The Auburn Tigers have cleared all the hurdles, or so it seems. The NCAA and university officials declared Heisman Trophy favorite quarterback Cam Newton eligible for the SEC Championship Game Saturday, as well as any bowls to which the Tigers accept an invite.
Presumed unstoppable, the Tigers seem poised to step forward and claim their berth in the BCS Championship Game against (again, presumably) the Oregon Ducks, on Jan. 10, 2011. They still have one more game in front of them, though.
That game is the SEC title match against Steve Spurrier and South Carolina. The game is almost an afterthought: All anyone is talking about is Newton's predicament and the matchup of Auburn against Oregon for all the marbles.
But what if it went the other way? What if, as they did in October against then-national favorite Alabama, the Gamecocks bring their A game and knock off Newton and the Tigers? Read on for five ways the college football landscape would turn on its ear if they do.
It may not be right, but it is true: If Cam Newton does not win a national title, the American sporting establishment will soon forget his father, Cecil. By the reckoning of the NCAA and Auburn University, the elder Newton acted without the knowledge of his studly son when he tried to sell Cam to, in essence, the highest SEC bidder.
Newton's transgressions would linger into infamy if, as the USC Trojans with Reggie Bush and the Memphis Tigers of Derrick Rose did, Auburn played on the national title stage with a compromised amateur at the center of the action. If South Carolina upsets the Tigers, though, Cam and Cecil's saga will fade from its prominent daily place on SportsCenter fairly quickly. That could change a bit if, as expected, Newton wins the Heisman, but the scrutiny would still be muted.
Frustrated by the constant process of seeking validation outside the BCS system, TCU has made its move and announced it will soon join the Big East. In doing so, the Horned Frogs hope their road to the national title game (at least when they deserve to get there) will be smoother.
If South Carolina takes down the Tigers, though, the Horned Frogs will find the national spotlight focused on them a bit sooner than expected. They are the only reasonable alternative choice to play in the BCS Championship, because they are the only other undefeated team in FBS.
Of course, in a perfect world, we would have a playoff system allowing us to determine the true national champions, and in that scenario a team like Wisconsin would likely reach the final contest. Since we live in an imperfect world, though, TCU will get its shot at the big prize if Auburn squanders theirs.
If South Carolina wins Saturday, the Gamecocks get an automatic bid in the BCS, specifically in the Sugar Bowl. Auburn certainly will not tumble all the way out of the BCS, so that pushes someone (likely Arkansas) out of the picture. The Orange Bowl would then gobble up Auburn as its flex team to face Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, pushing UConn into an admittedly diminished Fiesta Bowl matchup with either Oklahoma or Nebraska.
That leaves Stanford free to play Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, despite a rules provision that would have forced the Rose Bowl to invite TCU instead if the Tigers win. In the end, the Rose Bowl would be the only big winner in this shift, because every other bowl would get more lopsided and less local.
If Auburn even reaches the title game, and certainly if it wins it, Cam Newton will almost certainly move on to the NFL. It has looked that way for weeks, and he really would have no reason to stay: He could hardly prove himself more thoroughly than that, and the scrutiny of his actions and his troubled past will follow him much more closely while he remains at Auburn than it will once he departs.
If he misses his chance to play for the crystal trophy, though, or if he loses out on the Heisman due to the committee's newfound ethical concerns, Newton might just elect to come back and try again in 2011. The Tigers would instantly vault to the top of the list of favorites to win the title that year, and Newton could redeem himself (if, indeed, he needs to be redeemed) by playing an entire season under a magnifying glass with poise and explosiveness. He would become an almost automatic top pick if he did that, and make himself a lot of extra money.
Careful what you wish for, America.
Over and over, as things like Bush's ineligibility and vacated wins have become an annual part of the NCAA football news cycle, fans and media pundits have called for more immediate reporting and investigation of transgressions like this. If a player could be found out as a compromised amateur, or if recruiting cheat coaches could be discovered in the act, everything would be simpler. So went the theory. Vacating wins and doing revisionist history is stupid in a number of obvious ways. But finding out about this sort of dealing could allow us to stop those wins from being ill-gotten in the first place. Or not.
Here we have seen Newton and his father be revealed in every possible way while the son played on in a critical season for a national title contender, and no action has been taken. If the Tigers actually make it to the BCS title game, there is some chance that will change: The outrage could stir yet again. If, however, the Gamecocks knock the Tigers out of the running for a national title, it could be the beginning of the end for effective enforcement of NCAA rules violations discovered in-season.