Brandon Cox will be a key. If Auburn is to build on a 15-game winning streak and win a second consecutive championship, Cox will have to make a little history. Auburn has never won a championship with a quarterback younger than a junior.
Lloyd Nix was a junior in 1957. Randy Campbell was a senior in 1983. Jeff Burger was a senior in 1987. Reggie Slack was a junior in 1988 and a senior in 1989. And Jason Campbell was a senior last season.
Of all those championship-winning quarterbacks, only Campbell and Slack were first-team All-SEC selections. But they had one trait in common. All were magnificent leaders who inspired confidence in their teammates.
Having a big-time player and big-time leader at quarterback doesn't guarantee a championship. Pat Sullivan never won one. Neither did Dameyune Craig. Those two were great players and leaders as strong as any I've been around. Their teammates believed they could do almost anything.
But without a strong leader at quarterback, one who his teammates believe will be at his best in the toughest of times, a championship almost certainly won't happen.
That kind of trust can be earned only on game day. Cox, like any other first-year starting quarterback, still has that job to do. Sometimes it happens quickly. Sometimes it happens slowly.
Campbell's struggles under four different offensive coordinators on a team that was building are well-documented. For him, everything turned last September when he led a last-gasp march to the winning touchdown against LSU, hitting Courtney Taylor with a precision pass on fourth down and again for the touchdown.
Cox will be a sophomore next season, but he's no ordinary sophomore. Some of the players who were in his signing class will be seniors next season.
After a spectacular career at Hewitt-Trussville High School, Cox was one of the gems of Auburn's Class of 2002. He had been named Alabama's Mr. Football and was the most accurate passer in state high school history. But, at Auburn, things went wrong almost from the start.
The left-handed QB is shown in action during a spring scrimmage. Brandon Cox emerged from spring drills as the clear number one quarterback.
As a high school sophomore, Cox had been diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a muscular disorder in which nerves and muscles react against each other. He overcame it then, but it came back at Auburn.
He knew he wasn't big enough or strong enough to play as a freshman and was looking at a redshirt year. Finally, when he wrecked his car near the Wire Road exit on Interstate 85, he couldn't go on. With Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville's blessing, he went home.
"I talked with Coach Tub and decided to just go home and recover, take some time off and get healthy," Cox says. "I was disappointed that it happened and was kind of afraid that I wasn't going to be able to play football. I thought if I played, it would start up again."
Today, Cox shows no signs of those days of despair. He's a strapping 6-foot-2 and 202 pounds. He established himself in spring practice as the clear starter going into next season.
"He's even amazed me, because he's come from so far down to this point," Tuberville says. "The players have confidence in him, and that's the No. 1 thing for a quarterback. They've seen how he's worked. He was on the edge of having to give it up, but football means something to him. That's what his teammates have noticed. He's earned their respect."
Three summers ago, the dream he'd had since he was a little boy seemed to be slipping away. Cox's father, Terry, and his mother, Debbie Bouler, were there to offer support. It wasn't long before the rumors started flying.
"It was unreal, all the stuff that was on the radio and in the papers and everything," Terry Cox says. "It was a different thing every day. I just really tuned it out pretty much. We knew as a family what was going on. He had a lot of stuff going through his mind and needed a little time."
Cox laughs as he remembers the tales friends told him they heard on the radio and read on the Internet.
"I tried to stay away from the Internet and those message boards and things like that," Cox says. "I heard about it from other people. I heard so many different stories. It was kind of funny in a way, people just making up stuff, starting rumors."
In December 2002, Cox rejoined the team and participated in practice for the Capital One Bowl. He was redshirted in the 2003 season and overcame a bout of double-vision caused by his disease.
By January of 2004, attention had turned elsewhere. Cox was seldom mentioned in speculation about future Auburn quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Al Borges joined the staff in February expecting to see Josh Sullivan, the backup as a redshirt freshman in 2003, and redshirt freshman Kelcy Luke fight it out behind Campbell.
But Cox had emerged from the darkness. He'd found the proper level of medication to keep his disease at bay. He'd worked harder than ever in the offseason program. When Sullivan decided the day before the start of spring practice to concentrate on baseball, the door was open.
"I was at the point where I had my head on," Cox says. "I got focused. I knew I had to gain weight and get stronger if I was going to have a chance to compete. Once spring came, I had the opportunity.
"We didn't find out until the first day of practice that Josh wasn't going to be with us. I like Josh and all, but it gave me an opportunity. I focused and tried to learn the offense Coach Borges brought in. I felt really comfortable learning it and just worked hard."
Cox quickly moved ahead of Luke, who left the team after spring practice and transferred to Alabama A&M.
"The first day of spring practice, he wasn't very good," Borges says. "I said, ‘Well, he's about as good as everybody says he is.' It was unbelievable. Every day, he just got better and better. About the third or fourth practice, when we put the pads on, you could see this kid really had a shot at being something special. I'm not sure I've been around a more accurate passer."
It was that accuracy that made Cox a star in high school and caught the attention of college scouts from across the country. From the time he was a little boy, he could throw any kind of ball with uncanny accuracy.
"Since he was five or six years old, I knew he really had something special," Terry Cox says. "You could tell he was more advanced than the other kids. It was just amazing how accurate he was.
"We used to clown around and I'd bet he couldn't hit this or that. I got tired of losing money. Even when he was playing high school ball, he just put the ball right where it needed to be."
It was on a family trip to visit his grandparents in Gulf Shores that Cox encountered what would be the greatest challenge of his young life. He complained about headaches, and later told his father he was having double vision. Tests showed he had myasthenia gravis.
"It's very, very rare for someone his age to have it," Terry Cox says. "He didn't want to come out of his room for a while. His eye was drooping."
The disease normally starts in the small muscles around the eyes and spreads to the rest of the body. In Cox's case, it did not spread.
"It's just a matter of keeping his dosage right on his medicine," Terry Cox says. "The only problem he has is in two-a-days or if it's just blistering hot. He gets a little tireder than the next guy, but it's not something he can't deal with."
Even as he watched him struggle, Terry Cox knew his son wouldn't give up.
"He had the passion for it," Terry Cox says. "I knew it was just going to take a little time. He knew he had put in too much time and effort just to give it up."
Cox knows as well as anyone the difficulty of the task before him. He says his mission is to follow the example Campbell set last season.
"I got some experience learning from him on the field and off the field," Cox says. "He was a leader on and off the field. I learned from that. I have to show my coaches and my teammates I can be that leader"
More than anything else, how well he succeeds in doing that will set the course for Auburn's football team next season.