AUBURN, Ala. (AP) -Auburn quarterback Brandon Cox played like an aging veteran down the stretch last season, gimpy legs and all.
Kansas State's Josh Freeman, meanwhile, performed like exactly what he was: A talented freshman thrust into the starting job before he was really ready.
The two passers are at different stages in their careers, but both are trying to rebound from inconsistent, occasionally woeful seasons entering Saturday night's season opener for both teams.
The 18th-ranked Tigers are depending heavily on their oldest player to turn things around now that he's recovered from injuries to both knees.
``I know if I was healthy, I'd have had a better season last year,'' the fifth-year senior said. ``There's part of me that just wants to go out there and prove that I can play at a higher level when I'm healthy.''
He certainly has the experience. Cox is 19-5 as a starter and turns 24 in October - meaning he's not only Auburn's oldest player but is older than 18 quarterbacks currently on NFL rosters.
Freeman also figures to play at a higher level. He showed impressive flashes of potential in eight starts and fared well in a couple of big games, especially for a youngster. But he also had lapses - three interceptions against Kansas, a 63-yard performance against Missouri. Both were losses.
Cox had some uncharacteristically poor performances, too. He didn't throw for 300 yards in his final three games combined last season, throwing just three touchdown passes down the stretch and getting picked off four times in a loss to Georgia.
His coach is expecting a stronger finish to Cox's career.
``I've always in my career watched these fifth-year senior quarterbacks, and never does it fail to see these guys come in and play well,'' coach Tommy Tuberville said.
He need only point to Jason Campbell, who went from an inconsistent performer to an NFL first-rounder in his final season when Auburn went 13-0 three years ago. In fact, the Tigers have averaged 9.7 wins in their previous 10 seasons with a senior starter returning at quarterback.
Plus, Cox ranks second behind Campbell in career passing efficiency at Auburn despite the disappointing junior season.
Freeman is a youngster with a JaMarcus Russell-like physique who led the Wildcats to a win over Texas with a veteran-like performance last season. But the 6-foot-6, 255-pounder had some numbers more typical for a freshman quarterback, too: Namely a whopping 15 interceptions against just six touchdowns.
Despite his youth, Freeman's steady play in wins over Oklahoma State and the Longhorns last season gives the Wildcats confidence when he leads them into Jordan-Hare Stadium.
``I think the first thing that everybody can see is that in big games he's very poised and emotionally neutral,'' coach Ron Prince said. ``I don't mean that he doesn't care, he expects to do well. What we've seen is that in games like an Oklahoma State or a Texas game, is that he has an ability both with his arm and his legs to do real well in the game.''
But Auburn defensive end Quentin Groves noticed something else in watching film of Freeman's better games and how opposing teams defended him.
``The thing I saw was, they let him get comfortable in the pocket,'' said Groves, one of the Southeastern Conference's top pass rushers. ``They let him get back there and just pat the ball, and we can't do that if we're going to have success against them. If you watch teams like Nebraska - all the teams they lost to - they hit them before they got hit. If you do that, you should be OK.''
Freeman didn't throw a touchdown pass in his four losing starts.
But Kansas State receiver Jordy Nelson said the sophomore has progressed with the added seasoning.
``He's developed as a whole quarterback, from confidence level to the knowledge of the playbook to knowing his reads,'' Nelson said. ``If the first read isn't there he's been able to move on, maybe even to the last one. He's been able to develop as a full quarterback. I think by the time he's done here, he'll be one of the best.''

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