"I will open it up for questions. As I've said before, as long as they pertain to Cameron Newton and anything that has to do with the previous 12 games and this particular game coming up," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said on Sunday. "I don't want to address any potential rumors and coaching issues out there that are flying around."
Chizik cut off the questions at the pass during the SEC Championship Game coaches teleconference. It was understandable and expected -- Chizik has been mum on allegations of a pay-for-play scandal involving his quarterback and most explosive player. Then this week, offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn was linked to the open job at Vanderbilt, ESPN's Chris Low saying that Malzahn is the Commodores' top candidate.
Second-ranked Auburn has dealt with severe and harsh accusations since midseason, yet emerged unscathed with a glittering 12-0 record. The Tigers head to Atlanta on Saturday seeking to play one more game without letting distractions limit them.
Their opponent, No. 18 South Carolina, has had their share of distractions as well. Not nearly as serious as ones involving Newton, but several more over the season.
"We haven't let any of it bother us," captain Patrick DiMarco recently said. "We've just focused on the next game."
It started during the offseason, when coach Steve Spurrier often publicly sniped at quarterback Stephen Garcia, questioning the player's work ethic and commitment. The concerns weren't that the coach used the media as his personal sounding board, but that the barrage of criticism might make Garcia wilt or quit listening altogether.
Before the Gamecocks could get a read on what would happen with Garcia and Spurrier, a report of improper benefits paid to several North Carolina football players surfaced. Linked within was the name of senior tight end Weslye Saunders.
That began a saga that lasted through the first game of the season, when players involved in The Whitney hotel investigation were in limbo almost until kickoff. Other players being investigated -- such as freshman Marcus Lattimore and senior cornerback Chris Culliver -- were also in the mix, Lattimore being cleared for the opener after re-paying money for an improper meal. Out of a dozen players being investigated, only Culliver and Jarriel King had to sit; each was cleared before the second game.
The Gamecocks won their first two and began to feel good about their status, when another announcement came down before the third game. Saunders, having not been allowed to participate in team activities, was dismissed from the team on Sept. 15. He had not played or scarcely practiced while others filled his role, but a senior who had come back to school after thinking about the NFL was now gone.
Saunders' dismissal came on the end of other players who had quit the team -- Quintin Richardson, Nick Allison, Zac Brindise, Ronald Byrd, Stephen Flint -- and another was added one week later. Jarvis Giles decided to transfer as well, leaving USC thin at tailback, but when he left, the team was dealing with another major blow.
The program's career leader in receptions and receiving yards, Kenny McKinley, was ruled dead by suicide on Sept. 20. An extremely popular player who many on the current team knew and were close to, McKinley's death was revealed at the end of the first practice before USC's first game against Auburn.
With heavy hearts, the Gamecocks went to Auburn and played well, but lost their first game. Giles had transferred two days after McKinley's death, and after that, USC was hit by a couple of bumps but managed to handle them.
Linebacker Shaq Wilson, who recovered two fumbles against Auburn in his only action of the season, was shut down shortly after with a pulled hamstring. Culliver was lost for the season with a torn pectoral later on, leaving the secondary with little depth.
Since the Culliver injury, the Gamecocks were riddled by Arkansas but have convincingly won their last three games, two with extreme importance to the season. USC's win over Florida clinched the SEC East, while last week's victory over Clemson was a rivalry victory for the second year in a row (the first time that's happened in 40 years).
Auburn will continue to deal with questions involving Newton and Malzahn as it prepares for Saturday. USC, its distractions behind, is happy to be able to concentrate solely on the game.
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