- Ivan Maisel, College Football Senior Writer
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It would be difficult enough if Auburn merely had to replace its starting backfield. But there's more to it than that. Tailbacks Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown will be high on NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue's draft day dance card.
Quarterback Jason Campbell won 31 games and finished his career as the Southeastern Conference Offensive Player of the Year.
"The best overall backfield in college football in the last 50 years," coach Tommy Tuberville said Tuesday. Gee, coach, don't hold back. The best? Fifty years?
"There have been great quarterbacks, and great running backs," he said. "There haven't been many backfields like that. You got two guys that will [be drafted] in the top six or seven, who will play pro football for a long time and who complemented each other. You can say Herschel Walker or Bo Jackson or so many backs at USC. You can't say that and add the quarterback."
That is a debate for another time (see inline). There's no debate about who must take over in the Auburn backfield. Tailbacks Carl Stewart, Kenny Irons and the dependable, if undersized, Tre Smith, took nearly all of the snaps in spring practice a year ago. Offensive coordinator Al Borges, who had been on campus only a few weeks, walked over to Tuberville at practice one day and asked, "Carnell and Ronnie are better than these guys?"
"That," Tuberville recalled, "was the quote of the spring."
Stewart is a Brown clone, a back no one enjoys tackling. Irons, a transfer from South Carolina, is more like Williams, with sleek moves and good hands. Smith has been a dependable back off the bench and returning kicks for the last three seasons.
It's dangerous territory to begin comparing any inexperienced backs to players like Williams and Brown. What Tuberville learned last season, however, is that he likes the pressure Auburn put on the defense when both backs were on the field. There will be more of those formations.
"It gives you a lot more options," Tuberville said. "We'll have two-back sets, one-back sets with one of them at tight end. We'll line one up at fullback. These guys are pretty good running backs. Handling these roles is what we have to find out."
Replacing Campbell is a more formidable task, if only because he started 40 games. Sophomore Brandon Cox doesn't remind Tuberville of Campbell so much as Georgia's departing senior David Greene, who left as the SEC's all-time winningest QB.
"The biggest thing I look for is his decisions," Tuberville said. "Is he throwing to the right guy? Brandon's not going to be as mobile as Jason, but he's probably as accurate."
Campbell led the SEC in accuracy last season, completing 69.6 percent of his passes. Cox went 8-for-22 last Saturday in the Tigers' opening scrimmage, which Tuberville dismissed as a result of blocking restrictions placed on the Auburn offensive linemen.
The Tigers' new backfield starters will gain a lot of attention from now until they prove they are capable players. That's the price any new starter pays in the wake of a 13-0 team. Not to mention replacing an all-conference backfield (fact) or the best backfield in the last 50 years (theory).
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Replacing what Tommy Tuberville calls the best backfield in the last 50 years won't be easy, but it's possible.