AP Sports Writer
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn knows the luxury of having that rare quarterback who can take over games and abuse defenses with his arm or his feet.
For Malzahn, it was Cam Newton, an electrifying Heisman Trophy winner who led the 24th-ranked Tigers to the 2010 national championship. The new and maybe even improved version of Newton is No. 7 Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, an equally dazzling Heisman winner trying to lead the Aggies to a win over Auburn on Saturday.
"I would say probably those two are probably two of the best that ever played the game in college football," said Malzahn, who was Newton’s offensive coordinator.
"We only got to see Cam Newton for one year, but this guy, he’s in the same element. They’re different but they’re still some of the best to ever play."
Both quarterbacks were seemingly unstoppable forces in No. 2 jerseys, putting up crazy numbers in fast-paced SEC West offenses.
For his part, Newton is a fan of Manziel and other athletic college quarterbacks, and not just for their physical gifts.
"Johnny is a great football player and he’s playing at a level that people don’t even really see, as well as Clemson’s Tajh Boyd," the Carolina Panthers’ quarterback said. "There are a lot of players across the nation that are playing great football at the quarterback position. The Oregon quarterback (Marcus Mariota). I’m a fan of football at the NFL level too, and who’s playing better football anywhere besides Peyton Manning right now?
"When you look across the board and me being a fan of the game it’s all about confidence. When you get a person playing with confidence who knows what they’re capable of? That goes to show you, when I was at Auburn I played with confidence."
Newton, of course, said he thinks Auburn will win the game. Asked if he voted for Manziel for the Heisman, he responded: "War Eagle."
Besides Newton, Manziel and ex-Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, Colin Kaepernick is the only other FBS quarterback to post 20 touchdowns both rushing and passing in the same season.
Those kind of players let coordinators expand their playbooks, and throw them out the window when improvisational magic better serves.
"When you’ve got a special player, you can call anything and it usually works," Malzahn said. "They get you out of bad plays and they can make stuff right that’s not right. Special ones can do that."
Newton set a Southeastern Conference record with 4,370 yards of total offense in the junior college transfer’s lone season at Auburn. He passed for 2,908 yards and 30 touchdowns against seven interceptions. Newton also ran for 1,586 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Manziel trounced Newton’s SEC total offense mark as a redshirt freshman with 5,116 yards. He passed for 3,706 yards and 26 touchdowns while getting intercepted nine times. Manziel also racked up 1,410 yards and 21 touchdowns on the ground.
Manziel’s putting up huge numbers again as the SEC’s top passer and No. 10 rusher and directing one of the nation’s most prolific offenses.
Even Newton’s former position coach marvels at Manziel’s stats and the intangibles.
"It’s almost like watching a video game sometimes with the stuff he does," Malzahn said. "The human side, his competitiveness, his toughness, that’s what really stands out to me. He’s an extremely mentally and physically tough individual and he plays with that edge."
The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Newton and 6-1, 210-pound Manziel have different styles but both confounded college defensive coordinators.
"When I was getting recruited, Cam was Cam. He’s a Superman," Auburn tailback Tre Mason said. "I see Johnny making those plays and we’re just looking forward to stopping him and winning this game."
The Tigers have vaulted from 66th nationally in scoring defense last season to 21st under first-year defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson.
Johnson’s South Carolina defense in 2010 happened to be the victims of perhaps Newton’s breakthrough game. He passed for 158 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 176 yards and three more scores in a come-from-behind win over the Gamecocks.
Now, Johnson is trying to stop another hurry-up, no-huddle offense led by a dynamic quarterback.
"The problem with these offenses is, when you get great players in them, it’s like the Wishbones of the 70’s that used to put up 70 points," he said. "You can’t stop them. You’ve got to find a way to disrupt them."
AP Sports Writer Steve Reed in Charlotte, N.C., contributed to this report.