The SEC's 25 best players: No. 2

The No. 2 guy in our countdown wasn’t even on any All-SEC lists this time a year ago. But, then, he only started in two games during the 2009 season:

No. 2: Nick Fairley, DT, Jr., Auburn

2010 numbers/honors: Led the SEC with 24 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks. Fifth on Auburn’s team with 60 total tackles and also had a team-leading 21 quarterback hurries. Won the Lombardi Award, which is presented annually to the best lineman or linebacker in college football. Named as the SEC defensive player of the year by the Associated Press. A consensus first-team All-American and consensus first-team All-SEC selection.

Preseason ranking: Not ranked in the 2010 preseason countdown.

Making the case for Fairley: After playing a reserve role in his first season at Auburn, the 6-5, 298-pound Fairley developed into the most dominant interior defensive lineman in college football last season. He was virtually unblockable and combined power and an explosive burst off the ball to wreck entire offensive game plans. And talk about being at your best in the big games, Fairley dominated the BCS National Championship Game in Auburn’s 22-19 win over Oregon. Afterward, Oregon coach Chip Kelly said the difference in the game was the Ducks’ inability to block Fairley, who had three tackles for loss and forced a fumble. In the 28-27 comeback win at Alabama, it was Fairley who helped turn that game around with his memorable play right before halftime. With Alabama driving deep in Auburn territory, Fairley sacked quarterback Greg McElroy, stripped him of the ball and recovered the fumble to give the Tigers hope going into halftime. It was the kind of play Fairley made over and over again last season. Georgia coach Mark Richt called Fairley the closest thing he’d seen to Warren Sapp in all his years of coaching. The Tigers weren’t a dominant defense last season, but Fairley’s dominance made up for some deficiencies.

The rundown

No. 3: LSU CB Patrick Peterson

No. 4: South Carolina WR Alshon Jeffery

No. 5: Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett

No. 6: Alabama WR Julio Jones

No. 7: Kentucky WR Randall Cobb

No. 8: South Carolina RB Marcus Lattimore

No. 9: Georgia OLB Justin Houston

No. 10: Arkansas RB Knile Davis

No. 11: Georgia WR A.J. Green

No. 12: LSU DT Drake Nevis

No. 13: Auburn OT Lee Ziemba

No. 14: LSU LB Kelvin Sheppard

No. 15: South Carolina DE Devin Taylor

No. 16: Florida S Ahmad Black

No. 17: Arkansas TE D.J. Williams

No. 18: Alabama S Mark Barron

No. 19: Florida CB Janoris Jenkins

No. 20: Mississippi State LB Chris White

No. 21: LSU RB Stevan Ridley

No. 22: Mississippi State OT Derek Sherrod

No. 23: Alabama DE Marcell Dareus

No. 24: Kentucky LB Danny Trevathan

No. 25: Alabama LB Courtney Upshaw