- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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AUBURN, Ala. -- It may be next week. It may be next year. It may be never. But if Auburn ever figures out how to get out of its own way, the Tigers will challenge Alabama for supremacy in the SEC West.
Until that time, until the day Auburn stops losing two fumbles, stops committing false-start penalties on fourth-and-goal at the 1 and then missing the field goal, Tigers fans will have to live with way too much excitement.
For the second consecutive week, Auburn spotted a very good team from South Carolina a lead of 13 points or more. And for the second consecutive week, quarterback Cam Newton ran and passed the Tigers to victory in concert with a defense that clamped down in the second half.
Newton, a junior, rushed for 176 yards and three touchdowns and threw for 158 yards and two more scores. No. 17 Auburn overcame a 20-7 deficit to pound No. 12 South Carolina 35-27.
The Gamecocks, plus-two in turnover margin during the first three quarters, turned the ball over four times in the final 15 minutes. Still, what the Tigers wouldn't give for a boring victory around here.
"That's a great SEC win against a really, really good football team. I can't be more proud of our guys," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. "It's not always pretty. There are a lot of things, as we look back on it, that are not good. These guys are fighting, clawing, scratching, trying to find a way to win each week."
A week ago, Clemson came to Jordan-Hare Stadium and led 17-0 before falling 27-24 in overtime. Clemson didn't know how to stop Newton, either.
Newton arrived during the offseason as a two-time transfer who got into legal trouble at Florida, then left for a junior college. He is a unique talent who had to learn how not to stop himself. Maybe Auburn has taken on his life story as its own.
Newton looks as if he's incapable of losing yardage. That may be because he's a 6-foot-6, 250-pound athlete playing quarterback. He can take the pounding that comes with running, and he proved Saturday night that he can throw accurate passes into the flat to Tigers receivers who can make yards after the catch.
Tigers offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said that the Gamecocks took away the vertical game in the first half, so he resorted to playing at the line of scrimmage. In the third quarter alone, Auburn produced 11 runs of between 6 and 13 yards. A coach can do that when he has an offensive line with something to prove.
"We got challenged Tuesday by Coach Chizik after he got to watch the film against Clemson," senior left tackle Lee Ziemba said. "We laid an egg. Quite frankly, we were playing soft. There's no way to sugarcoat that, as much as it hurts my pride. And it did. We decided to take the punch to them this week. It was a long week of practice."
Newton also proved he can run a no-huddle offense with such aplomb that South Carolina could not keep up with Auburn's pace.
"I thought we had a good pace going on," Newton said, "until I got to the sideline and Coach Malzahn said, 'Good job, but you know what? We've got to go faster.' I'm like, 'What?' He got on me about talking back to him, so I didn't say nothing. I just said, 'Yes, sir.' I didn't want to have no consequences to deal with tomorrow."
Auburn finished with 334 rushing yards against a defense that had allowed a total of 179 yards in its first three games. On defense, the Tigers took away freshman running back Marcus Lattimore (14 carries, 33 yards) and, in the fourth quarter, clamped down upon quarterback Stephen Garcia. Auburn separated Garcia from the ball twice and converted both fumbles into touchdowns.
The second fumble came thanks to a sack by Josh Bynes and Nosa Eguae that left Garcia groggy. Freshman Connor Shaw came in and moved the offense well for a few plays on two possessions but ended each one with an interception. The second one, from the Auburn 18, looked like a freshman mistake. Shaw stared right at Alshon Jeffery, his best receiver, and threw into double coverage. Safety Demond Washington caught the tipped pass, and Auburn put away its fourth victory in as many games.
Last year, Auburn started 4-0, too. But those four wins came against lesser competition, which may explain why that team lost five of its last seven regular-season games. Those Tigers didn't fight and scratch and claw for two SEC victories and a win over the defending ACC Atlantic champion.
"I think we've been challenged in a lot of ways," Chizik said.
Auburn has survived. So have its fans. The Tigers' next game is at home against Louisiana-Monroe. You can hear the sighs of relief all across the blue-and-orange portion of Alabama.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
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