AUBURN, Ala. — This was supposed to be the another huge step for Cam Newton in what had been a remarkably smooth season on the field, a chance for this wondrous quarterback to lead Auburn into the Southeastern Conference championship game and keep the Tigers on course for a shot at the national title.
Instead, heading into Saturday's game against longtime rival Georgia, there's nothing but questions about what he's done off the field.
Did someone claiming to represent his family offer him up to Mississippi State for $200,000? Did his father cut a better deal with Auburn? Did Newton cheat on schoolwork while at his previous school?
The dream season has become a nightmare for Newton and No. 2 Auburn (10-0, 6-0 SEC). He looked like the clear choice to win the Heisman Trophy, but some voters are reconsidering their ballots. Others wonder if Newton should even be eligible, if this unbeaten season will turn out to be nothing but a mirage on the Plains by the time the sordid tale is all sorted out.
Auburn spokesman Kirk Sampson said Friday the school had no comment on Newton's status against the Bulldogs. NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said in an e-mail Friday that "the NCAA does not comment on current, pending or potential investigations" when asked if the governing body had advised Auburn of potential eligibility issues for Newton.
Auburn has steadfastly defended its star player, with coach Gene Chizik going so far as to label the reports about academic cheating at Florida "pure garbage," and he declared mid-week that Newton would definitely be starting against the Bulldogs (5-5, 3-4). A win in the Deep South's oldest rivalry would send the Tigers to the SEC title game for the first time since 2004.
The Tigers have tried to shrug off all the reports about Newton's background and recruitment, which began a little over a week ago and haven't let up. Newton has denied breaking any NCAA rules.
"He hasn't let it affect him," linebacker Craig Stevens said. "The fact it hasn't affected him, I think it has rubbed off on the team. We've let it fly by."
Newton has been an unstoppable force for the Tigers, leading the conference in rushing (1,146 yards, 15 touchdowns) and ranking second nationally in passing efficiency (67 percent completions, 19 TDs, only five interceptions). He's the major reason a team that went 13-12 over the last two seasons is suddenly a contender to win it all.
"He's a guy who can throw the ball or take off and run with it," Georgia linebacker Akeem Dent said. "If he gets in the open field, he can make some guys miss. He'll stiff-arm you or juke you, try to do whatever he can to make a play. He's their guy."
The Tigers are second in the BCS rankings and assured of being in the national championship game if they can win out. Georgia is expecting Newton to keep playing like he has — maybe even better.
"He's really pushing through the adversity that people are trying to throw at him," linebacker Christian Robinson said. "I think it gives him more motivation to go out there and show he can maintain his ability to make those plays."
Georgia has its own issues in what has been another disappointing season. The Bulldogs got off to a 1-4 start, then fought back into contention with three straight wins. They actually had a chance to win the SEC East, but an overtime loss to Florida ruined those hopes. Now, with games left against Auburn and Georgia Tech, the only goal left is bowl eligibility.
"We have a chance to win a huge game," Robinson said. "That would make things a lot better. That would make people feel a lot better about this season. The seniors could go out on a great note, and people would always remember if we won this game, that we went out and stopped Cameron Newton."
Since few teams have done that, the Bulldogs know they'll likely need to score points — a lot of them — to pull off their fifth straight win in a series that began in 1892. Auburn has already played the highest-scoring game in SEC history, a 65-43 victory over Arkansas, and lit up the scoreboard four other times with more than 50 points.
"We're going to have to put up points, bottom line," receiver Tavarres King said. "That's a powerful offense."
Georgia will likely try to control the time of possession with its running game, though it will be hard to pass up taking some shots downfield to A.J. Green against Auburn's suspect secondary.
The junior receiver has come back from a four-game suspension, imposed by the NCAA for selling a bowl jersey to someone deemed an agent, to catch 32 passes for 510 yards and seven TDs. The Tigers are an inviting target, ranking next-to-last in the SEC in pass yards allowed (241 per game).
Of course, Georgia must give quarterback Aaron Murray time to throw it downfield. That's not easy with Nick Fairley lurking up front. The 298-pound junior is having a breakout season, registering 7.5 sacks and 18 tackles behind the line while punishing opposing quarterbacks with some fearsome hits.
"I don't even want to think about that," Murray said, managing a nervous smile. "I may say to him, 'Hey, how are you doing, please don't kill me.'"
Green said he feels for Newton after facing his own media scrutiny over jersey-gate.
"Having been through that myself, it wasn't a good feeling," Green said. "Everywhere you go, people are asking you what happened. I would just tell him to keep his head up, keep working. The only thing that is going to help this is to keep winning."