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."