Cam Newton still remembers the first time he saw Ryan Mallett.
They were attending a Fellowship of Christian Athletes breakfast the week of the 2008 Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Fla.
“I saw this big, tall guy come into the room, and somebody told me who he was,” Newton said. “I’d heard about him, but couldn’t get over how tall he was.”
The 6-6, 250-pound Newton marveling at how big somebody was. No quarterback in the SEC has been bigger from a literal or figurative sense this season than Newton.
The only one close is the guy who’ll be on the opposite sideline Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium – Mallett.
Both are having outstanding seasons. Both are big guys with even bigger arms, and both have brought new life to their respective programs.
There’s also another similarity between the two.
They started their careers elsewhere.
That FCA breakfast Newton was referring to came at the tail end of the 2007 season. Newton was a freshman at Florida and Mallett a freshman at Michigan. The Gators and Wolverines squared off that season in the Capital One Bowl.
By the time that next season ended, both had bolted for other pastures.
“It’s kind of funny,” said Newton, who detoured through junior college before landing at Auburn. “At one point in your life, you feel like you’ve made the best decision you could make. But it’s just like my father told me. Life is one big mystery, and people never know how it’s going to turn out.
“There’s no way either one of us could have imagined that it was going to turn out like this.”
But here they are, the two premier quarterbacks in the SEC going head-to-head in the premier game of the weekend when Auburn and Arkansas clash Saturday afternoon on the Plains.
“Sometimes it doesn't work out exactly like you planned,” said Mallett, who left Michigan after Rich Rodriguez brought his option-oriented offense to Ann Arbor. “I ended up finding the place I needed to be at, and I’m sure Cam feels the same way. We both got it right in the end.”
They’re also both tearing up the SEC, although they’re going about it in different fashions.
Newton, who has the moves of a running back, is the league’s leading rusher. He’s already carried the ball 104 times and has rushed for 672 yards. He has nine rushing touchdowns and toted the ball 28 times last week in Auburn’s 37-34 win against Kentucky.
“He’s a special player,” said Mallett, who also remembers seeing Newton at that Capital One Bowl and thinking initially that he was a tight end or defensive end.
“He’s just so explosive with the way he can run around and make plays. That play he made against Kentucky last week where he was falling out of bounds and threw it back down the field for a big gain … there aren’t too many guys anywhere who can make that play.
“I wish I had wheels like that, but I'll stick to what I do best.”
Newton, who admittedly is a college football junkie when it comes to watching games and highlights, has been equally impressed with Mallett.
The 6-6, 238-pound junior has already thrown for 1,748 yards and 13 touchdowns in five games and is completing nearly 70 percent of his passes.
There’s not a throw he can’t make, and even when he does feel pressure, all it takes with his rocket right arm is a little flick of the wrist to shoot one down the field. He has 47 completions of 15 yards or longer, which ranks second nationally.
“He doesn’t even look like he’s throwing it hard, and then it’s 40 or 50 yards down the field before you know it,” Newton said. “I could sit there and watch him throw the ball all day.”
Newton has yet to taste defeat this season. The Tigers (6-0, 3-0) are unbeaten, and a big reason why is that Newton has made one play after another in the second half to bail them out in close games. He’s also had a little help from an Auburn defense that’s made its share of critical stops.
Mallett, on the other hand, endured a bitter 24-20 loss to Alabama last month, a game in which he threw three interceptions.
This is a chance for him to get back onto that Heisman Trophy stage. But more importantly to him, it’s a chance for the Hogs (4-1, 1-1) to get back into the Western Division race, especially with Alabama going down last week.
“This isn’t me against Cam Newton. It’s Arkansas against Auburn,” Mallett said. “I thought we responded pretty well from that Alabama loss last week against Texas A&M, but there’s a lot of improvement out there for us. We still haven’t put it all together, and that’s what it’s going to take if we’re going to win this division.
“I’m sure everybody in the West feels the same way now, that it’s there for the taking. We’ve just got to go out and do it, go out and perform. You can’t talk about it. You’ve got to do it.”
The question Newton keeps getting is how much more of a pounding can he take and keep going. After all, he’s averaging 17.3 carries per game. That’s a lot for a running back.
But a quarterback … in this league?
“I’m willing to win the football game at all costs, whether that’s me handing the ball off, me throwing the football or me running the football,” said Newton, who’s thrown 12 touchdown passes this season and leads the SEC in passing efficiency (180.7).
“As long as it comes under the win column, I’m all for it.”
The same goes for Mallett, who’s already set or tied 25 school records at Arkansas.
The record he wants most is a first-ever SEC championship for the Hogs.
“Our goals haven’t changed,” Mallett said. “We know what we have to do. I know what I have to do. It’s all about handling our business, and everything else will take care of itself.”