Auburn Coach Tommy Tuberville's quarterback from last year's magical season, Jason Campbell, is now a backup with the Washington Redskins. His best player on defense, cornerback Carlos Rogers, was the Redskins' first draft pick, No. 9 overall. The Tigers' running backs, Ronnie Brown and Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, didn't even last that long in April's NFL draft, as both were selected among the top five picks.
So with all those star players gone from an Auburn team that finished 13-0, won the Southeastern Conference championship for the first time in 15 years and was ranked No. 2 in the country at the end of the 2004 season, how could Tuberville possibly believe he might have a better team this year?
Tuberville says he has a star in quarterback Brandon Cox, who attempted 34 passes playing behind Campbell last year. While the Tigers don't have a running back as physically gifted as Brown or Williams, Tuberville believes he has three runners who can get the job done. And his defense, minus Rogers and all-SEC safety Junior Rosegreen, still might be among the most imposing in the country.
"We probably will have the most talented team we've had since I've been at Auburn, from top to bottom at every position -- with depth, with speed, with athletic ability," Tuberville said.
But whether the Tigers can find the confidence and chemistry that helped them finish undefeated -- they were seriously tested only twice last season, during a 10-9 win over LSU and a 21-13 victory at rival Alabama -- will ultimately decide if Auburn is back in the Bowl Championship Series debate, Tuberville said.
"Our guys are hungry; our coaches are hungry," Tuberville said. "We want to continue this thing on. We've done a lot more this year than we've ever done, and we've asked our players to do a lot more."
Perhaps no Auburn player is as hungry as Cox, who overcame a sometimes debilitating muscle disorder and homesickness to become Campbell's successor. The state of Alabama's "Mr. Football" as a senior at Hewitt-Trussville High School in 2001, he set state records by completing 70.8 percent of his passes as a senior and 68.7 percent during his career. When he signed with the Tigers (his favorite school, Alabama, didn't recruit him), many Auburn fans saw him as the quarterback who would unseat Campbell, who struggled mightily during his first three seasons.
But on the way to Auburn's campus for preseason camp before his freshman season in 2002, Cox was involved in a car accident and suffered double vision, which is sometimes caused by myasthenia gravis, a muscle disorder that has plagued him since 1999. Unable to practice and feeling weak, Cox withdrew from classes and returned home, where he helped his father in the family's carpet store. After regaining his strength, he rejoined the Tigers before the 2002 Capital One Bowl in Orlando.
Cox certainly has big shoes to fill, as Campbell was named SEC player of the year last season, completing 69.6 percent of his passes for 2,700 yards with 20 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions. But Cox, a left-handed passer, might be a better fit for offensive coordinator Al Borges's West Coast system. The early results have been promising -- Cox completed 24 of 36 passes for 387 yards and 5 touchdowns against Auburn's first-team defense during the first two scrimmages of the preseason.
"Any time you have a new [quarterback], it's always a thrill a minute," Tuberville said. "I think Brandon Cox is going to be a heck of a college quarterback. He's going to make a name for himself. He has the luxury of having good people around him. That's one thing Jason Campbell did not have when he first started. Jason had a lot of guys like him, very inexperienced."
Replacing Brown and Williams, who combined for more than 2,000 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns last season, won't be easy, either. Junior Tre Smith, who missed the last 10 games in 2004 because of a shoulder injury and then had an emergency appendectomy shortly before preseason camp last month, will probably share carries with South Carolina transfer Kenny Irons. Tuberville said Irons is faster than Brown and Williams, but lacks their vision and cutting abilities.
"Our whole philosophy right now is to be more productive than the group last year," Smith said. "The coaches have a lot of confidence in us and think we can be as productive. We're not looking at it as impossible shoes to fill."
Neither are the rest of the Tigers, who open the season Sept. 3 against Georgia Tech, the first of five consecutive home games.
"We're not rebuilding," tackle Marcus McNeill said. "We're just reloading."