Thirteen days ago, Auburn quarterback Cam Newton raced out on the field more than an hour before kickoff against Georgia at Jordan-Hare Stadium and was cheered by a delighted student section.
Should he repeat that scene today at Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium, the reception should be a bit more chilly.
Newton has been college football's finest player this year, becoming the first in Southeastern Conference history to throw for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in a single season. Yet he has not been available to the media for more than two weeks amid allegations that his father, Cecil Newton, had a $180,000 asking price last winter for his son to attend Mississippi State.
Tigers coach Gene Chizik hasn't addressed Newton's off-the-field saga for more than two weeks as well, but he has been happy to discuss the talents possessed by his 6-foot-6, 250-pound junior.
"I'm really proud of him in watching his progression from game one to game 11," Chizik said this week. "That's a dream for a coach to watch a kid continue to improve and become not just a great player within your football team and obviously within the offense, but take on the leadership role. He has just gotten better in so many ways."
Newton's improvement is reflected by his numbers in No. 2-ranked Auburn's three biggest games since the start of October. In home victories over LSU, Arkansas and Georgia, Newton rushed for a staggering 556 yards and seven touchdowns on 83 carries.
In the same three games, he completed 32 of 45 passes for 374 yards and three scores.
Former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow similarly was at his best in big games. Tebow led the Gators to a comeback victory over Alabama in the 2008 SEC title game, but the Crimson Tide shut him down in last year's rematch.
"Even though there are some similarities in some of the plays that they run, their styles are completely different in how they do those things," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "It's not to say that one is better than the other; it's just that they're different. Cam's very athletic, deceptive, makes people miss, changes direction and plays with toughness. He'll put his head down on you, too."
Said Tide linebacker Dont'a Hightower: "Tim Tebow was able to throw the ball pretty well and was always a downhill runner, but you see Cam making plays that you wouldn't necessarily expect. He's got two guys on his back and he's stiff-arming one guy, and the next thing you know he breaks out with a 42-yard run."
Football often has been simplified to a game of blocking and tackling, and Saban said tackling will be paramount against Newton.
"When they spread you out on the field and he scrambles, or even when he's running one of his set running plays, you have to do a good job of tackling," Saban said. "You have to a good job of leveraging and tackling. That's what great players do. They make themselves hard to tackle, and he's certainly one of those guys."