If the Auburn Tigers win their final three football games of the season, they will be national champions – maybe.
The uncertainty does not stem from a flawed system that favors teams from “major” conferences, such as presently undefeated Oregon and Auburn, at the expense of “small” conference squads, such as Texas Christian University and Boise State (also undefeated, but behind Oregon and Auburn in the BCS rankings). This past January, two unbeaten “major” conference teams, Alabama and Texas, squared off for the championship while similarly unbeaten TCU and Boise State watched from the sidelines, relegated to playing each other in what was effectively a consolation game. Should Auburn continue its winning streak, it will receive the same degree of favoritism as Alabama and Texas, and “earn” a spot in the BCS championship game.
However, even if Auburn wins that game, it is not guaranteed a championship. The reason for this apparent contradiction is Auburn’s star quarterback, Cam Newton, who until a few weeks ago was the overwhelming favorite to win this year’s Heisman Trophy. Newton, who was once dismissed from the University of Florida team amidst allegations of cheating and theft, is embroiled in a controversy that threatens to swallow what has been, until now, one of the best seasons on the history of Auburn football.
After leaving Florida and enrolling in a junior college, Newton, whose talent has never been questioned, was aggressively recruited by several colleges before he landed at Auburn. A few weeks ago, rumors circulated that one of those schools, Mississippi State, had been approached by someone purportedly acting on behalf of Newton’s father, who demanded nearly $200,000 in exchange for Newton’s enrolling at the school. Newton’s father initially denied those rumors, but his more recent statements suggest there was an element of truth behind them.
Newton never signed with Mississippi State, choosing instead to play at Auburn. However, the question has been asked: if money was demanded of Mississippi State, why would Auburn be exempt from such demands; and perhaps more significantly, does the fact that Newton signed with Auburn suggest that his father’s demands were met?
The Auburn coaches and athletic department vehemently deny any wrongdoing and, truth be told, no evidence of such wrongdoing by the school has been uncovered, despite a slew of investigative reporters daily on the trail. However, misconduct by the school is not needed to jeopardize the season. Earlier this year, the University of Southern California was stripped of a national title because its star player, Reggie Bush, accepted money and other benefits from agents while he was enrolled and playing football at the school. Because his acceptance of such benefits stripped him of his amateur status under NCAA rules, USC forfeited all games in which he had participated, and consequently lost a national championship it had earned on the field.
Newton’s story is much like that of Bush. During Bush’s collegiate career, allegations abounded about cash, cars and houses provided to him and his family. Like Auburn, USC denied wrongdoing and urged reporters to focus on the team’s on-field accomplishments. USC, perhaps the most successful college team of the new millennium, won games and championships despite the off-field controversy. When the final die was cast, however, the school was stripped of one of those championships because of Bush’s improper actions.
Should Auburn win its game over state rival Alabama in two weeks and then defeat the University of South Carolina in the SEC championship game, it will undoubtedly be invited to play Oregon, or whichever “major” conference team sits atop the BCS rankings at the end of the season. Still, the dark cloud that hangs over the university and its star player raises questions about the outcome of that game.
Players from both schools will undoubtedly line up, ready to compete before a vast international television audience. No matter what happens on the field that night, however, it is likely that the final score will not be known until the NCAA completes its investigation into the allegations against Newton. Until that time, Auburn fans may celebrate the team’s on-field accomplishments knowing that, like USC, they may eventually be forced to return a championship trophy while college record books are rewritten and Newton watches from NFL sidelines.