As if the 75th Iron Bowl lacked drama—a Heisman favorite dogged by scandal, a road to the BCS title game that ran through its most hostile rival—Cam Newton and a feral Auburn defense added one more riveting chapter, pulling off the biggest comeback in school history
First, an Iron Bowl primer: For decades the University of Alabama has been held up as the state's flagship school, where the professionals—its doctors and lawyers and captains of industry—sent their children. Auburn, né the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama, drew from a more middle- and lower-class pool. Yet there was nothing genteel or civil about the Crimson Tide's welcome for Tigers quarterback Cam Newton in Tuscaloosa's Bryant-Denny Stadium last Friday afternoon for the 75th edition of this Skoal-fueled, intrastate jihad. (If they'd gone easy on him, of course, this wouldn't have been the Iron Bowl.) $scam newton T-shirts sold briskly. Stepping onto the field for warmups, Newton was greeted by the Steve Miller Band's Take the Money and Run, followed by Dusty Springfield's Son of a Preacher Man.
By the end of the game, of course, most of the junior's critics had fallen silent. Just before disappearing into the tunnel, Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley surveyed a cluster of Crimson-clad fans and baited them, cupping his hands to both ears, as if to say, "I can't hear you!"
And what to make of Cam Newton's own gesture only moments before? In a game fraught with Heisman and national title implications, Auburn had just completed a 28--27 win and the most dramatic comeback in the history of the rivalry. As shell-shocked partisans in houndstooth accessories filed glumly out of the stadium, Newton turned their precious turf into his own private playground. After a succession of midfield embraces with teammates and opponents alike—"Good game, big dog," said one 'Bama player, "you're the best player in the country"—Newton bolted toward the flash mob of Tigers fans in a corner of Bryant-Denny, stopping along the way to perform a kind of flying hip bump with Fairley. Newton would then embark on a clockwise victory lap, theatrically holding one hand over his mouth as he did so.
Was he mocking the Tide faithful for their silence? Was it Newton's way of signaling that he'd been gagged by Auburn coach Gene Chizik? Was he about to throw up?
No one knows; Newton didn't speak with reporters after the game. Despite his natural exuberance, Newton hasn't spoken publicly since Nov. 9, as a series of accusations have buffeted him and Auburn's football program. They include allegations that his father, Cecil, a pastor in Newnan, Ga., solicited up to $180,000 from Mississippi State in a pay-for-play scheme last year. (The elder Newton has denied any wrongdoing.)
Even as the accusations have sparked investigations by the SEC, the NCAA and the FBI (with Interpol surely to follow), Auburn is standing steadfastly by its man. Despite sanctions that could include, among other things, forfeited victories if Newton is later ruled ineligible, Chizik and his superiors remain convinced of their quarterback's innocence.
With this tawdriness as a backdrop, the most intriguing matchup of the 2010 regular season kicked off. Led by their freakishly talented 6'6", 250-pound quarterback, the Heisman Trophy front-runner, the No. 2 Tigers are legitimate national title contenders. To get to the BCS title game, they'd have to get past the defending national champions, led by tailback and 2009 Heisman winner Mark Ingram.
During a first half that had college football fans whooping for joy in Fort Worth and Boise, the No. 9 Tide flat out embarrassed the visitors, taking a 24--0 lead midway through the second quarter. "We were on the verge of being terrible," said Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. "But [give] credit to our guys—they came back in the second half and played fairly solid football."
Two sentences, two profound understatements. The Tigers didn't verge on terrible in the first half. They embodied it. 'Bama was up 21--nil before Auburn mustered a single first down. And the Tigers weren't "fairly solid" in the second half. They were astonishing—Newton in particular.
What were Alabama's defenders doing early in the game to stifle the visitors? "They were whipping our butts, is what they were doing early," explained Malzahn. Due in large part to the occluding, disruptive presences of defensive linemen Marcell Dareus and Josh Chapman, 'Bama took away the inside runs that have been Newton's bread and butter this season. Bowing to this reality, Malzahn decided to attack Alabama's perimeter in the second half, moving the chains with quick passes to, and sweeps by, sophomore tailback Onterio McCalebb.
The task of stretching Alabama's defense was made much easier on the second play of the third quarter when Newton lofted a 70-yard touchdown pass into the arms of a streaking Terrell Zachery. Suddenly, dramatically, Auburn trailed 24--14, just a 10-point deficit, which, for the 2010 Auburn Tigers, constitutes a comfort zone.
They trailed Clemson by 17, South Carolina by 13, Georgia by 14, going on to win all those games. Double-digit deficits aren't a big deal, says strong safety Zac Etheridge, "because we know our offense can put up 24 points in a quarter, no problem."
With the Tigers' defense suddenly channeling the 1985 Chicago Bears—it held Ingram & Co. to three points and 67 total yards after the intermission—Newton engineered touchdown drives on three of Auburn's first four second-half possessions, slamming the door on his Heisman rivals. The game-winning score was a fiendish, against-the-grain throwback to tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, the back of whose jersey calls to mind a Scrabble tray. His seven-yard touchdown catch capped the biggest comeback not just in Iron Bowl history, but in school history, which sounds like a big deal, until you consider that Auburn has only been playing football since 1892.
Black Friday was Cardiac Friday for college football fans. At various times over a period of 11 hours, it looked as if a top three team might be going down. And one indeed did. After Auburn stormed back against 'Bama; after No. 1 Oregon spotted Arizona seven points before engaging its afterburners and cruising to a 48--29 win, third-ranked Boise State took the field at Nevada (box) and commenced roughing up the upstart Wolf Pack. The 2010 season turned on what happened in the second half. Trailing 24--7 at halftime, Nevada forced four straight punts, methodically clawing its way back into a game that was decided, ultimately, by Boise kicker Kyle Brotzman. The senior's two failed field goals—a 26-yarder with two seconds in regulation, then a 29-yarder in overtime—sent the Broncos free-falling from a likely Rose Bowl berth to a probable slot in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
Boise's heartbreak triggered an impromptu, curfew-busting celebration at the Marriott Pyramid in Albuquerque. That's where the No. 4 TCU Horned Frogs were lodged on the eve of their game against the lowly Lobos of New Mexico. When Nevada clinched that upset—around midnight local time—Frogs coach Gary Patterson heard a roar from above. Stepping outside his room in the ziggurat-configured hotel, he could look up and see many of his players whooping it up in the hallways. "Everybody was out of their rooms at 12:30 in the morning," he recalled. "I was worried about them getting some sleep." Even after the coach instructed his guys to get back to bed, he took several calls from hotel management. Could he please ask his players to keep it down?
That ended up being TCU's biggest challenge the next day, keeping the score down against the 1--10 Lobos. Despite mild sleep deprivation, despite losing quarterback Andy Dalton midway through the second quarter with a bruised elbow (he was fine by the end of the game), despite running the ball on every snap for the final 20-plus minutes, the Frogs tattooed New Mexico 66--17. Having clinched its second straight Mountain West crown, TCU dealt the MWC a blow two days later, announcing that, starting in 2012, the program will be busting a move to the Big East.
Even though the Frogs had pushed their way up to third place in the BCS standings, conventional wisdom dictated that because of their respective schedules they were on the cusp of being leapfrogged by Boise State. Instead, TCU held its slot at No. 3, ensuring itself at least a spot in the Rose Bowl and keeping alive its chance to play in the national title game on Jan. 10 in Glendale, Ariz. To get to Glendale, however, the Frogs need help: Oregon must lose Saturday's Civil War (page 86) against Oregon State in Corvallis or Auburn must be upset by No. 18 South Carolina in that night's SEC title game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
Fort Worth, all of a sudden, is full of Gamecocks fans. Patterson's advice to South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier? "Score one more point" than Auburn. Of course, if the Gamecocks jump to an early, double-digit lead in the Georgia Dome, that's when they'll know they're in trouble.
Alabama fans sifting through the wreckage of the 75th Iron Bowl, searching for early indications of the Tide's eventual undoing, will point to one play in particular. With Ingram trucking down the right sideline early in the second quarter, threatening to score the touchdown that would've put the Tide up 28--0, he was overtaken by a hustling Antoine Carter, a senior defensive end who punched the ball out of his arms. The football shot forward almost 30 yards, rolling out of the end zone for a touchback.
"When you finish plays," Carter observed, "great things happen."
The Tigers have spent so much time trailing this season that it has become second nature for them to heed one of Chizik's pet aphorisms: "One day at a time. One play at a time."
It seems less shocking that a 6'4", 256-pound lineman could run down one of the nation's top tailbacks when one considers that Carter dressed up as Usain Bolt for Halloween. He did not, however, take first place in the Tigers' surprisingly competitive costume contest. That prize went to running back Mario Fannin, whose over-the-hill NBA basketball player getup came complete with Afro wig, prosthetic belly and backside. Among the teammates he beat out: Lutzenkirchen, who showed up as Woody from Toy Story; center Ryan Pugh, who dressed up as Lieut. Jim Dangle from Reno 911, complete with that officer's signature short shorts; and Newton, whose white tutu and wand were an homage to Dwayne (the Rock) Johnson's tour de force performance in The Tooth Fairy.
This spectacle unfolded on Family Night at the Tigers' football facility, with the children of Auburn's coaches swarming and underfoot. Virtually every football program emphasizes the importance of family. But it seems unlikely that any coach could embrace that principle with more enthusiasm than Chizik. Auburn recruits don't just meet the coaches; they meet the coaches' wives and children. Chizik and his staff assure the parents of each recruit that, during his time on the Plains, they will look after their boy as if he were their own son.
Cynics will dismiss all the family talk as so much treacle, but it's working at Auburn, where bonds between Tigers—athletes and nonathletes alike—are already uncommonly strong. "Think about it," says Pugh. If you're a Tigers stalwart, he points out, it's not because Auburn is the state's flagship university. "Because we're not. You're a fan of Auburn because you have a connection, a relationship with this place: You're a student or a graduate or someone in your family is. You played here or know someone who played here."
This year's Auburn team has gone out of its way to embrace its fans. The Tigers do it before pregame warmups, mingling and slapping hands with students in the north end zone at Jordan-Hare stadium, and again before the fourth quarter. Rather than hold four fingers in the air as many teams do, they sprint toward the end zone, pointing to their fans. "The first couple of times we did it, they didn't really know what was going on," says Etheridge. "But now they expect it, and they get excited."
This band of brothers is nowhere near as talented as Auburn's undefeated 2004 team, which had four players picked in the first round of the '05 NFL draft. But these Tigers have strong chemistry. They're battle-tested. Offensive players who arrived in '07 had four coordinators in two years. Just two seasons ago, they lost seven of their 12 games. "We've seen the worst of Auburn football, and the best," says Pugh. "And we've learned to play for each other."
Newton is a primary contributor to, and beneficiary of, those stout bonds between Auburn's players and between the Tigers and their fans. The bonds have formed a kind of protective force field around him during the maelstrom of allegations engulfing him and the program, and his play has seemed unaffected. Unless he throws a dozen interceptions in the SEC title game or is ruled ineligible between now and Dec. 6, the deadline for Heisman votes, Newton would be well-advised to begin composing an acceptance speech.
Throughout the drama, says Malzahn, Newton "hasn't changed one bit about how he goes about practice, how he goes about preparing."
Nor has the firestorm affected the team. The controversy "just makes us stronger, more motivated," Etheridge says. "We all got each other's backs. We play for the Auburn family."
Is he nagged by the possibility that, months or years down the road, Auburn could be stripped of this season's wins? "All I can do is control what I control and be a leader on this team," says Etheridge. "I don't think about what could happen later."
Chizik clearly has given the matter some thought. The ongoing investigations have put the square-jawed, grim-visaged head man, who is rather tightly wound to begin with, decidedly on edge. At his post--Iron Bowl press conference, he was asked if he ever "sees doubt in Newton's eyes."
"I'm not sure exactly what that refers to," came his frosty reply, "but if it refers to whether I ever see doubt on the football field, the answer is no."
He'd begun that press conference with this observation: "[I'm] so proud, and feel so blessed, to be part of the Auburn family."
Being part of that family means participating in one of the more sublime traditions in sports. Arriving in the town of Auburn on Friday night, the team buses paused at the intersection of Magnolia Avenue and College Street. The rolling of Toomer's Corner was complete. Hundreds of rolls of bathroom tissue had been hurled into and over the branches of the ancient oaks lording over the intersection. White filaments hung from every limb like some exotic species of Spanish moss.
A day or two later, workers used pressure hoses to get the toilet paper out of the trees, then raked it into sodden piles before disposing of it. It's a less pleasant aspect of the tradition that Auburn people would just as soon not talk about.
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IF THE GAMECOCKS JUMP TO AN EARLY, DOUBLE-DIGIT LEAD, THAT'S WHEN THEY'LL KNOW THEY'RE IN TROUBLE.
Photograph by JOHN BIEVER
ROLLING THE TIDE After falling behind 24--0, the Tigers' defense stiffened and held running back Trent Richardson (3) and Alabama to just 67 total yards in the second half.
Photographs by JOHN BIEVER
TWO WAYS ABOUT IT The rally started on the ground with McCalebb (23) and was capped by Newton's (2) TD pass to Lutzenkirchen (43).
LAST LICK T'Sharvan Bell added injury to insult when he knocked out 'Bama QB Greg McElroy for the final drive.