Auburn preview

There will be stiff competition in the Southeastern Conference's Western Division this football season – five teams battling for second place behind LSU – and Auburn should be right in the middle of the skirmish.

Tommy Tuberville's Tigers should be stronger at quarterback now that Brandon Cox has recovered from his injury-plagued 2006 season. Cox was brilliant in spring scrimmages, completing 52 of 89 passes for 836 yards with 7 touchdowns and zero interceptions. He isn't as gifted as Tennessee's Erik Ainge or Kentucky's Andre Woodson but Cox is a very solid QB when healthy.

Auburn has done a fantastic job recruiting and developing tailbacks in recent years – Cadillac Williams, Ronnie Brown, Kenny Irons – and it's a safe bet the Tigers will have a 1,000-yard rusher again this season. Most likely it will be flashy redshirt freshman Mario Fanin, who rushed for 304 yards on 38 carries (8.0 per carry) in the spring. Junior Brad Lester and sophomore Ben Tate had their moments as backups to Irons last fall.

Go-to receiver Courtney Taylor is out of eligibility but Rod Smith and Robert Dunn are capable pass catchers. Smith averaged an eye-popping 22.4 yards per catch (313 yards on 14 receptions) in Auburn's spring scrimmages. Montez Billings, another redshirt freshman, also could make a mark in 2007.

Auburn generally fields one of the SEC's better offensive lines but that may be difficult this fall. Gone are four of the five 2006 starters, including first-round NFL Draft pick Ben Grubbs. Left tackle King Dunlap is the only returning starter.

Defensively, first-team ends Quentin Groves (9½ sacks) and Sen'Derrick Marks (10½ tackles for loss) are being pushed by Michael Goggans, who was Defensive MVP of the spring game. (Tennessee fans may recall that Goggans originally committed to the Vols two years ago before opting for Auburn). The Tigers also return veteran tackles Josh Thompson and Pat Sims from 2006.

One of Auburn's defensive keys is Tray Blackmon, a talented but troubled linebacker who has been suspended several times due to off-field problems.

The Tigers must retool their kicking game after losing All-SEC kicker John Vaughn, who made 20 of 24 field-goal tries in 2006, and punter Kody Bliss, who averaged 45.7 yards per kick last fall.

Ross Gornall, Vaughn's successor, made 9 of 11 field-goal tries in spring scrimmages but missed a 42-yard field goal and a PAT in the spring game. Redshirt freshman Ryan Shoemaker is the front-runner to assume Bliss' job.


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