AUBURN, Ala. (AP) - Auburn's Brandon Cox and Alabama's John Parker Wilson have alternately thrilled and exasperated.
The two quarterbacks have led winning drives, gotten up after countless hits and captured big victories. Then there's the flip side: Misfires, interceptions and assorted mistakes that have made both the targets of boos and criticism.
All that makes for one of the most tantalizing mysteries leading up to Saturday's Iron Bowl at No. 25 Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium. Which Wilson will show up? Which Cox?
Teammates and coaches have spent the week leading up to the game on the defensive about their quarterbacks.
``We have confidence in John Parker,'' Crimson Tide linebacker Darren Mustin said. ``Everybody has bad games. He's my quarterback. I've got his back.''
Auburn tailback Ben Tate offered a similar sentiment on Cox. He points to dropped balls, missed blocks and other miscues that have affected Cox's production.
``Everybody's always down on the quarterback when things aren't always going right, but it's not always the quarterback's fault,'' Tate said. ``Everybody has seen what he can do. He has won plenty of games with last-minute drives. I always have confidence in him.''
Sometimes it doesn't quite seem warranted.
Cox was intercepted four times for the Tigers (7-4, 4-3 Southeastern Conference) in their last outing at No. 6 Georgia two weeks ago. He's also the guy who has led Auburn on scoring drives to take the lead five times in the final four minutes of games this season, including winning drives at Florida and Arkansas.
``He's had four or five drives at the end of the game this year that were picture perfect,'' Tigers coach Tommy Tuberville said. ``He's got experience. He understands how to prepare for a game like this one. He's played in this one before, and he likes this game.
``I like a quarterback like Brandon going into this game. He doesn't get rattled, doesn't get shook. He can take a lick and get back up and make a big play the next play. I'm looking forward to him playing this game.''
Wilson has been frequently off-target for the Tide (6-5, 4-3) in their last three games, all losses. He has been intercepted five times and had a costly fumble in the final minutes against No. 1 LSU.
He's also the guy who picked Tennessee's secondary apart for 363 yards and three touchdowns and threw the game-winning touchdown pass against Arkansas.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said Wilson prepared like a coach before last week's Louisiana-Monroe game, spending late nights studying film. Saban appreciated the effort, which led to better numbers despite the two interceptions, one of them off a deflected ball.
``I have a lot better feeling about working with guys that really want to be good and are trying to be good and doing the right things than if they don't care about it,'' Saban said.
Wilson said the extra preparation helped. He stayed in the film room as late as 11 p.m. before going home to do more work. He said making smart decisions doesn't mean being overly cautious.
``You have to be conscious of the mistakes you've made, but you can't go out there and not throw a ball because you might get it picked,'' he said. ``You have to understand what you're seeing and understand what the defense is doing and you have to protect the ball. That's the No. 1 goal.''
Cox ranks 79th nationally in pass efficiency rating, throwing for only nine touchdowns against 11 interceptions. Wilson is 12 spots behind him. He has 15 TDs and 10 interceptions but is completing a modest 55 percent of his passes.
Like all Iron Bowl quarterbacks, they shoulder a big load in this game. Tuberville doesn't sugarcoat it.
``If you're from this state, as both quarterbacks are playing in this game, there's a ton of pressure,'' Tuberville said.
For all their mistakes, Cox and Wilson aren't all to blame for the woes.
Both have been operating behind makeshift offensive lines due to injuries and suspensions. The Tigers and Tide have each allowed 22 sacks, making the two quarterbacks' seasons seem even more similar.
Cox and Wilson are climbing their schools' career charts, whatever their faults.
Cox is 25-9 as a starter and can match Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan for third in school history in career wins with a victory in the Iron Bowl or a bowl game. Only Jason Campbell (31) and Stan White (29) have won more.
``When Cox goes, they go,'' said Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, whose team lost to the Tigers. ``When Cox is hitting some passes, they're very good.''
Wilson, meanwhile, is already fourth all-time in passing yards and touchdowns for Alabama, though he's only a junior and a second-year starter.
Mustin said he and his fellow defenders need to do more to help the quarterback out - not just the other way around.
``We have not bailed him out yet this year,'' he said. ``We have not done that. I feel like we've failed him. We've got to bail him out in certain situations. That's how I feel about that.''
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