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October 23, 2010

Auburn raises BCS stock by squelching LSU

AUBURN, Ala. - No matter what numbers are crunched or data is entered, the BCS computers are destined to crash if they try to keep Auburn fourth in this week's standings.

Behind Heisman front-runner Cameron Newton, the unbeaten Tigers sliced through LSU's defense on Saturday for a 24-17 victory so impressive that anyone with average eyesight can see Auburn should be at the forefront of the national championship race.

Last week, Auburn was fourth in the BCS standings, behind Oklahoma, Oregon and Boise State. But no one can mount a serious argument that they're better than this Auburn team, which rolled up 526 yards on the third-ranked defense in the nation.

But this was no track meet. It wasn't like Oregon's 60-13 blasting of struggling UCLA on Thursday night. Auburn's win actually was a hard-fought, testosterone-testing victory with about as much finesse as a back-alley gang fight.

"Going into this game, we knew it was the No. 1 offense vs. the No. 1 defense [in the SEC]. A clash of the titans," said Newton, a 6-foot-6, 250-pound junior. "On numerous occasions, there were licks taken from people left and right. We knew that would be the case going into the game and we were prepared for that."

Some might say that LSU coach Les Miles' amazing luck finally ran out. In reality, Newton, freshman Michael Dyer and sophomore Onterio McCalebb just ran away from LSU's heralded defense. Auburn (8-0 overall, 5-0 in the SEC) rushed for 440 yards, the most ever by the Tigers against an SEC opponent; LSU (7-1, 4-1) had allowed just 585 rushing yards in its previous seven games combined.

McCalebb provided the back-breaker with just over five minutes remaining when he scored on a 70-yard touchdown run against the visiting Tigers, who long before had become preoccupied with Newton, who almost was as dangerous as a decoy as he was as a runner.

Though McCalebb's run proved decisive, it wasn't the most amazing run of the day. Not even close.

The lead highlight was the big play of Newton's 217-yard rushing masterpiece, an incredible 49-yard touchdown run that is sure to be etched in the memory of Auburn fans - and LSU fans, too.

One play after throwing a dart to Darvin Adams for a 17-yard gain, Newton hesitated slightly, then burst through the middle of LSU's line. He broke right and stumbled when an LSU defender clipped his ankles, but he put his left hand on the turf to regain his balance. Newton cut inside an attempted tackle by cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, sprinted back to the middle of the field, then outraced cornerback Patrick Peterson to the goal line.

Peterson had the angle, but Newton seemed to accelerate at about the 15, which meant Peterson couldn't make contact until Newton was inside the 5. The football popped out of Newton's hand as he fell into the end zone, prompting an unnecessary review because there was no doubt he scored.

Maybe the replay official just wanted to see it again. The 87,451 fans at Jordan-Hare Stadium wouldn't have blamed him.

"That was a simple play we'd been calling all night," Newton said. "The offensive line did their job. I guess it was left for me to do my job.

"There were a lot of missed tackles and I just tried to make the most of them."

Still, the game's outcome remained in doubt into the fourth quarter.

LSU routinely started drives with great field position, but could not take advantage until - trailing 17-10 - Miles resorted to trickery and called for quarterback Jordan Jefferson to throw a lateral to freshman running back Spencer Ware, who played quarterback in high school. Ware then threw to wide receiver Rueben Randle - coincidentally, another former high school quarterback - for a 39-yard touchdown that forged a tie with just over 12 minutes remaining.

That was one of the few bright spots for LSU's passing game. Auburn was 108th in the nation in pass defense coming in and had given up more than 300 passing yards to Arkansas State, South Carolina and Arkansas. But LSU was unable to take advantage.

Defensive tackle Nick Fairley wouldn't allow it. Fairley, who is having as dominating a season as any lineman in the nation, had 2.5 sacks to lead an effective pass rush that didn't let Jefferson or backup Jarrett Lee get comfortable in the pocket.

Indeed, the issue finally was settled when Lee, the "passing" quarterback, was flushed out of the pocket on fourth-and-6 from LSU's 30 and stopped 4 yards short of the first down with 3:20 left in the game. Auburn then ran out the clock.

"Late in the game, Nick Fairley broke loose," Miles said. "He made about three plays in the back end of the game that were pretty significant."

Now, Miles will have to brace for the storm of criticism that is sure to come in Baton Rouge. He'd been ripped for his clock management in a 16-14 win over Tennessee and dismissed as being lucky after a fake field goal led to a 33-29 victory over Florida.

"It's still early in the backend of the season," he said. "We have a lot of good football team to play and we're looking forward to it. This will certainly not be a fun plane ride home."

As for Auburn, the national championship is a realistic possibility, even if coach Gene Chizik refuses to acknowledge it.

"This is a step-by-step, day-by-day process," he said. "I now that sounds like a coaching cliche, but that is what it is. We are not going to talk about where we end up ranking-wise. We are not going to talk about being 8-and-0. We aren't talk about any of that."

Of course, that's the smart approach. Auburn's passing game isn't strong, and even though LSU couldn't exploit it, the pass defense is a concern.

Ole Miss, Georgia and archrival Alabama remain on the league schedule (there's also a non-conference game against FCS member Chattanooga). And then there's the SEC championship game, if Auburn makes it that far. In short, Auburn can't afford to look ahead in a season that has been infested with stunning upsets.

Alabama lost as the top-ranked team in the nation. So did Ohio State. But they didn't have Cameron Newton leading them.

"He's a great player, about the best in the country," LSU linebacker Kelvin Sheppard said. "Plain and simple, he's the best quarterback in the country."

And Auburn may be the best team, regardless of what the BCS computers say.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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