ATLANTA — The Auburn Tigers are going to play some Ducks in the desert.
Six years after being left out of the Bowl Championship Series title game with an undefeated team, Auburn emphatically punched its ticket to this year’s crowning contest with a 56-17 dismantling of South Carolina on Saturday at the Southeastern Conference championship in the Georgia Dome.
The Tigers matched their best record ever at 13-0 after setting an SEC title-game record for points and will face Pac-10 champion Oregon, which wrapped up a 12-0 regular season Saturday with a 37-20 win at Oregon State.
The BCS title game will be held Jan. 10 in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale.
“From start to finish, we didn’t let up,” Auburn senior tackle and 51-game career starter Lee Ziemba said. “That’s the most complete game we’ve had all year. It’s the most memorable experience of my life. It’s surreal.”
The Tigers went 13-0 in 2004 but were left out of the BCS title game in Miami, settling instead for a 16-13 win over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl. Southern Cal defeated Oklahoma for the BCS championship that year but had to vacate the title as the result of NCAA sanctions.
Auburn junior quarterback Cam Newton, whose recruitment last winter has been investigated by the NCAA, ran away with SEC title-game MVP honors after completing 17 of 28 passes for 335 yards and four touchdowns. He also rushed 14 times for 73 yards and two scores, with his six-touchdown performance topping the five he had in the 35-27 win over the Gamecocks in September.
Tigers coach Gene Chizik hugged Newton on the field after the game and exclaimed, “That’s my man!” Asked in the postgame news conference if he ever had seen a better college football player, Chizik said, “No. It’s that simple. If you look at a 13-game span, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Newton was great and fortunate Saturday. On the final play of the first half, he launched a pass from his 49-yard line that was tipped by strong safety DeVonte Holloman at the goal line and snagged for a score by Darvin Adams.
The miraculous connection gave Auburn a 28-14 lead at intermission, and any hopes of South Carolina rebounding were squelched early in the third quarter when the Gamecocks’ Spencer Lanning pushed a 42-yard field-goal attempt wide right. Auburn took a 35-14 lead at the 7:56 mark of the third on a 1-yard Newton run, which enabled him to become the first quarterback other than Florida’s Tim Tebow in 2007 to throw for 20 touchdowns and rush for 20 scores in the same season.
Newton was Tebow’s backup with the Gators during the 2007 and ’08 seasons before leaving Gainesville and playing last season at Blinn (Texas) College.
The Tigers extended their advantage to 42-14 just 33 seconds later when T’Sharvan Bell returned a Stephen Garcia interception 10 yards for a touchdown. The Gamecocks, in their first SEC title game, are 9-4 and could be headed back to the Georgia Dome for the Chick-fil-A Bowl if the Outback Bowl selects Florida today.
South Carolina still has yet to defeat Auburn since joining the SEC in 1992.
“We couldn’t get him down,” Gamecocks defensive tackle Travian Robertson said of Newton. “We made a lot of mistakes on our own, but he’s a good player. He did everything he had to do.”
Newton wasted no time in making his mark on a 13th consecutive game, completing a 62-yard pass to Adams on the second play from scrimmage as the Tigers catapulted to South Carolina’s 14-yard line. Two plays later, Newton scrambled before dumping a pass to tailback Onterio McCalebb, who was alone on the right sideline and raced 12 yards for the score.
By going 2-for-2, Newton improved to 19-for-19 for 300 yards and three touchdowns on opening drives this season. He would add a 5-yard touchdown run and a 54-yard scoring pass to Adams later in the first quarter as the Tigers built a 21-7 lead.
Newton went 7-of-10 for 184 yards and two touchdowns in the first 15 minutes, while Adams had 140 yards on four receptions.
Lanning just missed a 51-yard field goal wide left midway through the second quarter that could have pulled the Gamecocks within 21-10, but Auburn counterpart Wes Byrum had his 36-yard attempt hit the night upright after a 12-play drive, denying the Tigers a 24-7 lead. South Carolina responded to Byrum’s miss by going 80 yards in nine plays, using a 26-yard pass from Garcia to tailback Marcus Lattimore to set up a 1-yard score from Garcia to Alshon Jeffery on the next play.
The Gamecocks left Auburn only 16 seconds to work with, but in this season of Newton, that was plenty enough.
“The Auburn family deserves this,” Chizik said. “This is probably the most resilient team I’ve seen in 25 years I’ve been doing this.”
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...