Last year's three lowest quarterback ratings from Auburn's twelve contests resulted in all three losses on the season.
There is no single position more vital to the success of an offense than the quarterback. Yes, it's true the quarterback often receives too much credit when a team wins and too much of the responsibility when it loses, but the quarterback remains the heart and soul of any offense.
In 1984, Auburn had to replace Randy Campbell, and dropped from 11-1 to 9-4. In 1998, Auburn went from 10-3 to 3-8 mainly because of instability at the quarterback position. The same could be said with the departure of Ben Leard after the 2000 campaign.
Seldom does any team completely overcome the loss of a quality quarterback and Auburn experienced a few growing pains last season. For the most part, Brandon Cox had a good season as a first-time starter, but there is room for improvement. With a full season under his belt, Cox should be all the more comfortable directing the offense in 2006. With a solid offensive line and great depth at running back, it should lessen the blow of replacing three starting wide receivers.
Last season, Auburn's starting quarterback posted a higher quarterback rating than what its opponent had allowed in nine of 12 games. For example, Cox posted a 197.6 rating against Mississippi State while the Bulldogs permitted a rating of 147.6 during the course of the entire season. In the three games Auburn was held to under the opponent's average rating allowed, Auburn was 0-3 on the season.
Georgia Tech--112.11 rating against 112.28 allowed
LSU--94.66 rating against 96.26 allowed
Wisconsin--84.27 rating against 119.63 allowed
The Capital One Bowl against Wisconsin was Cox's worst game of the season. After making several critical plays against Georgia and Alabama, it was disappointing to see Cox struggle against an average Badger defense.
*Auburn is 41-10-0 against Division I-A opponents with a winning record when Auburn amasses a 140.0 pass rating or better. *During the same time frame and against D-I opponents with a winning record, Auburn is 35-8-0 when the Tigers complete 60 percent of their passes for at least 7.5 yards per pass attempt.
*Auburn is 24-2-0 when it rushes for at least 150-yards combined with a pass rating of 130 or better against a "quality" opponent.
*Four of the top 25 passing performances against a D-I opponent with a winning record came during the 2004 season. Brandon Cox posted the 26th and 27th best performances since 1969.
Last season Auburn's pass completion percentage dropped from 69 percent to 58 percent despite the fact Cox was the most accurate passer in Alabama high school history. Auburn's pass attempt average also dropped from 10-yards per attempt to just 7.64. These numbers alone are one of the main reasons why Auburn dropped three games in 2005. Keeping things in perspective, Cox was a first-year starter and his numbers should improve with more experience.
One of the reasons why Auburn's pass completion percentage plummeted last year was a redistribution of the ball. During the 2004 season, Auburn's running backs caught 29 percent of the passes. Last season, that percentage dropped to 19 percent as the running backs were not utilized as often in the passing game. Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown combined for 55 receptions compared to the 17 hauled in by the combination of Kenny Irons and Brad Lester. Offensive coordinator Al Borges elected to rely more on his senior leadership from his wide receiver position after losing two senior running backs from 2004.
Al Borges has directed the Auburn offense the past two seasons.
Expect Borges to flip-flop back to his running backs in 2006, deploying Irons and Lester in the same fashion he did with Williams and Brown. Last season, Auburn's running backs averaged 11.6 yards per reception, which was the third best at Auburn over the past 20 seasons so the potential is there for the running backs to be very productive in the passing game.
If Auburn can stretch the field with its receivers, the running backs can fill the gaps in the short passing game. Over the last 20 years, the four Auburn teams that were able to average over 15 yards per reception at wide receiver and completed at least 25 percent of their passes to the running backs combined for a 43-3-2 record. This included the 1987, 1989, 1993 and 2004 squads, which totaled a 146.2 pass rating.
Making use of the backs more often in the passing game will increase Cox's completion percentage, which will in turn increase his average per pass attempt, resulting in a higher quarterback rating. It would be great to improve on his deep balls, too, but Cox must play within his limits and execute within the system. Just as a place-kicker is more accurate at a closer range, Cox is more efficient from the short to medium range. Borges has proven he will scheme to get the ball in the hands of the "playmakers" and Auburn's running backs should prove to be just that in 2006.
The tight end position should not be overlooked in 2006 with the addition of Tommy Trott to the offense along with the return a bigger and stronger version of Cole Bennett. Trott has good speed for a big man and just might have the best set of hands on the team.
During the Terry Bowden era, the tight end accounted for only seven percent of the receptions. Borges only used the tight ends nine percent of the time in 2004 while increasing their production to 15 percent in 2005. Once again, increasing the production of the running backs and tight ends in 2006 will take some of the burden off the inexperienced receivers.
Borges received his introduction to the "West Coast" offense from the man many consider the father of the "West Coast" offense, Bill Walsh. Walsh was a master at adjusting his offense to fit the strength of his skilled players. During the 1981 season, Walsh did not have a game breaker at running back or speed at the wide receiver position. He chose to spread the ball around in his backfield, with his backs accounting for 40 percent of the team's receptions. The receivers caught 47 percent and the tight ends had the remaining 13 percent. A young Joe Montana directed a very efficient passing game, which did not require the long ball in their arsenal.
Odds are, Auburn receivers will not fall under 55 percent this season, but the backs and tight ends could end up with 40-45 percent of the receptions this year. Unless someone other than Courtney Taylor or Prechae Rodriguez steps up at wide receivers, Cox will become more reliant on his running backs and tight ends.
With Auburn possessing one of the best running games in the Southeastern Conference, the passing game needs only to be efficient and not necessarily explosive. Since 2002, of the 76 pass plays of 30 yards or more, 34 percent (26) have come from the running back or tight end positions. That's fairly impressive when you consider both positions have only accounted for only 35 percent of Auburn's receptions. Bottom line, the receivers are breaking a big play every 10th reception and the backs and tight ends are breaking one every 11th reception.