the game was never played.

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