It's those special moments in the arena against a worthy opponent which will be long remembered and the failures soon forgotten. No other player on the field receives the same level of praise and criticism as the quarterback. When young boys hold a football for the first time, they normally dream of throwing the game winning touchdown. For those fortunate enough to venture into the world of organized football, the pressure continues to increase at each level they compete.
In terms of football, Auburn is recognized nationally as a running back factory, but Auburn has fielded four All-Southeastern Conference quarterbacks since 1971. The next time you visit Jordan-Hare to watch Auburn play, look around the bleachers and count the number of Brandon Cox or Jason Campbell jerseys in the stands. Auburn is no different from any other university in the sense that great quarterbacks are idolized for their accomplishments on the field.
Over the last 20 years there have been some great individual performances by Auburn quarterbacks against "worthy" competition. In 1986, Pat Dye elected to open up the offense and Jeff Burger became the first "passing" quarterback under Pat Dye. Not since the Pat Sullivan era had Auburn seen a more balanced attack back on the Plains. Jeff Burger would start a long streak of success at the quarterback position, which thrives today under the leadership of Cox.
Based on each Auburn quarterback's rating, here are the Top 10 performances against an opponent with at least an 8-4 record:
Ben Leard 1999, Georgia (8-4-0): 24-32-0, 416 yards, 4 TDs/225.4 rating
Patrick Nix 1994, Mississippi State (8-4-0): 16-23-1, 311 yards, 3TD/217.5 rating
Pat Sullivan 1971, Georgia (11-1-0): 14-24-0-248 yards, 4TDs /200.1 rating
Jason Campbell 2004, Tennessee (10-3-0): 27-35-1, 374 yards, 3TDs/189.5 rating
Jason Campbell 2004, Tennessee (10-3-0): 16-23-1-252 yards, 2TDs/181.6 rating
Dameyune Craig 1997, Louisiana Tech (9-2-0): 20-32-3-355 yards, 4 TDs/178.2 rating
Pat Sullivan 1970, Georgia Tech (9-3-0): 16-29-1,312 yards, 3TDs/172.8 rating
Reggie Slack 1988, Southern Mississippi (10-2-0): 14-23-1, 272 yards, 1 TD/165.9 rating
Jason Campbell 2004, Georgia (10-2-0): 18-22-1-189 yards, 1TD/159.9 rating
Ben Leard's 1999 performance against the University of Georgia was a coming home party and was truly an outstanding performance when you consider the fact Auburn had no running game in 1999. Though Pat Sullivan's 1971 performance against Georgia is third on the list, it has to be the best quarterback performance in school history based on the fact Georgia was undefeated entering the contest. Sully's four touchdown passes on the road in Athens wrapped up the 1971 Heisman trophy.
Jason Campbell is the only quarterback to make three appearances in the Top 10 list, which is a strong indicator of his success and to his offensive coordinator, Al Borges. On a side note, Brandon Cox did make the Top 20 list twice with his 145.3 rating against Alabama (No. 13) and his 133.7 rating against Georgia (No. 20). Of the top 20 performances by an Auburn quarterback, seven of them came against the Georgia Bulldogs.
Looking back at Auburn's starting quarterbacks since 1986 and the Pat Sullivan era, here are the highest quarterback ratings against all Division 1A opponents with a winning record during the course of an entire season.
Jason Campbell 2004, 88-123-4-1, 174 yards, 8 TDs/166.7 rating
Ben Leard 1999, 85-115-1, 960 yards, 8 TDs/165.3 rating
Pat Sullivan 1970, 86-139-6-1, 385 yards, 10 TDs/ 160.7 rating
Patrick Nix 1994, 100-173-3, 1,342yards, 8TDs/ 134.8 rating
Jason Campbell 2002, 64-108-4, 756 yards, 6TDs/ 129.0 rating
Dameyune Craig 1997, 138-266-9, 2,140yards, 13TDs/128.8 rating
Reggie Slack 1989, 74-133-4, 1,053yards, 4TDs/ 126.1 rating
Jeff Burger 1987, 87-133-7, 930 yards, 5 TDs /126.0 rating
Jason Campbell 2001, 49-79-3, 577 yards, 2TDs/ 124.1 rating
Patrick Nix 1995, 124-221-6, 1,538 yards, 8TD/ 121.1 rating
Jason Campbell tops the list while making three appearances in the Top 10. If not for the departure of Bobby Petrino after the 2002 season, Campbell would have more than likely made the Top 10 list four times. His 2003 rating was No. 16 on the list. Cox finished at No. 13 on the list based on his 2005 performance against "quality" opponents.
Ben Leard was red-hot before being injured during the 1999 campaign. Had he remained healthy all season, Auburn probably would have finished with a 7-4 record rather than its 5-6 finish. His statistics don't include the huge numbers he put up against LSU on the road that season.
Interesting enough, Pat Sullivan cracked the Top 10 lists only once and his 1970 season was statistically better than his 1971 Heisman season. Putting things in perspective, the passing game is far more advanced now than during the 1970's and a better supporting staff now surrounds the quarterback position. Jason Campbell might hold the better quarterback rating, but Sullivan had the better touchdown to interception ratio and a higher average per pass attempt against quality opponents. If it were possible to put Pat Sullivan in the 2004 backfield under Coach Al Borges, Sullivan would have certainly lit up the scoreboard.
Ben Leard (1999) and Dameyune Craig (1997) were basically one-man shows on offense and their appearances at No. 2 and No. 6 on the Top 10 seasonal list is definitely a major accomplishment. Their styles were completely opposite, but they both got the job done. Leard was more of a precision passer, taking what the defense allowed, while relying on a high-percentage passing scheme. Dameyune Craig was a "play maker" and Auburn counted on his ability to make something out of nothing. One can only imagine what goals they could have obtained had they been blessed with a better supporting cast in the backfield.
Quarterback ratings can be misleading at times in terms of measuring the worth of an individual player. Overall, Sullivan never had a high QB rating as he's currently sixth among Auburn's "passing" quarterbacks. No other Auburn quarterback has thrown for a touchdown as frequently as Sullivan, which was one every 15.4 pass attempts. Sullivan is also second all time since 1969 in terms of yards per pass completion (13.9 yards). Sullivan also connected on at least two touchdown passes in 17 of his 30 regular season starts. Campbell was extremely efficient during the 2004 season, but his ability to audible Auburn into the right play never showed up in his overall numbers. Craig was a very emotional leader on the field and he had the presence of making everyone around him believe they could beat anyone.
Sometimes it's not just about throwing for 300 yards, but it's about making the right play at a critical moment of the game. Cox only passed for 118 yards against Alabama in 2005, but he made several critical completions during the game which resulted in touchdown drives. The same can be said about Reggie Slack during the 1989 Alabama game. Slack never threw a TD pass during the game, but he did account for 274 yards through the air and hit two critical deep passes during the contest. Even Randy Campbell operating out of the wishbone offense was called upon in several crucial games of the 1983 season. He passed for three touchdowns against Florida State and completed 12 of 15 passes against Georgia.
As the 2006 season approaches, Cox will be forwarded the opportunity to make his mark in Auburn football lore. He already has established several golden moments with his fourth-down completion against Georgia and his two-touchdown passing performance against Alabama. You can bet that if Auburn posts another 10-win season in 2006, Cox will have played a major role in Auburn's success. Cox enters his third season under Borges and his recognition of opposing defenses should be refined. Sometimes the quarterback has to step up and make the right decision and from the comments made by Borges coming out of spring practice, Cox is ready to take the bull by the horns.