As Auburn enters its 10th season under the direction of Coach Tommy Tuberville, the program appears to be in as good of shape as it has been since the late 1980s under Coach Pat Dye. The Tigers have talent and quality depth at a variety of positions, but having to replace a veteran quarterback can often lead to a turbulent season. Making the situation especially unpredictable for the Tigers this year is that they have a new offensive coordinator, too.
Tony Franklin has installed his version of the spread offense, which will bring about a very different look when Auburn has the football. The majority of successful seasons in Auburn history have been associated with a strong running game and great defense.
As frequently as Franklin's past offenses have thrown the football, several passing records could be in jeopardy this season. If that happens the irony is that a new starting quarterback, or a combination of two quarterbacks, would be responsible for rewriting the record book. No matter what, if any, records are broken, the fan base will be more interested in seeing their team score points and finish on the winning side of the scoreboard.
Tony Franklin's offense will be closely watched this seeason.
During the 1950 season, William Tucker became Auburn's starting quarterback, replacing three-year starter Travis Tidwell. Auburn failed to register a single victory that fall, posting an 0-10 record. Tucker would be the first of 18 Auburn quarterbacks to replace a two-year starter over the last six decades. The most recent is now graduated three-year starter Brandon Cox. In 2005 he directed Auburn to a 9-3 season after replacing Jason Campbell.
Campbell also makes the list of 18 Auburn QBs. He replaced Ben Leard in 2001. Campbell shared the starting role with Daniel Cobb as Auburn went 7-5 that season. The combined record of the 18 quarterbacks is 136-65-3, which includes Southeastern Conference titles in 1957 and 1988. In 1957 Lloyd Nix replaced two-year starter, Howell Tubbs, leading Auburn to the national championship. In 1988 Reggie Slack replaced two-year starter Jeff Burger, leading Auburn to a 10-2 record and an SEC title.
During the 18 seasons Auburn had to replace a veteran starter at quarterback, the Tigers compiled a winning percentage of .674, which includes three losing seasons and six seasons of four or more losses. However, there were memorable seasons when Auburn replaced a veteran quarterback. In 1972 Randy Walls took over for Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan and Auburn finished the season with a 10-1 record and a final ranking of No. 5 in the Associated Press Poll. Burger directed Auburn to a 10-2 record in 1986 and a final ranking of No. 6 by Associated Press after taking over as the starting QB.
Though replacing a veteran quarterback can be arduous, having experienced players surrounding the new starter can make the transition smoother. Of the past 18 years Auburn replaced a veteran QB, eight came during seasons in which Auburn had a returning starter at running back. During those seasons, Auburn compiled a winning percentage of .761. This consisted of only one losing season and only two seasons with four or more losses.
In 1955 Fob James averaged better than seven yards per carry, totaling 879 yards rushing on the season. Auburn finished the year with an 8-2-1 record with Tubbs at quarterback. In 1988 Auburn won the Southeastern Conference with Slack as a new starting quarterback. Running backs Stacy Danley and James Joseph combined for more than 1,500 yards rushing that year supported by the No. 1 defense in the nation.
In 1972 Auburn was expected to slip with the exodus of Sullivan, but fans witnessed one of the finest coaching performances in the history of the program. Coach Shug Jordan kept it simple on offense with Walls at quarterback backed by a strong defense and kicking game. Terry Henley led all Auburn backs with 843 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns, aiding Auburn's 10-1 season. In 1957 Nix struggled at times as Auburn's new starting quarterback, but the Tigers still managed to capture a national championship with one of the best defenses of that era leading the way.
During the 10 seasons Auburn shuffled in a new starting quarterback without a returning starter at running back, the Tigers compiled a winning percentage of .594. Half of the those seasons resulted in four losses or more. Coach Terry Bowden's final year at Auburn fell into this category as the 1998 Tigers struggled to a 3-8 mark without a returning starter at quarterback or running back.
Campbell and Cobb struggled through a 7-5 campaign in 2001, replacing two-year starter Leard. Auburn's running game that season slipped to just 141 yards per game, magnifying the mistakes made at the quarterback position.
In 1977 John Crane replaced three-year starter Phil Gargis as Auburn posted a 5-6 record. Auburn's passing game was dismal, tossing 13 picks and only three touchdowns during the team's six losses.
Even without experienced running backs, it hasn't always been a struggle to replace a veteran QB. Burger directed Auburn to a 10-2 season in 1986 and Patrick Nix led Auburn to a 9-1-1 record in 1994. It certainly helped that the new starting running backs during those seasons were no slouches. Brent Fullwood became an All-American in 1986 and Stephen Davis made All-SEC in 1994. Both played in the NFL.
It's not clear who will win the starting job at quarterback for this year's Auburn team and there is a possibility that the Tigers will use both Kodi Burns and Chris Todd to pull the trigger. Whoever is in the game will have the luxury of sharing the backfield with running backs Ben Tate and Brad Lester. That pair has combined for 2,651 yards and 25 touchdowns on the ground. The spread offense should take advantage of the abilities of both backs, especially Lester.
Also in the running game mix is Tristan Davis, giving Auburn big-play potential to go along with the return of the leading receiver from 2007, Rodgeriqus Smith. Tight end Tommy Trott is expected to produce big numbers from the "Y" position. Mario Fannin, who can line up at several positions, is another big-play threat.
Though the Tigers will likely pass the football more often this season, Tuberville will expect a reliable running game. During the current decade, Auburn is 33-7 when the Tigers average better than 4.5 yards per carry and 21-4 with more than 5.0 yards per rush. Tate and Lester should be able to reach those numbers with a combined career average of 4.9 yards per rush.
Franklin says that the goal for his quarterbacks is to complete 65 percent of their passes for at least 7.5 yards per attempt. During the Tuberville Era, Auburn is 33-3 when the Tigers reach those two numbers.
With a new starting quarterback and a new offensive coordinator, Auburn fans should expect a few growing pains. The Tigers are hoping their running game will take some of the pressure off the quarterback.
Senior Brad Lester is expected to be a big part of the offense this season as a runner and receiver.
Despite Troy's propensity to throw the football in 2007 with Franklin calling the plays, the Trojans were still 35th in the nation in rushing, which was higher than Auburn's 53rd ranking, so any expectations that the Tigers are going to be primarily a passing team are likely to be wrong.
The numbers show that based on Auburn's past history there is reason to be concerned about a quarterback transition, but they also show there are other reasons to be optimistic. The QBs are talented, there is a reliable supporting cast returning and the early evidence is that the players are excited about their new system.
Combine that with Auburn's success with the new offense during a trial run in the bowl game, plus Franklin's record of being involved with productive offenses, and there are reasons to believe that despite the loss of a three-year starter at quarterback the Tigers can be improved on offense this year.