AUBURN, Ala. — Cam Newton responded to all those allegations of wrongdoing with another brilliant performance Saturday, passing for two touchdowns and running for another to lead No. 2 Auburn into the Southeastern Conference championship game — and a step closer to playing for the national title.
The Tigers (11-0, 7-0 SEC) pulled away from Georgia in the fourth quarter for a 49-31 victory that, at least for one day, took some of the heat off college football's most dynamic player.
Auburn will face either Florida or South Carolina for the conference title on Dec. 4 in Atlanta, though there's another huge game looming in two weeks: the Iron Bowl showdown against defending national champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
"SEC! SEC! SEC!" the sellout crowd of 87,451 chanted in the closing minutes, looking forward to Auburn's return to the title game for the first time since the perfect 2004 season. Newton and his teammates ran along the edge of the stands, slapping hands with the fans in a raucous celebration.
Auburn survived another high-scoring, back-and-forth affair, rallying from an early 21-7 deficit to tie it up by halftime. The Tigers kept the momentum going with a daring onside kick to start the third quarter, recovering the ball and driving for the go-ahead touchdown.
Georgia (5-6, 3-5) hung tough behind A.J. Green's nine-catch, 164-yard performance, tying the game again at 28-all before Auburn went ahead for good on Onterio McCalebb's 4-yard touchdown run. Newton finished off the Bulldogs with his second scoring pass of the game to tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, a 13-yarder over the middle with 8:05 remaining.
Newton rushed for 151 yards on 30 bruising carries, scoring Auburn's first touchdown on a 31-yard run and capping it off the win with a 1-yard leap into the end zone in the closing minutes. The ball popped loose, Georgia recovered and the replay left some doubt about whether he got over.
But the review went Newton's way, as so many things have this season. He celebrated with another leap into receivers coach Trooper Taylor along the sideline, sending the much-smaller assistant flying.
Newton completed 12 of 15 passes for 148 yards, and his one glaring mistake — an interception that set up a Georgia touchdown — was actually off a deflected ball that should have been caught by the receiver.
Along the way, Newton became the first player in Southeastern Conference history to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in a season.
So much for those who thought Newton might be distracted by reports that his father solicited big money during the recruiting process, as well as allegations that the junior had cheated on schoolwork during his troubled time at Florida.
The sordid allegations cast doubts on Newton's eligibility and even had some Heisman voters questioning whether he should get college football's highest award, especially in light of 2005 winner Reggie Bush returning his award after the NCAA ruled his received improper payouts while at USC.
The lingering issue about Newton's playing status was answered when he trotted on the field an hour before kickoff, wearing his familiar No. 2, and went through the normal pregame routine with the rest of the offense. The early arriving student body roared when they spotted the quarterback, and the cheers were even louder about a half-hour later when Newton was announced as the starting quarterback.
After going back to the locker room for final preparations, Newton mugged for the cameras and trotted out of the tunnel right behind coach Gene Chizik. Much like he does with opposing defenses, Newton quickly blew by Chizik and hopped all the way to the other end of Jordan-Hare Stadium to pump up the orange-clad throng.
Judging by all the fans wearing his jersey and holding up signs such as "We Are Cam-ily," it was clear the home crowd wasn't buying or didn't care about all the disturbing reports that came out over the previous 10 days.
Newton didn't either, or at least he did a good job of putting it aside once he stepped on the field.
On the very first play, the 6-foot-6, 250-pounder dropped back to pass, sidestepped two defenders and broke off a 13-yard run. Four plays later, he got loose around right end and bowled over two defenders as he fell into the end zone.
Georgia had won four straight in the Deep South's oldest rivalry and needed another to become bowl eligible in a disappointing season. Redshirt Aaron Murray passed for 273 yards and three touchdowns, while the Bulldogs defense got some pressure on Newton in the early going.
They couldn't keep it going, not against a guy intent on leaving his troubles behind.