HOUSTON — All the hype this season for No. 1 Auburn has been about quarterback Cam Newton.
On Wednesday night, it was the star of the defense who had his moment.
Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley won the Lombardi Award as the nation's top collegiate lineman, beating out defensive ends Da'Quan Bowers of Clemson and Adrian Clayborn of Iowa and TCU center Jake Kirkpatrick.
Fairley led top-ranked Auburn's defense this season with a school-record 21 tackles for losses and is second in the Southeastern Conference with 10½ sacks. He has 55 tackles, has recovered two fumbles, forced one and has an interception entering the BCS title game against No. 2 Oregon.
"This means a lot because of all the guys that came before me and won it like Ndamukong Suh last year and Warren Sapp and Julius Peppers," Fairley said. "Just being named with those guys on the trophy is special."
The 6-foot-5, 298-pound junior was selected the defensive player of the year on The Associated Press All-SEC team on Monday.
Fairley is the second player from Auburn to win the award and the first since his position coach, Tracy Rocker, picked it up in 1988. This is the first time a past winner has coached a finalist.
Rocker sat in the front row of the event on Wednesday to see his pupil pick up the trophy.
"When they called my name and I looked directly at him he had the biggest smile in the world," Fairley said. "I'm usually used to seeing him with a frown, getting on us, but to see him smile means a lot to me."
Rocker had challenged Fairley to play well all season and talked about winning the Lombardi Award to motivate him. He beamed after the ceremony when discussing Fairley's win.
"It is very unique and it's a very special moment," Rocker said of winning the award and then coaching a winner of the honor. "I'm so glad for him because I know the work and time we put into it and the bickering between him and I because you want someone to be their best."
Fairley, like Newton, also played one season at a junior college. He started two games last season in his first year at Auburn and finished with 28 tackles and 3½ tackles for losses before becoming a force this year for the Tigers.
He's not shy talking about how well he thinks he's played this season and describes his play very simply.
"Basically I try to dominate so they always say I'm the dominant man," he said.
He's excited about Auburn's 13-0 record and the upcoming shot at the national title.
"It feels real good for us to come out and have this type of year, especially for our seniors to come out on top like this," he said.
Bowers leads the nation with 15½ sacks and is second with 25 tackles for losses. He's having a pretty good week despite not taking home the Lombardi Award on Wednesday.
He was selected the Atlantic Coast Conference defensive player of the year a week ago, won Bronko Nagurski Trophy as the nation's top defensive player Monday and won the Ted Hendricks defensive end of the year award Wednesday.
"Just being at this award as a finalist is one of the pinnacles of my life and my career," he said. "It's a great honor just to be mentioned in the same sentence with all the guys that have been here as finalists."
Clayborn, who had 51 tackles, including seven for losses, for the 7-5 Hawkeyes enjoyed the events surrounding the award presentation. He and the other finalists visited the children's cancer wards of two Houston hospitals on Wednesday.
"That was amazing," he said. "I would go there every day if I could. Those kids are strong and powerful and that meant a lot."
As the only offensive player among the finalists, Kirkpatrick said he took a little ribbing from the defenders. The 6-foot-3, 305-pound senior is looking forward to undefeated TCU's game against Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.
"It's going to be awesome," he said. "I can't put it into words. It means so much to our university."
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