Top 50 Countdown: No. 12 Auburn

Coach: Tommy Tuberville | Staff
In 2006: 11-2; defeated Nebraska 17-14 in Cotton Bowl.
Returning starters: 5 offensive, 7 defensive.
Key losses: OG Ben Grubbs, OG Tim Duckworth, RB Kenny Irons, WR Courtney Taylor, CB David Irons, LB Will Herring.
2007 breakdown: Top 10 players | Outlook | Offense | Defense | Special teams | Coaching | Schedule

Breaking down the offense

Overview: Auburn hopes the return of a healthy Brandon Cox will boost an attack that ranked ninth in the Southeastern Conference in total offense last year. The Tigers need Cox to deliver because they have holes to fill elsewhere on the offense. Auburn is confident Brad Lester can step in for Kenny Irons at tailback, but the Tigers also must replace four starters on the line - along with leading receiver Courtney Taylor.

AUBURN TOP 10
Quentin Groves comes up with big performances in the big games.

1. DE Quentin Groves
2. LB Tray Blackmon
3. DL Sen'Derrick Marks
4. QB Brandon Cox
5. DB Aairon Savage
6. RB Brad Lester
7. OT King Dunlap
8. WR Rod Smith
9. RB Carl Stewart
10. S Eric Brock
Best player: QB Brandon Cox: He looked like a future star while leading Auburn to a dramatic victory over Georgia two years ago, then struggled through an injury-plagued junior season that included a four-interception performance in a loss to the Bulldogs. Cox looked much healthier in spring practice and showed all-SEC potential. Auburn needs Cox to stay healthy because he's the biggest key to the team's success. The Tigers have so many holes in their offensive line and receiving corps that they likely won't win a Western Division title without a big year from their quarterback.

Most overrated: WR Prechae Rodriguez: This junior college transfer and former four-star prospect has caught just 27 passes for 408 yards in two seasons at Auburn. The Tigers need a breakthrough season from Rodriguez as they attempt to replace Taylor in the receiving corps.

Most underrated: WR Rod Smith: After arriving at Auburn as a walk-on, Smith has developed into arguably the Tigers' best wideout. Smith was the Tigers' second-leading receiver behind Taylor last year with 26 catches for 452 yards.

Must step up: OT Andrew McCain: McCain signed with Auburn as a tight end and moved to defensive tackle as a freshman, so he already knows a thing or two about making adjustments. Now he must make a more challenging transition. McCain is competing with redshirt freshman Mike Berry and true freshman Lee Ziemba for the starting spot at right tackle. The winner of that job will have to protect the left-handed Cox's blind side.

Shoes to fill: OG Tyronne Green and OG Leon Hart: Auburn boasted a pair of Rivals.com All-Americans at the guard spots last year in first-team selection Ben Grubbs and second-team pick Tim Duckworth. Both players have moved on to the NFL, which leaves the Tigers relying on Green and Hart to replace them.

Position battle to watch: Right tackle: This three-way competition with McCain, Berry and Ziemba should garner plenty of attention in the preseason.

New in 2007: Auburn has no changes in its offensive staff and scheme, but there will be plenty of new faces on the line and in the receiving corps.

Grade the units:
QB: B-plus: This grade could go up to an A-minus or down to a B-minus depending on Cox's health.
RB: A-minus: Auburn's running game should be solid even without Irons. Brad Lester was effective in a backup role last season and should thrive this year while leading a backfield that features plenty of depth.
WR: C-plus: The loss of Taylor leaves Auburn without anyone who caught more than 26 passes last year.
OL: C: Left tackle King Dunlap is the only returning starter on the line.

Breaking down the defense

Overview: Senior defensive end Quentin Groves leads a unit that returns seven starters from a team that finished seventh in the nation in scoring defense last year. Groves will inherit more of a hybrid defensive end-linebacker role this year as Auburn alternates between a 3-4 and 4-3 defense.

Best player: DE Quentin Groves: He saves his biggest performances for Auburn's biggest games. Groves recorded three sacks and forced a fumble in a victory over Florida last year. He followed that up by forcing two fumbles on back-to-back drives in a triumph over Alabama. Groves earned Rivals.com third-team All-America honors last year and has compiled 23 career sacks.

Auburn Schedule
Date Opponent
Sept. 1 Kansas State
Sept. 8 aSouth Florida
Sept. 15 Mississippi State
Sept. 22 New Mexico State
Sept. 29 at Florida
Oct. 6 Vanderbilt
Oct. 13 at Arkansas
Oct. 20 at Louisiana State
Oct. 27 Mississippi
Nov. 3 Tennessee Tech
Nov. 10 at Georgia
Nov. 24 Alabama
Most overrated: CB Jonathan Wilhite: Although he has started 16 games over the last two years, Wilhite needs to develop more consistency before he can be rated among the SEC's top cornerbacks. If Wilhite doesn't improve this fall, he could face a challenge for playing time from sophomore Jerraud Powers.

Most underrated: DT Pat Sims: He's not one of the better-known players on a line that features Groves and Rivals.com Freshman All-American Sen'Derrick Marks, but Sims' days of relative anonymity could be ending soon. The potential move of Marks to defensive end might open up more playing time for Sims, who has an intriguing combination of size and athleticism.

Must step up: LB Tray Blackmon: Rated as the top outside linebacker in the 2005 recruiting class by Rivals.com, Blackmon has made more headlines off the field than on it. Blackmon was suspended for the first six games of last season and still recovered three fumbles, including one that sparked the come-from-behind victory over Florida. He then sat out the entire spring semester for personal reasons. Blackmon's position in our rankings of the top 10 Auburn players shows he still has plenty of talent. This former five-star prospect could emerge into a star if he can stay on the field for an extended period of time.

Shoes to fill: DL Sen'Derrick Marks: Auburn needs someone to replace the departed Marquies Gunn in the defensive end spot opposite Groves. One possible solution is to move Marks, who enjoyed an outstanding redshirt freshman season at defensive tackle last fall. Marks showed his big-play ability last year by recovering two fumbles in the regular-season finale against Alabama and recording 2 1/2 tackles for loss in the Cotton Bowl. Marks' move would create another hole in the middle of the line, though Sims could fill that spot.

Impact newcomer: S Michael McNeil: Auburn doesn't mind using first-year players in the secondary. For example, Aairon Savage earned Rivals.com Freshman All-America honors last year. McNeil would love to have similar success. The former four-star prospect should earn playing time as a true freshman and could begin his career by backing up Savage.

Position battle: Cornerback: Wilhite, Powers and senior Pat Lee give Auburn three cornerbacks to battle for two starting spots. All three guys should end up playing quite a bit.

New in 2007: Auburn should start playing a 3-4 scheme much more often in its second season under defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. Before coming to Auburn, Muschamp spent a year working on Nick Saban's staff with the Miami Dolphins, who frequently switched between the 4-3 and 3-4. Auburn figures to employ a similar approach.

Grade the units:
DL: A-minus: Marks is ready to make the leap to stardom, while Groves is already there. Sims and senior Josh Thompson also should emerge as key contributors for a line that features plenty of depth.
LB: B-minus: The departure of Will Herring could hurt here, though a full season from Blackmon would make up for that loss.
DB: B: Auburn has plenty of contenders for playing time here even without David Irons, who led the Tigers in pass breakups as a senior last year.

Breaking down the special teams

Overview: Auburn had one of the nation's best special-teams tandems last year with the combination of senior kicker John Vaughn and senior punter Kody Bliss. Their departures leave two giant holes.

Season outlook with bowl forecast
Auburn was billed as a national title contender last year and instead settled for an 11-2 record with a Cotton Bowl title. This year's team doesn't have to deal with those types of preseason expectations. Nobody's expecting a national championship from a team that must travel to Florida, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia with four new starters on its offensive line. Although Auburn has plenty of holes on offense, a rejuvenated Brandon Cox and a dominant defense should allow the Tigers to finish second in the SEC West and go 10-3 with an appearance in the Capital One Bowl or Outback Bowl.
Best player: RB Tristan Davis: He led the SEC and ranked 15th in the nation last year with his average of 27 yards per kickoff return. If that weren't enough, Davis also recovered a fumble on a fake punt to help produce an Auburn touchdown in the Cotton Bowl.

Grade the units:
K: C: Auburn is counting on redshirt freshman Ross Gornall or true freshman Wes Byrum to replace Vaughn. Rivals.com rated Byrum as the No. 2 kicker in the 2007 recruiting class.
P: C: Redshirt freshman Ryan Shoemaker is the likely replacement for Bliss, who had the nation's third-best punting average last year.
KR: A: Davis enters the season as one of the top kickoff returners in the nation.
PR: C: Robert Dunn was the Tigers' main punt returner last year and averaged 5.5 yards per attempt. Mario Fannin also could get a chance to contribute here as Auburn attempts to boost an area in which it ranked 11th in the SEC last year.

Breaking down the coaching

Overview: Auburn didn't have any changes to a staff that ranks among the best in the country. Head coach Tommy Tuberville owns a 33-5 record over the past three years, while offensive coordinator Al Borges and Muschamp are considered among the nation's top assistants.

Grade the coaches:
Head coach: A-minus: A national title is the only thing missing from his résumé, though Auburn fans will grumble Tuberville might have delivered that in 2004 if would have been given the opportunity.
Offensive: A-minus: Injuries caused Auburn's offense to take a step back last year, but don't blame that on Borges. He was selected as Rivals.com's offensive coordinator of the year in 2005.
Defense: A: Muschamp was the defensive coordinator for LSU's 2003 national championship team that led the nation in scoring defense and total defense. Don't be surprised if he gets a head coaching opportunity in the next couple of years.
Special teams: A-minus: The progress of Vaughn and Bliss at Auburn is a testament to running backs/special teams coach Eddie Gran's skills.

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

Rivals.com is counting down our Preseason Top 50. Coming tomorrow: No. 11.

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