AUBURN, Ala. — Third-ranked Auburn was ready for a break after a month of pressurized Southeastern Conference games and ever-rising championship buzz.
Instead, there's a recruiting scandal surrounding star quarterback Cam Newton.
A man who said he represented the Heisman hopeful during his recruitment out of junior college last year said this week he sought payment to secure Newton's commitment to Mississippi State, according to former Bulldogs player John Bond.
ESPN.com, which first reported the story, cited unidentified people who said Bond's former teammate Kenny Rogers was the one soliciting payment. Rogers has a company called Elite Football Preparation, which matches football prospects with colleges.
"I will say this, very loud and very clear: Cameron Newton is eligible at Auburn University. Period. End of story," coach Gene Chizik said Thursday night on his weekly radio show.
Newton's father, Cecil Newton, told The Associated Press the family denies any allegations and is "cooperating with the investigation." The NCAA declined to comment on "current, pending or potential investigations," and attempts to reach Rogers were unsuccessful.
The situation took some of the joy out of what had been a happy week around Auburn, which began with a Halloween costume party at coach Gene Chizik's house and was expected to conclude with a tune up against Chattanooga (5-3) on Saturday.
"The perfect scenario is that we show up Saturday and become a better football team and win the game. That's it," Chizik said. "We don't know how the game is going to unfold, obviously. We just want to know that Saturday, when we get done playing the game, were we a better team at 3:30 than we were at noon when we started?"
The Tigers haven't had much of a letdown in other nonconference mismatches, blowing out Arkansas State and Louisiana-Monroe. And it might take another blowout to prevent the Tigers from losing any ground in the polls with No. 4 TCU facing No. 6 Utah on Saturday.
The Tigers are nearing the end of an 11-week grind without an open date that has vaulted them into national title contention and Newton to the front of the Heisman Trophy race.
Next up are top rivals Georgia and, after a week off, No. 5 Alabama.
So after returning in the wee hours Sunday from a visit to Mississippi, Chizik gave his players a welcome night off from practice and a lighthearted Halloween evening.
"That's just something we like to do around here, have fun and it was like a family oriented deal," said Newton, who dressed as a 6-foot-6 tooth fairy. "It was a lot of coaches, coaches' wives, their whole families were there, and having fun is what this program is all about."
Now the Tigers will turn their focus to Chattanooga and ex-Tennessee quarterback B.J. Coleman — instead of the recruiting allegations swirling around Newton.
Coleman's 282.1 yards passing per game ranks fifth in the Football Championship Subdivision, and he gets a chance to attack Auburn's vulnerable spot. Receiver Joel Bradford is leading the nation with 128.4 yards per game and has posted the two highest single-game totals in the NCAA (254 against Eastern Kentucky, 274 against Furman).
For Chattanooga, it's one of those pay-the-bills and hope for an upset games. Mocs coach Russ Huesman says it also lets them tell recruits, "Hey, we are playing SEC teams."
"It is important that our recruits know that we are going to play one every year," Huesman said. "You just hope that you can catch one of those teams that they are on an off-game. I like to play these games and think that it is a good experience for our players."
The Mocs, who are coming off a 49-35 loss to Elon, are used to playing Heisman candidates.
They faced eventual winners Mark Ingram of Alabama and Sam Bradford of Oklahoma the past two seasons and runner-up Darren McFadden of Arkansas in 2007. Only McFadden played more than half of the game in easy wins, but he and Ingram both topped 100 yards rushing. Bradford was a crisp 17 of 22 for 183 yards and two touchdowns.
"We have been talking about that for a while, ever since the season started and Cam started playing so well in their offense," Chattanooga safety Jordan Tippit said.
Auburn was content to keep Newton in the pocket in a romp over Louisiana-Monroe earlier in the season, when his only credited run was on a sack. The Mocs are gearing up just in case.
"It is always fun to try and tackle a player of his talent level," Tippit said. "Also with him being a potential Heisman Trophy winner, it is always fun."
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