Ask a dozen Auburn fans what they think about Brandon Cox and you'll get a dozen different answers--or at least you would have prior to Saturday night. Those who remember Cox's sophomore year will tell you that he's a accurate passer who, given protection, can rip a defense to shreds. And they're right. The defenses of Georgia, Alabama and LSU were all abused by a Cox-led offense that season.
Others, who recall last year, will tell you that despite Cox's limited physical skills compared to some other quarterbacks, he's a warrior on the field who will soldier on despite injuries that would bench most players. And they're right. No player at any position had any business going on the field in the condition Cox played in for most of 2006, but he did it anyhow, and earned eleven wins along the way.
Still more will say that Cox can't throw a consistent deep ball, that he's too immobile in the pocket, and that he's making inexplicable throws for a guy who's effectively a sixth-year senior. They'll tell you--particularly after last Saturday--that he's gone backwards in 2007, and that his play is hurting the team.
And unfortunately, they're right, too.
Nothing hurts worse than losing one you had in the palm of your hand. After a shaky start, Auburn took control of the South Florida game in the second quarter, and to all eyes was cruising to a bumpy but still acceptable win until about 11PM, when the wheels started to come off. While an absolutely stunning defensive effort kept South Florida from scoring a single point off of Auburn's five turnovers, those turnovers also prevented the Tigers from adding the extra scores that likely would have put the game away. Two of those turnovers were fumbles by Mario Fannin, a redshirt freshman seeing his first serious minutes of college play. Nobody likes to see a freshman turn the ball over, but nobody should be particularly surprised by it, either.
The other side of that coin, of course, is that nobody expects a senior quarterback to fumble on a sneak and throw two bad interceptions in the same game. What's worse, that pick total could easily have risen much higher.
I don't think all of Auburn's problems can be or should be deposited on Brandon Cox's doorstep. Even given all the angst over Cox's poor play, he'd have led AU to another late victory if the kick return game hadn't completely broken down after the Tigers' final go-ahead field goal. Auburn was spoiled over the last few years in having Matt Clark's kickoffs fly out the back of the end zone on virtually every kick. The Tigers' special team coverage got slack, and the combination of that plus the '07 rule change and losing Clark all caught up with AU at the worst possible time as Saturday turned to Sunday.
It's also fair to note that Cox looked a whole lot better when he was being protected by Ben Grubbs and Marcus McNeil, and throwing to Devin Aromashodu, Ben Obomanu, Courtney Taylor and Anthony Mix, to say nothing of handing off to Kenny Irons. It's painfully obvious that Auburn just didn't do a good job of recruiting and/or developing the players who've replaced all those famous names. Two games in and not only does AU still lack even one go-to receiver, there aren't any obvious candidates for the job making their presence known. A deep tight end corps was supposed to help support the wideouts, but one third of that corps seems to have forgotten how to catch.
Things are somewhat better on the running back front, where Fannin's speed and tough running gave Auburn a great spark in the second quarter; getting Tristan Davis back in the next week or two will also help, but there's no getting around that fact that this is a largely moribund offense. Put Auburn in second and long and you are most likely going to get the ball back sometime within the next three snaps. All those great players helped make Al Borges call some brilliant games for a couple of years, but now it's time for Borges to really earn his money. Thus far in 2007, we haven't seen a lot of the creativity and unpredictability that we came to expect from a Borges offense. If his offensive plan is too complicated (or too conservative) for the current players, then the plan has to change. The players won't.
It would be grossly unfair to stop here without recognizing the astonishing play of the Auburn defense late Saturday night. As seems to be the norm for a Will Muschamp squad, they gave up a score on the opening drive, but then just played lights-out for the duration. I don't think I've ever seen or even heard of a quality offensive team failing to score on that many trips inside an opponent's red zone. I've certainly never heard of five turnovers resulting in zero points. Anybody who can fault the defense for giving up the last score in overtime was not paying attention; those guys had been on the field doing yeoman's work for virtually the entire second half. Anything less and there never would have been an overtime, because Auburn would have been losing by three or four scores. You also can't say enough about true freshman placekicker Wes Byrum, who came through on one long, high-pressure field goal after another in a bravura performance.
The greatest shame and frustration of the USF game is that those efforts went for naught.
Auburn can't go out and get new players two games into the season. Despite all his problems, it's likely that Cox is the only real option at quarterback. If Blake Field could outplay Cox, he'd be playing by now. Anybody who thinks the Tigers should rip the redshirt off of a true freshman and throw him in at quarterback is frankly nuts, and the suggesting of putting Neal Caudle in at this point is only slightly less nuts. New receivers are in the pipeline, but it's going to be a while before the very young guys are ready. Auburn doesn't have the luxury of that extra time.
I suspect there isn't any amount of coaching that can make this a great offense, but it needs to become at least a respectable one in a very big hurry. Offensive line coach Hugh Nall likes to brag to recruits that he's the highest-paid position coach in the SEC. Al Borges is also one of the highest-paid assistants in the country. It's time for the two of them, to say nothing of their boss, who himself is a rather high earner, to get it together.