ATLANTA — Cam Newton left nothing to chance. He ran and passed the Auburn Tigers to a shot at the national championship they were denied six years ago, and he might as well start working on that Heisman pose, too.
Newton passed for a career-high 335 yards and four touchdowns, plus ran for a pair of TDs in an MVP performance that led No. 2 Auburn to the Southeastern Conference championship with a 56-17 rout of Steve Spurrier and No. 18 South Carolina on Saturday.
The Tigers, who came into the day sitting atop the Bowl Championship Series standings, must wait 24 hours before getting the official word, but it’s nothing more than a formality: They’ll be playing Oregon for the national title on Jan. 10 in Glendale, Ariz.
The No. 1 Ducks beat Oregon State 37-20 to assure the unbeaten matchup, which denied another perfect team, TCU, a shot at becoming the first team from a non-BCS conference to play for the title.
Before the national title is decided, Newton will likely be picking up the college game’s top individual honor when the Heisman Trophy is awarded next weekend in New York City — especially since he was cleared of wrongdoing by the NCAA in a pay-for-play scandal.
Hard to imagine the vote even being close after the 6-foot-6, 250-pound junior followed Tim Tebow as only the second player in the history of the top division to run AND pass for 20 touchdowns in a season. He slipped away from defenders with his surprising quickness, buying extra time to throw. He broke tackles with his power, not at all shocking given that he outweighed all three of South Carolina’s starting linebackers by at least 25 pounds.
Or he just ran right over ‘em.
Newton guided the Tigers (13-0) to touchdowns on their first three possessions, though South Carolina (9-4) was in the game as halftime approached. Trailing only 21-14, the Gamecocks simply had to knock down Newton’s last-gasp pass on the final play before the break.
They couldn’t even do that.
Newton heaved one up and DeVonte Holloman, standing in front of Terrell Zachery, leaped to tip it away. But the deflected ball went right to Darvin Adams for an improbable 51-yard touchdown that changed the complexion of the game.
After South Carolina missed a field goal on the first possession of the second half, it was all Tigers.
Maybe there’s a bit of karma in how things worked out.
While many will surely consider any title to be tainted because of Newton’s father seeking out illegal payments during the recruiting process, the Tigers can counter that this makes up for the 2004 season.
Auburn went 13-0 that year but didn’t get a chance to even play for the national title. Instead, USC and Oklahoma met in the Orange Bowl, with the Trojans winning in a 55-19 romp.
This game was nearly as lopsided. In the second half, Newton ran right over Antonio Allen on a 1-yard touchdown, sending the linebacker tumbling onto his back to make it 35-14. The Auburn star finished his day with a nifty little 7-yard scoring pass to Emory Blake in the right corner of the end zone for a 49-14 lead.
Well, there was one more snap to take.
Newton was sent out only so he could come right back off to a fitting ovation for the Auburn side of the Georgia Dome.
He waved his arms, pumped his fists and was wrapped up in a big hug from coach Gene Chizik when he got to the sideline. Then he yucked it up with 1985 Heisman winner Bo Jackson, who watched the game standing on the Tigers bench.
“Heisman! Heisman! Heisman!” the orange-clad fans roared.
Auburn will give the SEC a chance to add to its already unprecedented streak of four straight national titles, which began with Florida in 2006 and was carried on by LSU, Florida again and Alabama last season.
Spurrier was denied another SEC title. The offensive mastermind who led Florida to a half-dozen championships in his 12 years at the Swamp was a flabbergasted, visor-throwing mess on the sideline, watching his team get blown out by an Auburn team that had struggled to beat the Gamecocks in the opening month of the season.
In fact, the Tigers have played from behind much of the year, overcoming double-digit deficits four times — most notably, rallying from 24 points down against Alabama — and smaller margins in four other wins.
The drama was lacking in this one. It became a full-fledged rout when the defense took aim at South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia, whose attempt at flipping away a screen pass under heavy pressure wound up right in the arms of cornerback T’Sharvan Bell, who returned it 10 yards for a touchdown and a 42-14 lead midway through the third period.
Newton could have some fun. After his final run — a typical effort in which he faked out one guy and jumped over another — he flipped the ball to an official and inadvertently knocked off his cap. No problem. Newton scooped it up, put it back on his head and, with a big smile, gave the official a pat on the backside.
After picking up his MVP award, Newton headed off on a familiar victory lap. He ran all the way to the opposite end of the Georgia Dome, slapping hands with the Auburn fans gathered along the railing.
Now, it’s on to the Big Apple, and then to the Arizona desert.
The Tigers set an SEC championship game record for scoring and piled up 589 yards. Newton had a hand in 408 of them, breaking his previous best of 317 yards passing against Chattanooga and leading Auburn in rushing with 14 carries for 73 yards. Despite two big drops, Adams set another SEC championship record with 217 yards on seven receptions.
Newton and the Tigers were unstoppable at the beginning of the game, scoring on their first three possessions.
After winning the toss and — no surprise — electing to receive so they could get their offense right on the field, Newton stunned the Gamecocks with a bit of chicanery on the second snap of the game. He looked to his left and pumped like he was going to throw, but held on to the ball. Then he faked a handoff to another player coming around on an apparent reverse. Finally, with South Carolina totally confused, Newton hit Adams in stride on a 62-yard pass.
Two plays later, Newton scrambled away from pressure and hit Onterio McCalebb for a 12-yard score.
South Carolina came up with the matching touchdown on its first possession, driving 75 yards in seven plays. Garcia completed all four passes on the drive, the last of them a 25-yarder over the middle to Patrick DiMarco.
Unfortunately for the Gamecocks, that meant kicking the ball back to Auburn. The Tigers went right down the field again, more methodical this time but with the same result. Newton did the scoring himself, breaking up the middle on a 5-yard touchdown run.
Finally, someone made a defensive stop. Garcia missed on a third-down pass over the middle, South Carolina was forced to punt it away, and Newton fashioned another lightning-quick, four-play touchdown drive. An 18-yard pass to Philip Lutzenkirchen gave the Tigers some room to work with, then Newton got the Gamecocks to bite on a pump fake that left Adams streaking all alone down the sideline. Newton hit him in stride for a 54-yard touchdowns.
Just like that, Auburn was ahead 21-7 before the first quarter was even done.