SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – When No. 1 Auburn faces second-ranked Oregon in the BCS title game, the Tigers' two biggest stars will be junior college transfers.
It's a path many players take to major college football, though it's one just about all of them would rather have avoided.
In most cases, they find themselves in towns such as Wesson, Miss., or Brenham, Texas, because they didn't make the grades in high school to qualify to play at a four-year school. That's why Auburn All-American defensive tackle Nick Fairley ended up at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Mississippi after he graduated from high school instead of going straight to Auburn.
In some cases, like Cam Newton's, they land at a JUCO because things didn't work out for them at a big school.
Mississippi State assistant Tony Hughes, a former junior college coach, says JUCOs are "a second chance for kids."
Or, as Auburn assistant Trooper Taylor puts it, "a last chance."
Fairley is the typical junior college transfer in many ways.
He grew up in Mobile, Ala., and was recruited by Auburn when Tommy Tuberville was the coach. He wanted to be a Tiger, but he didn't qualify academically, so it was off to Co-Lin in Wesson, just outside of Jackson, Miss.
Non-qualifiers such as Fairley — and Auburn starting cornerback Demond Washington — must graduate from a two-year school to be accepted into a major college football program under NCAA rules.
"Actually, it was kind of frustrating at first," Fairley said Thursday. "And then I went out there and, 'Wow, why did I have to go here?' JUCO, it was a great eye-opener. I went in there and it kept me levelheaded, humble."
Brad Franchione, who was Newton's coach at Blinn College in Brenham, said at junior college many of the players come from families and neighborhoods that don't provide much structure or discipline. His players often need far more guidance off the field than they do on it.
"I have always felt like at Blinn that is was my job to teach 18 year olds what the word 'courtesy' meant, what the actual definition of being a man meant," he said.
Franchione said many of the players he gets are intimidated by classrooms and teachers. It's not just a matter of teaching them math and English, but teaching them how to be students.
"The football part of my job was the most fun part of my day," he said.
Newton, the Heisman Trophy winner, ended up at Blinn after he left Florida, where he was stuck behind Tim Tebow and had legal problems. He was arrested in November 2008 for having a stolen laptop. The charges were eventually dropped when he completed a pretrial intervention program for first-time offenders.
Newton didn't have to spend two years at a JUCO because he qualified academically out of high school.
Franchione said Newton was among the least of his worries when the quarterback was at Blinn.
"Cam was very easy because Cam was very hungry when he arrived," Franchione said. "All we did with Cam is take things he understood, but may have forgotten and brought them to the forefront of his priorities."
Hughes worked at Hinds Community College in Mississippi, a rival of Co-Lin's that has produced more than 30 players that have gone on to the NFL, such as Grady Jackson and Fred Smoot.
"When I was there we ran a strict discipline, old-fashioned program with curfews during the offseason and mandatory class checks," said Hughes, who had stints at Southern Mississippi and Mississippi before being brought to Starkville by coach Dan Mullen.
Taylor, who coaches wide receivers for Gene Chizik, said that while the process of recruiting a junior college player is generally the same as recruiting a high school player, he tends to focus more on character issues when it comes to JUCO players.
"We don't come to see why we should take them," he said Thursday after practice. "We already know they can play by watching their tape. We come to the junior college to talk to their coaches, their counselors, people around them to find out what kind of character they have.
"You come there to check their character because usually leopards don't change their spots, just their addresses."
Hughes said recruiting junior college players presents a very different set of challenges than recruiting high schoolers. In high school, the kids usually have family members and coaches guiding them.
With junior college kids, they often are more independent — and that's not necessarily a good thing.
"When you recruit a junior college kid, it's like chasing a fugitive," he said. "Let's say it's a highly recruited guy being pursued by three or four SEC schools. In his mind, he is like, 'I am the greatest thing that ever lived.'
"They are buck wild."
He said some junior college kids will double-book recruiting trips and blow off a school without letting coaches at that school know. "For someone who doesn't know how to recruit junior colleges, it can be a heartache," he said.
Hughes also said loading up on junior college players can be dicey.
"My philosophy is you fill your needs with junior college guys," he said. "You don't use junior colleges to field a team, you use them to fill pieces to the puzzle.
"When you go wholesale with it can kill your chemistry because kids don't have that sense of loyalty."
Yet Hughes also said it's unfair to stigmatize a player with the label "JUCO transfer." It's not a fair assessment, he said, and most schools don't think it's worth taking chances on players with heavy baggage.
Taylor said the young men who can get through junior college have already completed the hardest part of getting their football careers — and in some cases, their lives — on track.
"If they can go to a junior college and make it," he said, "... they can make it at our place."