AUBURN, Ala. – Cam Newton lifted Auburn from the back of the Top 25 to No. 1 in the nation.
The Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback led the Tigers into the national title game against No. 2 Oregon with a mix of flair and poise and enough highlight reel plays to widely split the vote among a handful of coaches and teammates asked for their favorite.
Newton has already raked in the Heisman Trophy and Davey O'Brien and Maxwell awards for his spectacular season. He added AP Player of the Year to his collection on Wednesday.
An NCAA investigation into Newton's recruitment, which threw his eligibility into doubt during November, had no effect on how he played down the stretch — or the voting for the AP award. It was about as lopsided as the Heisman vote.
Newton received 51 votes from the 60-member AP football poll panel. Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore received three, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck got two and four ballots went unreturned.
In less than a year, Newton has gone from the obscurity of junior college to helping transform a team that went 8-5 last season and started this one ranked No. 22 to a perfect Southeastern Conference championship.
It wasn't all about the big plays, though. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said he was more impressed by Newton's leadership in repeatedly bringing the team from behind, including a 24-0 deficit at Alabama.
"The sign of a special quarterback is one that has the abilities to make his teammates better and make his teammates believe in things that maybe they wouldn't believe without him," Malzahn said. "We've faced some major adversity earlier in the year when we didn't know each other that well.
"We were down to Clemson 17-0 at home and it was ugly as all get out. But he didn't change then. He's a rock, as far as all that's concerned. Doesn't panic."
It doesn't hurt that Newton's 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds with deceptive speed, nifty open-field moves, power and a nice arm. He broke the single-season SEC rushing record for a quarterback in the eighth game, a 28-carry, 217-yard effort against LSU. Malzahn also says Newton has proven he's "not a good thrower, he's an excellent thrower."
As the season wore on, Newton's skills bloomed and not even a scandal could slow him.
He deftly played through an NCAA investigation into a pay-for-play recruiting attempt involving his father, Cecil, at Mississippi State. The NCAA said Cecil Newton sought payment from the Bulldogs, but there was no evidence that his son or Auburn knew about it.
The week before the SEC title game, the NCAA said Newton could play and he accounted for six touchdowns in a 56-17 victory against South Carolina. That locked up a spot in the BCS title game on Jan. 10 in Glendale, Ariz.
It's the second straight season Newton has led his team to the national championship game. He guided Blinn College in Brenham, Texas, to the JUCO championship last year — only few noticed.
"We probably have more people in this room here alone than the whole junior college national championship game," Newton said recently.
Auburn coach Gene Chizik was asked about the highs and lows of Newton's season. He confined his answer to the field.
"I don't recall a lot of lows with him, but I recall a lot of highs," Chizik said. "I'm just impressed with him period, both as a person on and off the field and the way he has progressed as a football player for us in this system week by week. Obviously, he's one of the huge reasons why we're here, along with many others."
A snapshot view Newton's on-the-field exploits includes a handful of plays that helped a player whose bio consumes a scant quarter of a page in Auburn's media guide become the biggest thing on The Plains since Bo Jackson.
Newton's choice for his top play is TBA.
"I hope my favorite play comes during this BCS championship game," he said. "I still have one more game to play and I probably could tell you after this game."
Other players have already picked favorites going into the game.
— Against Kentucky, Newton leapt in the air and, falling backward out of bounds, managed to flick the ball downfield for a 33-yard completion to Kodi Burns.
"He scrambled out of the pocket and had guys all over him, fell out of bounds and threw it sideways about 45 yards on a scramble play," Malzahn said. "It's one of those plays when it happens right in front of you, you say did that really just happen?"
Not surprisingly, that was also Burns' choice for favorite play.
— A 71-yard touchdown run in the opener against Arkansas State before Malzahn really turned Newton loose as a runner 20-30 times a game.
"We had like a play-action rollout to the right side, and I think they just blitzed into where he was supposed to be rolling out and he just took off up the middle and basically followed (tailback Onterio McCalebb) where the fake was going and just took off down the sideline," recalled backup quarterback Barrett Trotter. "It was a long, long run. That being the first game of the year, I think that was one of the most impressive plays I can think of."
— Guard Byron Isom chose a much shorter power run when Newton steamrolled Arkansas linebacker Jerico Nelson for a touchdown.
"It was a counter play, and I had pulled, and he ran over the linebacker into the end zone," Isom said. "I think it just showed the all-around physicalness of him. That really stands out in my mind."
Other notable plays included:
A juking, power-punctuated 49-yard touchdown run against LSU when he dragged LSU All-American Patrick Peterson into the end zone after a finishing burst of speed.
A 54-yard run in the first meeting with the Gamecocks, when he changed direction to leave two safeties grasping for air.
And outjumping a defensive back for a 20-yard touchdown catch from Burns against Mississippi.
"The Ole Miss catch was pretty good," guard Mike Berry said, waffling. "The LSU run was pretty good. Oh yeah, and the South Carolina run. It's between those three."