Previewing Auburn: Big O, questions on D

AUBURN -- Southeast Conference beat writers overwhelmingly picked Auburn to win the league title and every major preseason publication has the Tigers in the top 10 nationally. The pundits are on board the AU bandwagon because of returning talent and 22 wins over the last two seasons. But more so because they believe coach Tommy Tuberville is building a legitimate long-term national powerhouse.

With a series of strong recruiting classes, most observers believe Tuberville, entering his seventh season at the helm, is at the point where he simply reloads every year and never rebuilds.

Fans give much of the credit for Auburn's turnaround from a disappointing 2003 season to a magical undefeated 2004 campaign to the hiring of offensive coordinator Al Borges. WSU fans may remember Borges from his late ‘90s stint as offensive coordinator at UCLA when Cade McNown was burning up the passing charts. He also had stints at Cal, Oregon and Indiana before becoming a controversial but ultimately successful hire at Auburn.

Borges' "Gulf Coast Offense" mixes elements of the "spread ‘em out and pick ‘em apart" West Coast passing system with a hard-nosed, "three yards and a cloud of dust" running offense. Expect on Sept. 2 to see multiple shifts before most plays, a variety of formations, running backs lining up in both the backfield and slot positions, and at least one trick play.

As is the case with most offenses, its success hinges on quarterback play. Auburn boasts redshirt junior Brandon Cox as the man under center. A southpaw, Cox, has a full season of starting experience under his belt. After a shaky first game, he steadily improved last season throwing for 2,234 yards.

Auburn has a long tradition of talented running backs, and this year appears to be no exception. Once again RB looks like the deepest area of the team. The Cougar defense should regularly see two tailbacks on the field at the same time regularly much like Auburn did two years ago with top five NFL draft picks Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown.

Senior Kenny Irons is No. 1 after gaining 1,293 yards last season even though he did not start until the third game. He's being touted as a Heisam Trophy contender. Behind him is sophomore speedster Brad Lester and experienced senior Tre Smith. Larger backs Carl Stewart and true freshman Ben Tate could see action as a fullback or tailback.

Wide receivers are less experienced, with only one veteran -- 1,000-yard receiver Courtney Taylor – in the unit.

With a shaky wide receiver situation, tight ends might see more passes come their way. Senior Cole Bennett is the anchor. He is a solid blocker with good hands but has little explosiveness after the catch. Tommy Trott wowed coaches and fans during the spring with his receiving abilities, but after dropping a few passes in fall practices, he is locked in a battle with fellow redshirt freshman Gabe McKenzie for the No. 2 tight end position.

The interior of the offensive line looks like it will be a strength. Right guard Tim Duckworth is preseason first-team All-SEC and left guard Ben Grubbs is a preseason second-team choice. Former walk-on Joe Cope is an experienced, smart center. Both offensive tackle positions will have new starters. Senior journeyman Jonathan Palmer appears to be leading for right tackle. The towering presence of 6-9, 320-pound King Dunlap will occupy the other tackle spot.

CHANGES ABOUND FOR THE Auburn defense this season as new coordinator Will Muschamp takes the reigns. He's Auburn's third defensive coordinator in three years. Muschamp faces high expectations from Auburn fans after leading LSU's stifling defense during its 2003 national championship season. He returns to the college ranks after following former LSU coach Nick Saban to the Miami Dolphins last year.

Auburn has run a base 4-3 defense the past few years in most situations, and the Cougars should expect to see it most of the time. Muschamp is known for his aggressive play calling, so the Cougars should also expect blitzes early and often. He is not shy about sending players from the secondary either.

Most of the Auburn defense is small but lightning quick.

Cases in point are defensive ends Marquies Gunn (6-4, 270) and Quentin Groves (6-3, 249). Neither is large by typical SEC standards, but both love to fly around offensive tackles and get after the quarterback.

The Tigers lost both interior defensive lineman to graduation last year. Josh Thompson appears to have the noseguard spot locked up if he can avoid injuries that have plagued him in the past, and at the moment Pat Sims, who left the team last year but returned this spring, is in the lead in a heated battle for defensive tackle.

Linebacker spots are still not settled after two players expected to contribute will be serving suspensions for the Washington State game due to alcohol-related arrests. Right now it appears Will Herring, a three-year starter at safety who was moved to linebacker during the spring by Muschamp, will start at strongside linebacker. Middle linebacker will be senior Karibi Dede, an intelligent speedster who found a home at linebacker after also beginning in the secondary. Weakside linebacker is still up in the air with redshirt sophomore Merrill Johnson the tentative starter.

The cornerback position was a big question mark for the Tigers last year, but this year it is expected to be a team strength. David Irons, brother of starting running back Kenny Irons and the defense's designated trash talker, held the job throughout last season and established himself as a lockdown corner. Jonathan Wilhite, who earned his way into the starting lineup midway through last season and refused to relinquish it, is the other.

Safeties are a major concern. Eric Brock will probably make the start at strong safety with coaches hoping he comes back a year wiser after being burned with a few deep passes last year. At free safety Aairon Savage, who moved over from cornerback, has had an impressive fall and might have just earned himself a start against the Cougars.

Punter Kody Bliss is a weapon on the Auburn special teams. He led the SEC in punting average last season at 44.9 yards per kick and is a master at dropping punts inside the 20-yard-line. At placekicker, John Vaughn had a mediocre 2005 season. going 12-for-20 on field goals -- but Auburn fans remember a 1-for-6 meltdown in a close game at LSU the most. He has struggled with high-pressure kicks throughout his career.

Rabid doesn't begin to describe Auburn fans

CF.C analyst Matt Moore's inaugural column of 2006 -- Cougars-Tigers 101 -- sizing up the two teams.

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