The biggest names in the BCS championship game between No. 1 Auburn and No. 2 Oregon are Newton and James. The biggest matchup, however, will be the heavyweight bout in the trenches between the Ducks' no-name but relentless offensive line and an overpowering Tigers D-line headlined by a juniorwith a Fairley huge future in front of him
Here he comes, Mr. All-America striding through the marble-floored lobby of the Hilton in downtown Houston, smiling luminously. It's an early-December evening, and Nick Fairley, wearing a dark tailored suit and blue tie, is carrying the 40-pound Lombardi Award trophy that he was given two hours earlier for being the top college lineman in 2010.
As the 6'5", 298-pound junior defensive tackle lumbers toward his room, he pauses to pose for a picture with an admirer—"You are just amazing and so darn big!" gushes Miss Texas USA, Ana Rodriguez, who attended the ceremony—then rides an elevator to the 11th floor. He enters suite 11071, where he hugs his mother and father. Then, up here in the quiet, with darkness outside the window, the three dream of approaching opportunities.
"I definitely feel like I can be the difference-maker in the national title game," Fairley says. "It's all about being a disruptive force, getting in the backfield and wreaking havoc on what Oregon is going to try to do. I don't care how fast they snap the ball. If I can get to that quarterback, good things will happen for us."
Forget, for a moment, about the brilliance of Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton, the breathtaking ability of Doak Walker winner LaMichael James and the prediction of South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier that the BCS championship game between No. 1 Auburn (13--0) and No. 2 Oregon (12--0) could wind up 60--55. The vast majority of coaches and players around the country who are familiar with the two teams believe that the key matchup on Jan. 10 in Glendale, Ariz., will be the Tigers' defensive front four (Fairley, tackle Zach Clayton, left end Antoine Carter and right end Nosa Eguae) versus the Ducks' offensive line (left tackle Bo Thran, left guard Carson York, center Jordan Holmes, right guard C.E. Kaiser and right tackle Mark Asper). The team that wins this battle of the bulge will likely be hoisting the BCS trophy into the small hours of Jan. 11.
"There are so many interesting battles surrounding the Auburn D-line going against the Oregon O-line," says Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy, a Rhodes scholar finalist who played the Tigers on Nov. 26 and has followed the Ducks all season. "Auburn's front four does a great job of getting penetration, while Oregon's offensive line uses zone principles, meaning they account for areas, not individuals. That O-line has a lot of athleticism, and they're very good at doubling a guy, then getting off that block to get to the second level [and making another block].
"But it's so hard to maintain double teams on Auburn because of their penetration. Auburn's linemen stick to their gaps and really don't do anything schemewise out of the ordinary up front. Maybe the biggest issue that will decide the game is this: Will Oregon's fast pace wear down Auburn's defensive line in the second half?"
This is the question that has haunted the sleep of Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof ever since the Tigers beat South Carolina 56--17 in the SEC championship game to secure a trip to Glendale. Roof has been particularly interested in how the Ducks attacked Oregon State on Dec. 4 and, specifically, how they game-planned for the Beavers' 6'1", 311-pound defensive tackle Stephen Paea, the Pac-10 defensive player of the year. Though not as quick and explosive as Fairley, Paea excels at pushing offensive linemen into the backfield and disrupting plays.
So what did Oregon, which often snaps the ball just seven seconds into the 40-second play clock, do against its in-state rival? In the first three quarters the Ducks frequently ran wide to the right on one play, then wide to the left on the next, then wide to the right the next. This forced Paea and the rest of the Beavers' defensive line to chase the ball from sideline to sideline. Paea and his linemates were gassed by the start of the fourth quarter, when James and Kenjon Barner consistently pounded the ball between the tackles for substantial gains. Paea was a nonfactor as Oregon put the game out of reach late, winning 37--20.
"We are very aware that our conditioning is going to be a key factor in the game," says Roof. "That is going to be a point of emphasis in our preparation. There's a reason only one team [Cal] held Oregon to under 37 points this year. They big-play you to death, and those big plays often come about because you're tired."
James, who leads the nation in rushing with 152.9 yards a game, is the player who worries Roof the most. "James is just a freak running the ball," says Arizona coach Mike Stoops, whose team lost to Oregon 48--29 on Nov. 26, when James ran for 126 yards. "If Oregon got behind 14 points and had to throw it, that would be their only weakness.... But they run the ball well. That's where it all starts."
On a late September afternoon, the five Oregon starting offensive linemen gathered in a meeting room to watch film of the Wisconsin offensive line. The players sat mesmerized in front of the screen, appreciating the textbook-perfect techniques of the Badgers' linemen like they might a fine Willamette Valley red.
"We were like, 'Wow, look at that,'" recalls Asper, noting that 11--1 Wisconsin had one of the top lines in the country this season. "All five of their guys took perfect first steps, got [engaged with] their linebackers or their down linemen and drove them for five yards."
Still fresh in the minds of the Ducks' linemen was the team's 26--17 loss to Ohio State in the 2010 Rose Bowl, in which they were dominated by the Buckeyes' defensive front. (Oregon rushed for 179 yards, 57 shy of its average.) Taking cues from the Wisconsin video session, the Ducks' line has become one of the most efficient units in the nation. The team ranks first in the nation in scoring offense, second in total offense and fourth in rushing offense, while the line has allowed just eight sacks.
In all likelihood none of the Ducks' starting offensive linemen will go on to star in the NFL. (The only lineman to earn first-team All--Pac-10 honors was Holmes.) They are an overachieving group, lumberjack strong, in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. They're effective because they excel at the teamwork and communication required for zone blocking. "They rarely have a bust," says McElroy.
The Alabama quarterback points out that, the Ducks' success against Paea notwithstanding, zone-blocking schemes are more vulnerable when facing an up-the-field colossus such as Fairley. (McElroy should know; Fairley had two sacks and a forced fumble against the Tide's zone-blocking line.) So Oregon's primary concern on Jan. 10 will be to contain Fairley, who led the SEC with 10½ sacks and 21 tackles for loss. "He does things that not a whole lot of guys in the country can do," says Holmes. "He's the total package."
Ever since his first down of organized football as a six-year-old in Mobile, Fairley has been creating chaos on the field. "His very first game," says Fairley's father, Herbert Rogers, a retired processing technician at DuPont, "we just put him over the center and said, 'Get the ball.' On his first play he tackles the quarterback, forces a fumble and recovers the fumble. The very first play! Ain't nothing changed since then. Just tell him to 'Go get the ball' and trust me, he will go get the ball."
Coming out of Williamson High in Mobile in 2007, Fairley committed to Auburn. But he failed to qualify academically, so he spent two years at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Wesson, Miss. "He cried when he realized he had to go to a juco," says Fairley's mother, Paula Rogers, a custodian for the Mobile public schools. "We dropped him off there, and 30 minutes later my phone rings and Nick says, 'Mama, I want to come home.' I told him to hang in there and stay focused. He did. The experience changed his life."
After redshirting in 2007, Fairley had 63 tackles and seven sacks in seven games for Copiah-Lincoln in '08. In December of that year he was ready to sign with Auburn. However, according to his father, Alabama linebackers coach James Willis called and suggested that his son visit Tuscaloosa. As soon as Gene Chizik, who had been named Auburn's coach a few days earlier, heard of the Tide's interest in the big tackle, he immediately flew on a private jet to Mobile, where he met Fairley and his father. "Nick can be a part of something special at Auburn," Chizik told them. "He can be a piece of the foundation that we're building for our program." A few days later Fairley—who is projected by one NFL general manager to be a top 10 pick in April's NFL draft if he decides to forgo his senior season—officially signed with the Tigers.
Nick is better than I ever was," says Tigers defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, who in 1988 won the Outland and Lombardi trophies while at Auburn. Rocker, though, adds that extracting maximum effort out of Fairley did not come easily. He started just two games in 2009, benched for a habit of dogging it on the field.
"The turning point for him was the LSU game in October ," Rocker says. "In LSU's first possession of that game we got an interception. Nick didn't do anything on the play—he didn't come close to the quarterback—but I see him out there celebrating. I met him on the field and got in his face, yelling that he didn't do anything. He wanted to fight me, and he did eventually apologize, but it was like the light suddenly went on for him. He quit taking plays off. And good things tend to happen for us when he gives great effort. He can be unstoppable."
Fairley also has a knack for separating quarterbacks from their senses. This season he knocked three quarterbacks—Arkansas's Ryan Mallett, LSU's Jordan Jefferson, and Georgia's Aaron Murray—out of games (at least for a few plays). Some of Fairley's hits have earned him a reputation for being a dirty player ("Nick plays with a definite mean streak, and some of his hits are uncalled for," says McElroy), but Fairley has no intention of changing his hard-charging, menacing style of play against the Ducks and their quarterback, Darron Thomas. "My mom called me once and asked, 'Why you trying to hurt those quarterbacks?'" Fairley recalls. "I said I'm not trying to hurt anyone, but this is a man's game, and my job is to get that quarterback."
Fairley rises from a chair in his Houston hotel room, kisses his mother on the cheek, then disappears into the night, his Lombardi Award still in his hands. He believes with all of his heart this won't be the last piece of hardware he'll be holding this season.
"IF I CAN GET TO THAT QUARTERBACK," FAIRLEY SAYS OF OREGON'S THOMAS, "GOOD THINGS WILL HAPPEN FOR US."
OREGON'S LINE IS AN OVERACHIEVING GROUP, IN WHICH THE WHOLE IS GREATER THAN THE SUM OF THE PARTS.
AND YOUR WINNER IS ...
Open the gatefold to see who holds the edge in the BCS title game.
Photographs by JOHN REED/US PRESSWIRE (FAIRLEY) AND RIC TAPIA/ICON SMI (KAISER)
BACKGROUND BY SI IMAGING
NICK THE QUICK The punishing, penetrating play of Fairley (90) poses a huge challenge for Kaiser (68) and his fellow linemen.
JOE ROBBINS/GETTY IMAGES (CARTER)
NEED FOR SPEED Oregon may test the conditioning of Carter (45) and Clayton (98) with an up-tempo, east-west attack before running it up the gut.
JOHN REED/US PRESSWIRE
[See caption above]
CHARLES BAUS/CAL SPORT MEDIA
SITTING DUCKS? Holmes and the Oregon offensive linemen have been stout, but none are first-round material.