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July 25, 2008

Auburn has reasons to be optimistic

MORE SEC MEDIA DAYS: Preseason Countdown: No. 7 Auburn | Day Three Photo Gallery

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. Most teams that have two new coordinators and a first-year starting quarterback would enter the season with diminished expectations.

Consider Auburn an exception to the rule.

Auburn replaced offensive coordinator Al Borges, lost three-year starting quarterback Brandon Cox to graduation and watched defensive coordinator Will Muschamp accept the defensive coordinator position at Texas.

Yet the Tigers still enter the season as a legitimate contender for the Southeastern Conference championship. The SEC media have selected Auburn to beat out defending national champion LSU for the Western Division crown.

"We want to get to Atlanta," said Auburn defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks, referring to the site of the SEC championship game. "We want to get to Atlanta, and we want to go farther."

Why is there so much optimism?

Auburn is confident that the arrival of new offensive coordinator Tony Franklin from Troy before the Chick-fil-A Bowl gave the Tigers enough time to adjust to his spread offense without suffering many growing pains. Auburn showed some glimpses of Franklin's attack during a 23-20 overtime victory over Clemson that closed a 9-4 season.

"It's totally different for me, for Auburn, even for the SEC,'' Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said. "Everybody says that some teams run this (spread). Not like we run it."

The Tigers also may feature enough experience and talent on both sides of the ball to compensate for the unsettled quarterback situation.

Auburn has seven starters back on a defense that allowed the sixth-fewest points per game in the nation last year. The Tigers boast arguably the SEC's top special-teams duo in kicker Wes Byrum and punter Ryan Shoemaker. The combination of Brad Lester and Ben Tate gives Auburn one of the league's top running back duos.

The Tigers also return all five starters from an offensive line that could rank among the nation's best by the end of the season. Auburn's line earned plenty of respect last year for the way it performed with three freshman starters.

"Those guys come off the ball like defensive linemen," LSU defensive end Tyson Jackson said. "They're quick, they're fast and they never stop no matter what the score is. Besides our offensive line, I bet Auburn has one of the best offensive lines in the country."

Jackson's comments call to mind the grind-it-out, smashmouth attack that has helped Auburn churn out NFL running backs with assembly-line precision, but the Tigers will unveil a much different type of offense this season.

Franklin has given Auburn's attack an entirely new look that could leave opposing defenders with their tongues hanging out by the start of the fourth quarter. Tuberville noted that Auburn ran 93 offensive plays in the Chick-fil-A Bowl after averaging 56 snaps per game during the regular season.

"The tempo's the big thing," senior center Jason Bosley said. "It's so fast-paced you've got to be in great shape to run it."

Auburn is the latest team to join the wave of SEC programs incorporating at least portions of the spread offense. Florida won the 2006 national title while running Urban Meyer's version of the spread.

Tuberville pointed out that Auburn plans to run this offense differently from Florida. While Florida quarterback Tim Tebow ran the ball 16.2 times per game last season, Auburn's quarterback won't carry the ball nearly as often.

"That's the difference between us and Florida," Tuberville said. "Florida's not really a tailback team. They're more of a quarterback/tailback team. We want to get the ball in the tailback's hands. But we're going to run the ball from the tailback position. Our quarterback will be called on (to run) half a dozen times in a game, maybe a few more."

Sophomore quarterback Kodi Burns ran the ball 13 times in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and won the game with a 7-yard touchdown keeper in overtime. Burns also was named the offensive MVP of the spring game.

But there's no guarantee Burns will be the main guy running the offense this fall.

Tuberville said Burns ended spring practice in a dead heat with junior college transfer Chris Todd, whose familiarity with this offense could give him an advantage. Todd began his college career at Texas Tech before transferring to Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College. Todd originally committed to Troy last year, but he changed his mind when Franklin headed to Auburn.

"Kodi is built more (like) a runner," Tuberville said. "He's not a natural thrower, never has been. He's a great athlete, was a great basketball player. One thing I like about Kodi, he's durable. This offense is built for a guy like him. He can probably run the ball 12, 14, 15 times a game and take the beating and get back to the line of scrimmage and be able to handle it.

"Chris is a little bit different. Chris is more of a thrower (who) can run the ball. He understands how to run this offense. He was actually teaching Kodi a lot of the little things in spring practice. (With) Kodi being with us for over a year and Chris being with us for a month, it's a different scenario. But they're good buddies. They're friends. They work well together. Both will have to be successful for us to have some success."

Even though the Tigers don't know the identity of their starting quarterback, they already have plenty of confidence that this new offense can work. Implementing the spread attack in the Chick-fil-A Bowl made all the difference in the world.

"If we didn't play (the spread in) our bowl game, right now we'd be like, 'Is this going to work? What are we doing?' '' Bosley said. "The fact we had some success with it against Clemson's defense a top-10 defense in the country is a big boost of confidence."

While the changes on offense have garnered the majority of the preseason attention around the Plains, Auburn also had to make adjustments on defense. Muschamp's departure left the Tigers without a coordinator who had emerged as one of the nation's hottest head coaching prospects.

Auburn responded by hiring Paul Rhoads from Pittsburgh, which ranked fifth in the nation last year in total defense. Rhoads entered the national spotlight late last season when the Panthers pulled off a 13-9 stunner over West Virginia, which just so happens to play host to Auburn on Oct. 23.

Tuberville is hoping Rhoads can help the Tigers stop allowing the big plays that haunted them last season. Auburn lost to LSU last year on a 22-yard touchdown pass with one second remaining. In a 45-20 loss to Georgia, the Tigers gave up a 24-yard touchdown run, a 58-yard touchdown pass and a 45-yard completion. Even in the Chick-fil-A Bowl victory, the Tigers allowed an 83-yard touchdown run.

"To have a championship football team, you can't give up big plays in a game," Tuberville said. "The games that we lost last year, we gave up too many 15- or 20-yard runs. In the past, we have not given up big plays on defense. And that's the reason I like Paul Rhoads, because he's a fundamental guy. We've gone back to fundamentals and technique, back to basics.

"We're still going to be a pressure defense with a lot of speed on the field, but we've got to get away from that 'playing good, playing good, playing good and giving up the big play.' You can't do that and get to Atlanta."

Auburn considers getting to Atlanta a realistic goal. After all, the Tigers don't have to look too far to notice that change often can result in championships.

LSU won the national championship last year with a new offensive coordinator and a first-year starting quarterback. Having a new defensive coordinator as well simply gives Auburn a chance to go one up on its division rival.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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