AUBURN, Ala. — The Jordan-Hare Stadium crowd didn’t budge following No. 2 Auburn’s 49-31 win against Georgia, saluting the new SEC West champions in an elaborate postgame celebration that included video highlights, sing-a-longs and a lap around the field by the seniors.
For a moment, it was as though the Cam Newton cloud didn’t hover over the program.
The Tigers (11-0, 7-0 SEC) clinched their first berth in the SEC title game since 2004 in typical fashion, roaring back from an early deficit with a defense that made just enough plays and an overwhelming rushing attack that topped 300 yards for the sixth straight SEC game.
“We have goals at the beginning of the year,” said Auburn head coach Gene Chizik, who is 19-5 in two years with the Tigers after going 5-19 at Iowa State. “And this was the first one.”
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South Carolina, which beat Florida on Saturday to clinch its first SEC title game berth, will be Auburn’s opponent in Atlanta on Dec. 4.
But the Tigers took Saturday’s postgame to cherish what they had just accomplished. The seniors lingered on the field afterward, knowing it was their last game in the stadium. They eventually took a victory lap, cheered on by their adoring fans.
The celebration was partly for winning the West — a long road back from the disappointing 5-7 season two years ago that ended Tommy Tuberville’s tenure.
But the Tigers’ veterans were well aware they vanquished rival Georgia (5-6, 3-5) for the first time since 2006, snapping a four-game losing streak.
“It’s a great feeling,” Auburn linebacker Josh Bynes said. “It really ain’t even set in on me yet. It hit me, but it ain’t like slapped the crap out of me yet. I’m just taking it in.”
Newton, whose eligibility has come into question after reports that his father, Cecil, discussed a pay-for-play plan with Mississippi State during the recruiting process last year, suited up and started. He showed exactly why his status was such a hot topic all week.
The quarterback had a career-high 30 carries for 151 yards and two touchdowns, headlining an Auburn rushing attack that finished with 315 yards against the SEC’s second-best rushing defense.
Newton was efficient in the air too, completing 12-of-15 passes for 148 yards and two more scores.
“He had a great game,” said Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green, no stranger to NCAA investigations. “It’s hard to focus when you’re a quarterback and you’ve got all that stuff surrounding you. He’s a great guy and I feel like he handled the show in a professional way.”
Newton became the first SEC player and the eighth in NCAA history to throw for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in the same season.
With three more touchdown runs, he’ll join Florida’s Tim Tebow as the only other player in NCAA history to have 20 rushing and 20 passing touchdowns in the same season.
“I’m a blessed individual on a blessed team,” said Newton, who was off limits to the media but provided quotes in a release from the school. “Everybody is doing their job in the system and it is a great feeling when it all comes together.”
The win wasn’t easy by any means. Georgia, which needs to beat rival Georgia Tech to be bowl eligible for a 14th straight season, stormed to a 21-7 lead in the first quarter thanks to three touchdown passes by freshman Aaron Murray, who finished with 273 passing yards.
Showing a poise beyond his years, Murray picked on Auburn’s 95th nationally-ranked pass defense, twice hooking up with Green on first quarter touchdowns passes, one for 31 yards and one for 40. Green had nine catches for 164 yards.
But Auburn stormed back to tie the game at 21 before halftime on Onterio McCalebb’s 4-yard touchdown run and Philip Lutzenkirchen’s 18-yard touchdown catch.
The Tigers seized momentum with an onside kick to start the second half and never relented. Auburn had four second-half possessions and scored four touchdowns, finishing with 463 yards and converting 10 of 14 third downs.
“We just couldn’t stop them,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “That was the biggest difference.”
The teams traded blows until the end of the third quarter. McCalebb scored his third touchdown to put the Tigers up seven but Georgia couldn’t answer, settling for a 28-yard Blair Walsh field goal that only trimmed Auburn’s lead to 35-31.
The Tigers’ offense kept churning out points, adding 14 more in the fourth quarter on Luzenkirchen’s second touchdown catch and another Newton scoring plunge.
The defense that looked so inept early on finally stiffened, holding Georgia to 19 yards in the fourth quarter. Auburn’s pass rush took its toll, finishing with four sacks and 12 pressures and knocking Murray out of the game late.
Although the Tigers allowed themselves to celebrate afterward, they knew their focus would soon be on their remaining games. They play at Alabama the day after Thanksgiving before heading to Atlanta the following week.
“Our goal when we came here was to win a championship,” Chizik said. “And we haven’t done that yet.”