ATLANTA -- Auburn coach Gene Chizik paused a press conference celebrating the greatest achievement of his professional career Saturday night to warn reporters to limit their questions only to football.
Moments later, Tigers quarterback Cam Newton -- the MVP of Auburn's 56-17 SEC title game win against South Carolina -- unfolded a sheet of paper and began to read.
"All right," Newton began. "I want to thank my teammates, my family, my coaches, and my Auburn family for their support. It means a lot to me to be on this team and be a part of the Auburn family. As I said before, I've done nothing wrong.
"I'm only going to answer questions about football in this game. So I ask that you please respect that, and thank you so much."
We'd love to talk only about football. We'd love to discuss a BCS title game matchup that could conceivably cause the scoreboard to explode at University of Phoenix Stadium on Jan. 10. We'd love to compare and contrast the breakneck offenses run by Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and Oregon head coach Chip Kelly. We'd have a blast discussing the bend-but-don't-break toughness of the defenses run by Auburn coordinator Ted Roof and Oregon coordinator Nick Aliotti.
But when the presumptive Heisman Trophy winner begins a press conference by reading from a prepared statement which asks that questions be limited only to football, football clearly isn't the lead story.
Put aside your school allegiance and consider this objectively for a moment. Imagine someone had come to you in July and told you the following things would happen.
• It would be alleged that the best player in college football was offered to a school -- not the one with which he signed -- by his own father for a six-figure sum.
• A subsequent NCAA investigation would determine those allegations to be true.
• Because the NCAA could find no evidence that the player knew about the scheme, the player didn't miss a single game and his team went 13-0 and reached the BCS title game. Still, the player's reputation was smeared terribly in the process, and his father's access to the team was restricted.
Given those facts, your next question probably wouldn't be about how the player performed on third-and-short. You'd want to know one or more of the following things:
• Was the player angry with his father for risking his reputation for a payday?
• How did the player mentally handle being the target of scandalous headlines?
• Is the player worried about more repercussions?
This wouldn't be such a big deal if Newton weren't so darn brilliant between the lines. But he is. How brilliant? Chizik, a man not given to hyperbole or even faint praise, called Newton "probably the best football player I've ever seen." Chizik didn't make that statement lightly. After all, he was the defensive coordinator on the 2005 Texas team led by quarterback Vince Young.
Saturday, South Carolina sold out to stop the run. The Gamecocks would not let Newton, the SEC's leading rusher, beat them with his legs. So he destroyed them with his arm. He completed 17 of 28 passes for 335 yards and four touchdowns while still running for 73 yards and two touchdowns. Newton would have easily cracked 400 yards passing had his receivers been more sure-handed in the first half.
South Carolina's defense had no answer for Newton and the Tigers. "It's just embarrassing," South Carolina linebacker Antonio Allen said. "I don't even know what the score was. Fifty? Forty-nine?"
The Tigers took control as the first half expired on a throw few quarterbacks could make. The box score lists the Hail Cam as a 51-yard touchdown, but Newton's laser beam actually originated at his own 45 and didn't make contact with South Carolina safety DeVonte Holloman's hand until it was two yards deep in the end zone. It bounded away from Holloman and into the hands of a leaping Darvin Adams as the half expired. Gone was the momentum South Carolina had grabbed by cutting Auburn's lead to 21-14 with an Alshon Jeffery touchdown catch with 16 seconds remaining in the half. The touchdown gave Auburn a 14-point lead. More importantly, it swung the momentum to the Tigers, who finally got to enjoy the second half of a rout instead of mounting a furious comeback.
However, the sheer size of the off-field story prevents lingering too long on Auburn's on-field exploits. Minutes after Adams caught that pass, SEC commissioner Mike Slive stood in the press box and defended his conference's snitch-only-to-the-league-office-and-not-the-NCAA policy as well as the SEC's role in the investigation that ultimately allowed Newton to be ruled eligible to play Wednesday by the NCAA. "We're not playing by a different set of rules," Slive said.
Unfortunately for Slive, it will be Auburn Against the World as the Tigers try to win the league's fifth consecutive BCS title. Six years ago, undefeated Auburn was a cause célèbre after being shut out of the BCS title game. Everyone in the SEC considered it an insult that a Pac-10 team (USC) and a Big 12 team (Oklahoma) would trump a team from the conference that takes football more seriously than any other. The SEC has spent the past four seasons exacting its revenge for that slight.
While the SEC's recent dominance of the BCS title game has rankled the rest of the nation, none of the past four SEC participants truly wore the black hat. Florida was the plucky underdog when it played Ohio State after the 2006 season. The backlash against Ohio State carried over to the 2007 season, so LSU didn't get flamed when it faced the Buckeyes in New Orleans. Plenty of people thought Texas got jobbed out of a shot at the title in 2008, so Oklahoma didn't get many sympathy votes against Florida. Alabama and Texas are football monoliths loved and loathed just about equally, so last season's title game was a wash. But when Oregon and Auburn face off on Jan. 10 in Glendale, Ariz., Auburn will be the villain.
Every casual fan will adopt the Ducks. Even other SEC fans, usually so quick to proudly chant the conference acronym out of grudging respect for their rival's achievement, might fall silent.
That might actually help the Tigers, who seem to have bonded more as scandal engulfed their quarterback. Newton didn't stray much from pure Xs and Os talk Saturday, but when he did, it was to thank the teammates, coaches and team personnel who have become an extension of his own family during this ordeal. "I thank God for putting people in my life that have my best interests," Newton said. "And I can't stress it enough how blessed I truly am. And I just thank the people in my corner."
The mood soured briefly when reality intruded. After a question about whether Newton's father, Cecil, would be allowed to attend the Heisman ceremony, Chizik jumped in like a defense attorney in an interrogation room. "We're going to stay away from those questions right now," Chizik said, "and stay football-related, please, with all due respect."
With all due respect, Coach, we'd love to keep this football-related. This could be the most fun any of us has had watching a BCS title game since your Texas team played USC in the Rose Bowl five years ago. Unfortunately, football wasn't the biggest story this week.
And it probably won't be for the remainder of the season.