A junior college transfer, Fairley struggled to adapt to life in the SEC his first year on the Plains in 2009. Playing in all 13 games with two starts, the Mobile native had just 28 tackles with one and a half sacks and three and a half tackles for a loss. While those numbers were solid for a reserve player, they didn't give any indication what was to come for the future Lombardi winner.
Putting together one of the most dominant seasons for any defensive lineman in Auburn history, Fairley has been nearly unstoppable through 13 games for the Tigers on his way to All-American status. With 55 tackles, 10 ½ sacks and 21 tackles for a loss, Fairley led the league and was eighth nationally in tackles for loss and his sacks are good enough for fourth in school history for a single season.
It wasn't just his numbers that proved to be big though as Fairley's play helped Auburn's entire defense mature as the season went along. Growing as a player both mentally and physically, Fairley's play certainly caught the eye of coach Gene Chizik.
""I'm really proud of Nick," Chizik said. "When he first got to Auburn, I think it was moving very fast, which it usually is for most people when they get here. Young guys either adapt to it fairly quick or sometimes it takes a little bit of time. In his case, it took a little bit of time, but you could see glimpses and glimmers of how special he could be, I thought, at the end of last year. I think he continued to gain confidence, and he has continued to grow, both physically strength-wise and mentally him becoming a really intelligent football player playing down there in the trenches and understanding different blocking schemes and different pass-protections.
"I think he understands the game and the complexity of the game. I think Coach (Tracy) Rocker has done a great job of teaching him all of those different things instead of just a guy going down there and just playing football. I think it's so much more than that, and I think he has really become a much better student of the game and understands it. I think all of that combined has made him a much better player."
That growth has shown not only in Fairley's play on the field but off the field as well. While on his various trips for award presentations around the country after being a finalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award as well as the Lombardi, he said the highlight for him was being able to bring a smile to the faces of people in need.
"It was a great experience going to the hospitals (Children's Cancer Hospital at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and Texas Children's Hospital) and the YMCA's," Fairley said. "It was great just visiting with the kids out there. Basically that was the main part of the awards for me."
During those trips he also got the opportunity to spend time with several other players from around the country. One of those was Clemson standout DaQuan Bowers. It was during one of their conversations that Fairley said the reality of playing for a national championship finally hit home for him.
"It hit me when I was in Houston with DaQuan (Bowers)," Fairley said. "We were talking about bowl games and he said ‘man ya'll are playing for the national championship'. It didn't hit me until later on that day when we were still talking about it."
To accomplish the goal of winning the title, Fairley and the Auburn defense will have to contain an Oregon offense that is one of the most explosive in the nation. Averaging 49.3 points per game and scoring over 40 points in 10 of 12 contests, the Ducks run 80 plays per game with a very hurry up offense. That's something that Fairley said Auburn is already preparing for.
"It's just fast," Fairley said. "They try to run a lot of plays in the game and get the plays going. It's a lot different. It's basically the tempo. It's way faster than other offenses we've faced.
"I think it's going to help a lot going against our offense," Fairley added. "Having that tempo is going to help and it's faster at practice because we don't have the referees to spot the ball and the chains. I think it's going to help us a lot."
The speed for Oregon comes from being able to run the ball with success up the middle despite the relative lack of size from backs LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner. Averaging 303.8 yards per game rushing, the Ducks can pile up the numbers and Fairley said it will be a challenge up front.
"Coach Rocker came to me and told me they're going to run through the A gap," Fairley said. "He put it on me, Zach and Blanc to hold down the two gaps for him."
With his stock soaring for NFL teams there's a chance the BCS title game could be the last game for Fairley in an Auburn uniform. Rated as a possible Top 10 selection, he'll have to make a decision soon after. Right now though he said his only goal is on finishing off this dream season.
"It's in the back of my mind right now but I haven't brought it to my attention," Fairley said of the NFL. "I tell everybody, I'm trying to get this ring for Auburn."