The framed Golf Digest cover hangs on Tommy Tuberville's office wall, depicting the Auburn coach running off the field in euphoria after the Sugar Bowl and waving his index finger in the air. "Golf Digest was one of the few publications that actually named us Number 1 last season," says Tuberville, laughing, as he looks at the fake magazine cover. "We had a perfect season, 13--0. Four of our guys got drafted in the first round. But you know what? Top to bottom, this year's team is just as talented. Honestly. We just need a few young players to step up, especially our quarterback."
No player is under more pressure on the Plains this season than redshirt sophomore Brandon Cox, who replaces 2004 SEC Player of the Year Jason Campbell under center. Though he has attempted only 22 passes in his college career, Cox has been one of the most-talked-about players on sports radio in Alabama for the past three years. Playing in a spread offense at Hewitt-Trussville High, he set a state record with a career completion rate of 68.7%, throwing for a total of 5,417 yards. Cox chose Auburn over dozens of other colleges, but he left school after three weeks on campus in the summer of 2002. Though he didn't disclose it at the time, he was suffering from myasthenia gravis, a muscle disorder that made him weak. "It was scary," says Cox. "I had no energy and double vision, which makes it pretty hard to play football. But it's under control now."
After recuperating at home (rest is the best treatment) and working part time in his father's carpet store in Birmingham for a few months, Cox returned to school and rejoined the team in December '02. His arm isn't as strong as Campbell's, but the lefty has impressed during the summer with his accuracy in seven-on-seven drills. "Brandon has got an amazing ability to thread the needle," says tight end Cooper Wallace. "You just have to shake your head at some of his throws. He's worked hard this summer, and he's regained the trust and confidence of this team. He's our guy."
Cox won't have the luxury of slowly settling into the starting job. Auburn opens the season at home against blitz-happy Georgia Tech, a team that beat the Tigers 17--3 in their last meeting, in 2001. But if the Tigers can get past that game, they should be 6--0 when they travel to Baton Rouge to face LSU on Oct. 22.
"Brandon doesn't need to win games for us at the start, he just needs not to lose games," says Tuberville. "Our first five games are at home, so at least he'll be in friendly confines. If Brandon can put it all together, he's got the potential to be an all-conference type of player. I feel good about where he can take us." --L.A.
2004 RECORD 13--0 (8--0, 1st in SEC West)
FINAL AP RANK 2
RETURNING STARTERS 12
KEY RETURNEES (2004 stats)
T Marcus McNeill (Sr.) Decided to forgo NFL draft for senior year
LB Travis Williams (Sr.) Led defense with 80 total, 58 solo tackles
WR Courtney Taylor (Jr.) 111 receiving yards in SEC title game
RB Tre Smith (Jr.) Leads a group trying to fill running-back hole
Points per game allowed by the Tigers last season, fewest in the nation. Second-rated Virginia Tech yielded 12.8.
How good is defensive end Stanley McClover? Auburn tackle Marcus McNeill, arguably the nation's top offensive lineman, regularly gets whipped in practice by this 6'2", 247-pound speed rusher. Though often double teamed, McClover led the Tigers in sacks (71/2) and tackles for loss (10) while playing mostly in passing situations. As a junior, McClover will play all downs.
Sept. 3 GEORGIA TECH
20 MISSISSIPPI STATE
17 BALL STATE
24 WESTERN KENTUCKY
Oct. 1 SOUTH CAROLINA
15 at Arkansas
22 at LSU
Nov. 5 at Kentucky
12 at Georgia
ON THE BALL
He's no gunner, but Cox's accuracy has impressed Tigers receivers.