Cam Newton was about as consequential as a one-year FBS star could’ve possibly been. But it was never guaranteed that Auburn would be where he’d produce all those clutch moments.
As a five-star Atlanta high schooler, Newton drew a ton of interest. And after going JUCO, he had a whole new range of suitors. Perhaps you’ve heard about this process.
Using both lists of potential destinations from 247Sports, we came up with an alternate history for each. But let’s start with the school suddenly lacking Newton:
Auburn without Cam, by Jason Kirk
Spot the 2010 losses: Mississippi State, Clemson, South Carolina, Kentucky, Arkansas, LSU, Georgia, Alabama ... let’s generously say Auburn goes 7-6.
- Gene Chizik fired with 28-35 career record (including Iowa State) and three straight losses to Bama.
- Armed with additional 10-win season, Dan Mullen escapes to Gainesville earlier. Skip Jim McElwain.
- Steve Spurrier peels off four straight 10-win seasons, establishing Gamecock state dominance forever!! Ignore next item.
- Dabo Swinney’s first two full seasons feature winning records, and — wow, everyone made a lot of a 6-7 record that pivoted on a weird field goal against Auburn, didn’t we? Only change: we act less astounded when Clemson is good.
- Without the Camback, Bama has fewer emotions to take out on Kirk Cousins.
- Bobby Petrino wins SEC West, beats Spurrier in Atlanta, books Arkansas into BCS Championship, and gets mistress hired as Minnesota Vikings coach. (This would mean Arkansas’ only regular season loss was close, to Bama. The BCS’ other options: a Mountain West TCU and powers who lost to non-Bamas.)
- Oregon has natty. Chip Kelly leaves to replace Petrino’s mistress as Vikings coach.
- Petrino fired for blimp wreck into HQ of Tyson Foods (blimp pilot and Tyson CEO: Petrino mistresses). Hogs hire local legend Gus Malzahn after failed Auburn OC stint. He brings transfer RB Michael Dyer, a player without a legendary moment of not actually being down.
- Auburn hires Kirby Smart, IRL the other finalist when they hired Malzahn. Arkansas and Auburn have the same no-huddle debate as in real life, except on opposite sides.
- Georgia steals Auburn’s coach. Auburn hires Lane Kiffin.
- Bret Bielema’s SEC ambitions simmer. Let’s give him post-2015 Missouri.
- Louisville AD Tom Jurich trusts Petrino anew, which works until the school is plagued by a problematic pizza magnate, the FBI, and employing Petrino.
JUCO Cam goes to Mississippi State, by Ryan Nanni
Chis Relf was a delight in the 2009 Egg Bowl, beat Florida in the Swamp, stomped Georgia in 2010, and helped get Rich Rodriguez fired after 2011’s Gator Bowl. If Mr. Relf ever reads this, I hope he knows I appreciate his contributions.
That said: Relf was DEFINITELY not Newton.
With Relf, the Bulldogs were ... good! They won nine games for the first time in a decade, and two of their four losses were close. The two that weren’t: a 22-point loss to LSU and a 20-point loss to Alabama, both on the road. After careful calculation, and by that I mean making computer noises out loud, I won’t claim Cam alone makes up those margins.
That leaves losses to Auburn and Arkansas. Auburn’s easy: you have Newton and they don’t, and that erases a three-point deficit. Arkansas is, unsurprisingly, weirder. In our timeline, MSU scored 10 points in the last 10 minutes to tie, lost a fumble out of the end zone to start overtime, watched Arkansas miss a field goal, and lost anyway.
Relf wasn’t bad — 327 yards of offense, but only one touchdown. Newton against the Hogs that year? 328 and four TDs, and if you combine that with patented 2010 Cam Luck, we can swing this to Mississippi State.
MSU is now 6-2 in conference. Pending help elsewhere (some LSU losses), it’s not impossible to see Cam take the Bulldogs to their second-ever SEC Championship, where they’d face the South Carolina defense that bravely held Auburn Cam to 408 yards and six touchdowns.
I swear, I started this thinking “don’t just hand Mississippi State a conference title.” Sorry/you’re welcome?
High school Cam goes to Georgia, by Spencer Hall
Matt Stafford spends another two years as the starter, leaving little daylight for Newton playing time.
Worse, there is little to suggest Newton is in the right place. Georgia uses the same pro-style offense they used for years under Mark Richt, a scheme in which the quarterback rarely runs past the line of scrimmage by design.
“But I remember Aaron Murray and DJ Shockley running a lot!” Your memory is as bad as mine, then. I had to look it up. Neither carried more than 100 times in a season, with Shockley topping out at 322 yards in 2005. Newton eclipsed that at Auburn in the fourth game of 2010.
If Newton made it to 2009 without transferring, the competition would have been Joe Cox and Logan Gray. I feel like saying this is as certain a certainty as can exist: Newton beats these men for the job. If a market exists for this bet somewhere in the universe, I will put all of my money and a limb on that wager. It feels as strong as the pull of the sun that keeps the planets in their orbits.
Yet Newton is a diminished talent, not just because of the years on the bench, but also the normal-ish thing he’d be forced to be. In Athens, Newton is forced to look less like a mold-breaking prototype of an NFL quarterback.
Newton becoming the heart of Malzahn’s attack felt like watching a test driver put terrifying technology through its paces on a racetrack. It almost came off the road at every turn, but that was the fun.
Watching Newton in a 2009 Georgia offense feels like settling for half of his skill set. Newton was talented enough to make even that half feel like a whole player. But knowing what you know, that wouldn’t be enough, would it?
JUCO Cam goes to Maryland, by Alex Kirshner
247 lists Maryland as being in on high school Cam, but post-JUCO Cam is more interesting.
Scenario A: Cam takes over after 2009’s 2-10 season and achieves cult hero status in 2010. He forges a connection with one of the country’s most athletic receivers, Torrey Smith. Maryland’s ground game (which in a non-Cam universe had two 700-yard rushers) is punishing. Cam flips at least one of Maryland’s four losses, which means a 10-3 year.
Maybe things are even better. Maryland’s defense was #23 in Defensive S&P+, 19 spots ahead of Auburn’s. Maryland has a really good shot at topping FSU in the ACC Atlantic.
Either way, Maryland’s administration doesn’t push out Ralph Friedgen. Randy Edsall stays at UConn, which saves both UConn and Maryland a lot of trouble.
Scenario B, the likelier outcome, because he is a Maryland quarterback: Cam tears his ACL in Week 3. This causes him to return for 2011. He tears his other ACL. Cam signs with the Toronto Argonauts and becomes a fan favorite throughout Ontario. He opens a sports bar with Vince Carter and Mats Sundin.
High school Cam goes to Virginia Tech, by Bud Elliott
The Hokies went an excellent 31-10 in 2007-09, the years we can assume Newton would have been there.
2007 would have been the Hokies’ best chance at filling the empty trophy case. Virginia Tech reached 11-2, with a close loss to Boston College they avenged in the ACC Championship. VT’s defense was outstanding, ranking #3 in S&P+. The offense, however, was 65th.
It’s safe to say the Hokies would have beaten BC in the regular season, had they replaced Sean Glennon with Newton, who was huge even at age 18. But there is also the September loss to eventual champion LSU. I doubt a true freshman in his first power-conference game goes into Tiger Stadium and makes up for 41 points.
Still, 2007 being the crazy year that it was, a 12-1 Virginia Tech probably would have been #2 ahead of two-loss LSU, meaning a chance to play for the title against Ohio State. And Cam’s VT could have won.
The 2008 Hokies lost four games, and while they probably would have been undefeated going into the final BCS rankings if they had Newton (those losses were by an average of five points), Virginia Tech isn’t likely outranking or beating the Gators or Sooners.
Likely ditto for 2009, in which a loaded Alabama took the crown.
Either version of Cam goes to Oklahoma, also by Jason
Regular Cam would start as a 2009 junior over Landry Jones. Those Sooners lost four one-score games, and without those, might’ve snuck into the BCS Championship (or just ruined Texas’ shot).
In 2010, JUCO Newton might need to fix two multi-score losses in order to make the title game. Or maybe not — OU was already the top two-loss team in a year that would’ve had only one undefeated power.
JUCO Cam goes to North Carolina, by Richard Johnson
Coming out of Blinn, Newton didn’t give UNC a visit even though the Tar Heels reportedly offered him, but I wish he had. Yeah, they went 8-5, but give them three Cam touchdowns, and they’re 11-2.
This team had an absolute bevy of talent ... that didn’t play. Nine players got drafted. Three — Robert Quinn, Marvin Austin, and Greg Little — missed the season due to NCAA sanctions, and fourth-round safety Da’Norris Searcy was among those missing the first three games, two of which were close losses.
Throw caution to the wind. Find a way to bring Cam to the state a year before the Panthers draft him. Let the NCAA snoop around if they wish. Just do it and be legends, man.
I think Cam’s the most Wins Above Replacement player in recent history (nobody actually calculate this, just roll with me). Just seeing how far Newton could take that UNC team without all that other talent isn’t enough. The Heels should have created one of the most cheating-ass (allegedly) teams ever, thrown caution to the wind, and played all their suspended talent in addition to Cam. This would have been one of the best teams money could (allegedly) buy.
They probably woulda sanctioned the Heels into oblivion, but vacated wins still happened, whether the NCAA recognizes them or not.
Maybe UNC coulda done a Hail Mary against the NCAA, sort of like saying non-athletes also enjoy the athletes’ impermissible benefits, and therefore everything’s ok. It’s so crazy, it just might work.
JUCO Cam goes to Ole Miss or Kansas State, also by Jason
IRL 2010 Auburn ranked 44th in Defensive S&P+. So perhaps any other 2010 team with a middling defense likewise could’ve won it all, if it’d had Newton.
But let’s say Ole Miss (#75) and Kansas State (#64) probably couldn’t have won it, even with Cam. Only “probably” instead of “definitely,” because Cam Newton.
High school Cam goes to Arizona, also by Spencer
Let’s get WEIRD. Let’s pair him with a disciple of Mike Leach’s air raid and see if Newton can get used to throwing 50 times a game. Let’s see if Sonny Dykes will build in some run plays. (He won’t, but this is an exercise.)
Let’s put Newton on a team where he likely beats out Willie Tuitama as starter, then spends his career slinging desperate passes in 49-47 losses in the middle of the night.
Let’s see if Newton can singlehandedly extend the career of Mike Stoops. Let’s grant that it might be possible because Newton was good enough to get a championship for Chizik.
Let’s remember Newton did that in a conference with defensive linemen the size of prize cattle. Let’s think about what the slighter competition in the Pac-12 (perhaps Oregon excepted) would do against Cam.
Let’s laugh. Oh, let’s all laugh for a minute at this visual.
Let’s imagine Newton, an indestructible tree of a quarterback, throwing downfield with two pass rushers clinging to his ankles and hitting a 2007 or 2008 Wildcats receiver in the hands.
Let’s imagine the splendor of that receiver, a young Rob Gronkowski, catching that Newton pass. Let’s see him shed three tacklers and carry another into the end zone, and let’s imagine the two celebrating by leaping into each other. Let’s imagine the sonic boom from that collision shaking the stands and the lawsuits from the hearing loss inflicted on bystanders.
Let’s imagine huge roommates Newton and Gronk having to live in a giant desert barn. Let’s imagine the University of Arizona going broke, trying to feed the two players responsible for the most dynamic team in Wildcat history.
Let’s assume that they go 8-4.
Cam stays at Florida, once again by Spencer
The simplest logistics. All Cam’s stuff is in Gainesville already, and Cam, like everyone else, hates moving. He stays for 2009, backing up Tim Tebow while suffering no fallout from 2008’s incident involving a stolen laptop. Note: Given what we all know now about the 2008-2009 Gators, this really does seem like the smallest of crimes.
Cam sees limited action. However, after Tebow is briefly hospitalized following the Kentucky game, Newton is named the starter for a pivotal conference matchup at LSU.
In this timeline, Newton is a revelation in his first start. As a superior runner and reader of the option, Newton slashes through the LSU defense for 180 yards. (Forgotten fact: While Tebow was a great power runner, he was not always the best at option reads.) As a passer, Newton chips in another 140 yards and a long TD to Riley Cooper.
(Did you forget Cooper was on these teams too? That Riley Cooper? Like I said, in retrospect, a sketchy laptop has nothing on the larger mess of aught-nine Florida.)
Urban Meyer, faced with a quarterback controversy on top of his mounting stress issues, allows Tebow back as starter. Newton fumes, but with Tebow entrenched, Cam stays for one last shot in 2010.
Florida wins the 2010 title easily, behind one of the most productive QB seasons ever. Meyer, re-energized by Newton, stays in Gainesville and announces his return for 2011. After a flirtation with disaster, things appear to be on the right track.
In 2011, Meyer names John Brantley his starter as everything falls apart anyway.