RALPH D. RUSSO, AP College Football Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — Cam Newton was on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy — until about a week ago.
Now the Auburn quarterback is facing allegations that he and his family sought money for him to play at Mississippi State and that he cheated on his school work while a student at Florida.
Just two months after Reggie Bush returned his Heisman, voters for college football’s most famous player of the year award have more than yards and touchdowns to consider.
There is no denying Newton’s worthiness as a player.
He has performed spectacularly, transforming No. 2 Auburn into a national championship contender. The 6-foot-6, 250-pound junior is 10th in the nation in rushing (114 yards per game), second in passer rating (182.8) and has accounted for 35 touchdowns.
By Dec. 6, about 925 Heisman voters nationwide will be asked to submit a ballot with three players listed. First-place votes are worth three points, second-place two and third-place one.
Most of the voters are media members who cover college football. Previous Heisman winners also get to vote.
Nineteen of 23 voters reached by the AP on Wednesday said they will judge Newton like any contender unless he is found to have broken rules and been declared ineligible by the NCAA.
“If Cam Newton is eligible to play in games at the time my Heisman ballot is due it won’t affect how I vote,” said Tom Keegan of the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal World. “If serious allegations later are proven true, then they can always take the award back from him. There is time for this to change, but at the moment, the race for the Heisman is a race for second place. He’s the best player in college football.”
Four voters said allegations alone could be enough to dissuade them from putting Newton on their ballot.
“I have very serious concerns about what I’m hearing,” said Bill Cole of the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal. “At this point, I can’t envision voting for him. One Reggie Bush tainting the Heisman is enough.”
Bush won the Heisman in 2005. The NCAA later determined he and his family received improper benefits and ruled the Southern California star tailback ineligible for the ’05 season.
The Heisman ballot states: “The recipients must be in compliance with the bylaws defining an NCAA student athlete.”
As the Heisman Trust considered whether to take Bush’s Heisman away, he gave it back in September and the ’05 award was left vacant.
The NCAA is reviewing Newton’s recruitment, but Auburn has not received a letter of inquiry, a person told the AP last week on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to comment publicly.
Newton started his college career at Florida and was Tim Tebow’s backup as a freshman in 2007. He was arrested in November 2008 in Gainesville. Campus police said he stole a $1,700 laptop then threw it out his dormitory window when officers arrived to investigate. The charges were dropped last December when he completed a pretrial intervention program for first-time offenders. Newton has said he bought the stolen computer from someone else.
He left Florida in 2009 and landed at Blinn College, a junior college in Texas. He has said he transferred because he didn’t want to sit behind Tebow another year.
Coming out of Blinn, he was recruited by Mississippi State and former Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen, now the Bulldogs’ head coach. Newton has said he picked Auburn over Mississippi State because his father wanted him to be closer to the family’s Georgia home.
In his first season as a major college starting quarterback, Newton has become the Heisman front-runner.
Chris Huston runs heismanpundit.com and does a weekly straw poll of 13 voters. He has correctly forecast the top-six finishers in the Heisman voting each of the past two seasons.
Newton received 11 first-place votes in this week’s heismanpundit poll, which was compiled before the reports, citing unidentified sources, of academic cheating.
Huston said it’s not surprising that voters are taking an innocent-until-proven-guilty approach.
“The question is: When they’re actually sitting down and thinking about all the ramifications, what will they do then?” he said.
No matter how the story plays out, it will have an effect on the Heisman race, Huston said.
“I don’t think it necessarily knocked him out of the Heisman race, but I think he’s teetering on the edge of hemorrhaging a lot of votes,” Huston said.
Voters will have other viable candidates. LaMichael James of No. 1 Oregon leads the nation in rushing, and Kellen Moore of No. 4 Boise State is the country’s leading passer.
Had there been no accusations of improprieties, and Newton kept playing the way he was playing — and Auburn kept on winning — the Heisman winner would have been a forgone conclusion heading into the Dec. 11 ceremony in New York.
Now, no matter how well Newton plays it might not be enough.
“I hope I’m like the other 900-plus voters who will judge Newton’s merits on the field and allow these off-the-field matters to be resolved, hopefully very soon,” said Kirk Bohls of the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman. “But the ghost of Reggie Bush could haunt Cam’s Heisman chances.”
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.