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Questions about Cam Newton threaten Auburn's dream ride
Updated 11/23/2010 11:49 PM ET
AUBURN, Ala. — Time seems to stand still at Toomer's Corner, where College Street intersects Magnolia Avenue at the edge of Auburn University.

Toomer's Drugs has been serving its legendary lemonade since 1896. The oak trees that hug the corner have lived through every big win by Auburn's football team, decorated by streams of toilet tissue thrown by celebrating fans. The barbershop, the bookstore and the jeweler have been fixtures here for a half-century.

Amid this small-town charm, the problems of big-time football also have long been a part of the landscape. Auburn has had three perfect seasons since 1957. Each of those seasons has been framed by controversy. This year is no different.

The undefeated Tigers, ranked second in the nation, are two wins away from a trip to the national title game. Their quarterback, Cam Newton, is widely seen as the leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy, which each year goes to college football's most outstanding player.

MORE: FBI involvement could push NCAA probe TEAM REPORT: Inside the Auburn Tigers CAMPUS RIVALRY: All the latest in college football news

But as the Tigers enter the final two weekends of what should be a dream season — and a chance to step beyond the considerable shadow of rival Alabama, the defending national champion — pride is mixed with anxiety.

Federal, state and NCAA officials are investigating allegations that Newton's father, Cecil, solicited up to $200,000 last year from Mississippi State while his son was being recruited from a junior college in Texas. The Newtons have denied any wrongdoing.

Even so, the case has cast a cloud over the end of the football season. If Newton or anyone in his family is found to have accepted what the NCAA deems extra benefits, Auburn (11-0) might have to vacate all of its victories this season, even if the school is not implicated. (Auburn has not been publicly linked to any requests for money from the Newton family.) The investigation could affect Heisman voting as well. Never before has the runaway favorite for the Heisman been the focus of such controversy as he carried his team into national championship contention.

"Everyone is concerned about it," says Scott Johnston, who runs J&M bookstore on South College Street. "People would be shortsighted not to be. We're going to presume innocence. But if they find Cam ineligible after the season is over, at least we can say we won it on the field."

Surrounded by questions about their star player, Newton's teammates seem calm as they prepare to go to Tuscaloosa to play Alabama on Friday.

"I believe what I've been told, by people I trust, what the truth is," senior left tackle Lee Ziemba says. "I think the truth always comes out and is always brought to light. So I don't have any worries."

Auburn's game against Alabama is one of the most intriguing matchups in the 75-year history of the fierce rivalry game known as the Iron Bowl. The Tigers need a victory against the No. 11 Crimson Tide (9-2), followed by a win in the Southeastern Conference championship game Dec. 4 against No. 17 South Carolina (8-3), to secure a spot in the national title game.

When asked about Newton's status for Friday's game, Auburn coach Gene Chizik said Monday, "I'm not talking about Cameron Newton unless it has something to do with the first 11 games and his performance in those games."

Other rivalry games such as Ohio State-Michigan or Texas-Oklahoma are certainly intense, but few, if any, can match the passion of this in-state rivalry. In this state of 4.7 million, devoid of any major professional teams, loyalty and enmity are passed from one generation to the next like a family heirloom.

Adding to this week's drama: Last year, Alabama won the national championship and its star running back, Mark Ingram, won the Heisman. For the second consecutive year, the game features an undefeated team in the running for a national title and the Heisman front-runner. No state has had two different schools produce national champions and Heisman winners in consecutive years. It's also the first time in five years both Auburn and Alabama are ranked heading into the game.

Fans will "talk about it from the moment the game ends until the moment it begins next year," Chizik says. "Then it's heightened by the fact we're in the position we're in and they're in the position they're in. (The Tide are hoping to qualify for a major bowl.) If there was a way for the level of intensity to go up, this would be the situation."

Newton's performance in the next two games certainly will affect the Heisman voting, but so will the investigation. Newton moved to the top of the Heisman race after becoming the first player in Southeastern Conference history to pass for at least 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in the same season. Newton ranks second in the nation with 39 touchdowns scored or passed for, which is more touchdowns than 62 of the other 119 major-college schools have scored as a team this season.

In September, running back Reggie Bush forfeited his 2005 trophy because of rules violations that occurred while he was at Southern California. As a result, some Heisman voters are concerned about awarding another trophy that could be revoked. Ballots were mailed to 926 voters, most of whom are journalists, last week with no guarantee or likelihood that investigators will reach any conclusion by the time votes are due Dec. 6.

NCAA President Mark Emmert says the association's investigation process moves slowly because "you got to get the facts right." Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany would like to see it expedited but understands why due diligence is needed.

"I think we can get better. Not faster, because process takes time," Delany says. "To prove guilt, to take away eligibility, to take away a school's opportunities is a much higher standard. So it's the middle area where everybody's living in.

"If Cam Newton is innocent, he has been damaged, reputationally and his family. If, on the other hand, he's guilty, it probably doesn't get adjudicated till later. But that's the world we live in. It's the world Brett Favre lives in. It's the world Tiger Woods lives in. It's the world Cam Newton lives in. These are just younger people, but they are public figures. They are fair game."

Claims of innocence

Newton has been in the spotlight for two years, beginning with his time at Florida, where he started his career.

After being arrested in 2008 on charges of buying a stolen computer, he was suspended by coach Urban Meyer. The charges were dropped last December when Newton completed a pretrial intervention program. Allegations of three instances of academic fraud during his time at Florida also recently surfaced. Two weeks ago, the quarterback declined to directly address the academic claim.

"I'm not going to entertain something that took place — not three months, not six months, not even a year — two years ago," he said.

At the end of the 2008 season, Newton transferred to Blinn College, a two-year school in Brenham, Texas. After one season at Blinn, he committed to Auburn over Mississippi State last December. Newton has not spoken to the news media for two weeks and was not made available for this story.

Newton family attorney George Lawson says he is "1 million percent" certain Cam Newton did not ask for or receive money while being recruited out of junior college. In an interview with WSB-TV of Atlanta on Thursday, Lawson said that if Cecil Newton discussed any money, Cam Newton "knew nothing about any money discussions, if any discussions were had."

According to NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn, "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." So even if Cecil Newton acted without his son's knowledge, Auburn's season — and any postseason awards — could be in jeopardy.

Three former Mississippi State players have said that Cecil Newton attempted to arrange a six-figure payment for his son to attend Mississippi State. Newton, who is a minister at a suburban Atlanta church, told USA TODAY last week, "The investigation is still ongoing. I'm under a gag order. … I can't say anything."

John Bond, a former Mississippi State quarterback, first informed MSU about the payment request made by former teammate Kenny Rogers on Cecil Newton's behalf. Bond met with the FBI and a state regulator from an undisclosed agency last week. Rogers has met with the NCAA and has been asked to meet with a representative of the Mississippi Secretary of State's Office.

Amid this dizzying drama, the Tigers have remained resilient, Chizik says. "I have to give a lot of credit to our 24 seniors who have been through a lot in their careers in four years," says Chizik, in his second season at Auburn. Chizik replaced head coach Tommy Tuberville, who resigned under pressure after a tumultuous losing season in 2008.

Such is life in the demanding SEC, where a losing season can send a coach such as Tuberville out the door after winning 68% of his games over 10 years.

"A year where there's no controversy going on is an odd year," says Ziemba, the left tackle. "We've been through things like this before. We're used to it. We don't see the things that everyone else sees. That's hard for outside people to believe because we're right in the middle of the subject matter. We're here (at the football facility) so much that it's very hard for us to see those distractions when we're working to win a football game."

'There's always been some sort of roadblock'

For Auburn, perfection in past seasons has come with a price.

In 1957, Auburn was undefeated and won the Associated Press national title but couldn't play in a bowl because of previous recruiting violations.

In 1993, the Tigers finished 11-0 but were banned from postseason play.

Both cases involved improper payments to players.

In 2004, Auburn finished the season undefeated but was left out of the Bowl Championship Series title game. That year, Southern California and Oklahoma, the top two ranked teams the entire season, also went undefeated. Auburn started low in the 2004 preseason poll and never made up enough ground to pass the Trojans or the Sooners in the final BCS standings.

Players interviewed from all three teams say adversity can create a bond that leads to success:

•"I wouldn't be surprised if the difficulty that they're having with Cam might be a help, because it's kept their minds on the thought of, 'Hey, we're not being treated fairly here,' and kept their minds off how good they are," says Jackie Burkett, a center and linebacker on the 1957 team.

•"The adversity makes you want the success more," says Stan White, quarterback and captain of the 1993 team and now a radio color analyst for Tigers games. "They don't seem to get fazed by anything. Even early in the year before this off-the-field stuff came up, they would get behind by two touchdowns and take it in stride."

•"Whether you're on probation or rumors going around about your quarterback that aren't true, you focus inward," says Bret Eddins, a defensive end on the 2004 team whose brother Bart is a senior left guard on this year's team.

Given the star-crossed history of previous undefeated Tigers teams, there is hope this dark cloud will lift. Along College Street, signs in store windows read: "We Stand With Cam." In the campus bookstore, Newton's No. 2 jersey is by far the biggest seller.

"There's always been some sort of roadblock," says Johnston, standing near rows of Newton jerseys. "We hope this time we can hurdle over it."

Contributing: Steve Wieberg, Thomas O'Toole

Posted 11/22/2010 9:51 PM ET
Updated 11/23/2010 11:49 PM ET
Undefeated Auburn and quarterback Cam Newton, the Heisman Trophy favorite, will meet in-state rival and defending national champion Alabama on Friday in the annual Iron Bowl.
By Dave Martin, AP
Undefeated Auburn and quarterback Cam Newton, the Heisman Trophy favorite, will meet in-state rival and defending national champion Alabama on Friday in the annual Iron Bowl.