- Associated Press - Thursday, December 2, 2010

AUBURN, ALA. (AP) - Cam Newton’s performance hasn’t faltered in the wake of pay-for-play allegations _ and neither has his smile.

The Auburn quarterback seems unfazed by the controversy _ or all the accolades _ that have come his way in the month leading up to the biggest game of his life.

The Heisman favorite leads the Tigers (12-0) into Saturday’s Southeastern Conference championship game against No. 18 South Carolina in his hometown of Atlanta. A win propels second-ranked Auburn into the national championship game.

Newton, who hasn’t spoken to the media since Nov. 9, is always seen smiling, practically skipping onto the field before games and celebrating exuberantly with fans after wins.

“Business as usual for Cam … just straight goofball,” said Auburn tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen. “He’s always joking around, always messing with everyone. That hasn’t changed at all throughout this year, throughout any of this. So it’s just good to have regular ol’ Cam.”

The NCAA cleared Newton to play in the game on Wednesday after ruling that the quarterback was unaware that his father, Cecil, and the owner of a scouting service _ former Mississippi State player Kenny Rogers _ violated amateurism rules by shopping the quarterback’s services to the Bulldogs.

It wasn’t necessarily the end of the case, but it did punctuate a nearly monthlong saga where his eligibility was a persistent question hovering over Auburn.

For now, at least, it’s all about football. And though Newton has been silent, he has done a lot of talking with his legs and arm. He has thrived as controversy shadowed him.

In the three games since the allegations were first reported on Nov. 4, he has averaged a steady 298 yards in total offense, producing 13 touchdowns and yet more wins.

He’ll likely need another strong performance if the Tigers are to beat the Gamecocks (9-3), who were the unwitting participants in Newton’s coming out party as one of college football’s most dynamic stars.

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier remembers it well, and not just Newton’s 176 rushing yards, 158 passing yards or five touchdowns. It was the first time the nation saw one of his Newton specials.

The 6-foot-6, 250-pounder sprinted through the line seemingly on a collision course with two converging safeties, then suddenly cut toward the sideline before racing to the end zone and diving from the 7-yard line to cap a 54-yard touchdown.

“Our safety had him, and then our strong safety was coming outside,” Spurrier recalled. “And he put a sidestep on and juked both of them _ I think they ran into each other _ and then skirted down the sideline and dove into the end zone. We were like, ‘Wow.’ We were telling our (defensive backs), ‘You’ve got to play your angles now.’

“But then we found out that he was doing that to everybody as the season progressed.”

Newton rallied Auburn from a 20-7 deficit, but it started with the run that coach Gene Chizik called “eye-opening.”

It “was kind of the play in everyone’s mind that we all thought, ‘Wow, he’s the real deal and this team is going to do something special this year,’” Lutzenkirchen said. “So that was kind of the turning point for our season.”

Newton performances since the pay-for-play allegations surfaced _ along with reports alleging academic cheating at Florida _ have been impressive.

“He’s the most valuable player I’ve ever seen,” said CBS college football analyst Gary Danielson, who is working the SEC championship game. “To go through all this at the same time … In the first half of Alabama when everything’s going wrong around him, he was calm, no theatrics, no yelling at any players, no frustration, no picking on anybody. I thought he showed himself to be composed and the rest of the team followed.

“He’s tough to take your eye off of.”

Sports psychologists say it helps to have unwavering confidence in yourself.

Many top-tiered athletes, from the NBA’s Kobe Bryant to golf’s Tiger Woods, have had to weather storms while trying to stay at the top of their games.

“Those people we’re talking about, they have an elite skill, so much that we might call them savants,” said Dr. Joe Carr, a sports psychologist who has worked with NBA and college basketball teams. “Because they are savants, they’re able to have this elite level of functioning. They are almost perfect within their sphere.”

But, he added, whether it’s a gifted writer or violinist or football player, “if you put them in another venue, then they may not function so well, because they don’t feel as safe and secure. So their functioning could erode significantly.”

Carr said that comfort zone helps some athletes develop a psychological “rain coat” protecting them from choppy weather.

Fellow sports psychologist Dr. Andrew Jacobs said the key to handling the type of adversity Newton went through is “to focus on yourself.”

“When you start hearing everybody else’s opinions who don’t know anything about you, it can lead you every which way,” said Jacobs, whose clients include the Kansas City Royals.

In this case, it hardly diverted Newton’s ascent.

It started in that game against South Carolina, a performance Chizik said was “a learning moment” for the coaches _ it showed them what they could ask of their quarterback.

“That was a special game for him,” Chizik said. “The big run he made early in the game was an eye-opening run when you know you’re playing against such a great defense with tons of speed and they’re very physical and fast. That was eye-opening for us.

“That was one of his games that I think we were able to look back and say, ‘Wow, these are some of the things that we can really build on for the next seven or eight weeks.’”

Auburn needs one more Saturday.