ATLANTA — Gene Chizik was still in his I'm-only-talking-about-the-game mode Friday, even though Cam Newton has been cleared to play by the NCAA.
So it was left to Steve Spurrier to discuss Auburn's star quarterback.
"We're glad he's playing," the venerable South Carolina coach said on the eve of the Southeastern Conference championship game. "He's played all year, and it wouldn't be right for him not to play when the championship's on the line. I remember Joe Paterno saying one time, 'You want to beat the other team when all their best players are playing.'"
Newton will definitely be on the field Saturday for the No. 2 Tigers (12-0). The NCAA made sure of that by deciding, in a series of rapid-fire decisions this week, that while the player's father had solicited illegal payments during the recruiting process, his son knew nothing about it and was therefore eligible.
That removed one bit of intrigue from this game, but left plenty of other storylines:
— Auburn, which is atop the BCS standings, can lock up a spot in the championship game at Glendale, Ariz., with a victory over No. 18 South Carolina (9-3).
— No. 3 TCU could become the first non-BCS team to play for the title if the Gamecocks pull off the upset, or No. 1 Oregon loses its regular-season finale against Oregon State.
— The NCAA ruling likely removes any stigma from Newton's Heisman Trophy campaign, and one more off-the-charts performance might just make him the most overwhelming winner ever.
— South Carolina is trying to claim its first SEC title, and has a guy on the sideline who knows a thing or two about conference championships; Spurrier captured six of them at Florida.
"It's a challenge trying to do some things that have never been done before," the Head Ball Coach said. "That's the fun part for me."
He reacquainted himself with a once-familiar routine Friday, posing for pictures with Chizik in front of the trophy that goes to the winner during their news conference at the Georgia Dome. Spurrier peeked around to get a look at the front of the massive wood-and-bronze award, then patted it from behind before facing the cameras.
Back in 1992, he coached in the first SEC championship game, leading Florida against an unbeaten Alabama team that would win the national title. Even though the Gators were heavy underdogs and the inaugural game was played in Birmingham, making it a de facto road contest, it took a late interception returned for a touchdown for the Crimson Tide to pull out a victory.
Asked if he remembered that game, Spurrier replied, "Of course I do. What play do you want me to recite?"
While the Gamecocks coach gave off his usual carefree vibe, Chizik was the exact opposite — stoic, tightlipped and in no mood to talk about Newton's NCAA case beyond a brief reference to it in his opening statement.
"I'm glad the NCAA was in agreement with us that Auburn University and Cameron Newton had done nothing wrong," the Tigers coach said. "Cameron will be our starting quarterback tomorrow, as he has been the previous 12 weeks. I think that's pretty self-explanatory."
That was it.
"I'll address any questions that have to do with this football game and the previous 12 before that," he said.
When asked how Newton had reacted to the NCAA ruling and whether it might take a weight off his shoulders heading into a rematch against South Carolina, Chizik wouldn't bite.
"I'm not going to address those," he said. "I'll address the questions that have to do with the football game. Cameron, like the rest of our football team, is a very focused young man and we have one thing on our mind and that is the game tomorrow."
Newton has been unstoppable for the Tigers, directing the most potent offense in the SEC (41.6 points and 490.1 yards a game). He leads the conference in rushing (1,336 yards) and ranks second nationally in passing efficiency, completing nearly 68 percent of his throws for 24 touchdowns, with just six interceptions.
He's coming off his most audacious performance yet, leading Auburn back from a 24-point deficit to beat defending national champion Alabama 28-27 — in Tuscaloosa, no less. It was the fourth time the Tigers have rallied from a double-digit deficit, which includes a game against South Carolina the first month of the season.
"If we get down, we don't get down on ourselves," defensive tackle Nick Fairley said. "We're going to scratch and claw and try to get ourselves back in the game."
For Auburn, this is a chance to lock up a spot that was denied the school's last undefeated team. The Tigers went 13-0 in 2004 but were left out of the BCS championship.
"There's so much riding on this game," linebacker Craig Stevens said. "There's a trip to the national championship. Nobody on this team has ever experienced anything like that. It would be tough to lose."
But not out of the question. The teams met a month into the season at Auburn, where South Carolina built a 20-7 lead and was still on top 27-21 heading into the fourth quarter. Newton threw a pair of TD passes to pull out a 35-27 victory for the Tigers.Comment on this story
The Gamecocks can counter the game's most dynamic player with plenty of their own weapons. Freshman Marcus Lattimore has rushed for 1,114 yards and scored 19 touchdowns, sophomore Alshon Jeffery has caught 75 passes for 1,351 yards, and Stephen Garcia has steadied himself after an up-and-down career, providing the sort of play that Spurrier expects from his quarterbacks.
"I seldom get mad at Stephen anymore," the coach said. "He's been playing like we coach him to play."
Spurrier, who dealt with his own NCAA eligibility issues early in the season, knows his team would've had a much better chance of winning if Newton had been banished to the sideline. But if the Gamecocks should pull out a win with No. 2 on the field, it would be that much sweeter.
"I'm glad he's playing. He deserves to play," Spurrier said. "We haven't even thought about that other stuff."