SEC: Robert Nkemdiche

SEC morning links

November, 11, 2014
Nov 11
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In case you haven't heard, Todd Gurley is back. The Georgia running back returns to the lineup from a four-game suspension stemming from an autograph investigation. Make no mistake, even with Nick Chubb's success in his absence, Gurley is starting, per Mark Richt. If you're excited about Gurley's return (even if you're not) this hype video should get the juices flowing. Gurley's return creates an interesting situation for the Bulldogs though. There's one football, but several talented running backs: Gurley, Chubb and Sony Michel. It's a good problem to have if you're Richt.

Tennessee coach Butch Jones and his family tried to have some pleasurable non-football time during the Volunteers' off week but couldn't quite pull it off. The family went to a dinner on Saturday night with a no-cell phone policy but before long, Jones discovered them all checking their phones under the table for college football score updates. "I think we're kind of a messed-up family," Jones joked. That story could probably apply to a lot of coaching families across the county. When in a demanding, high-profile position like Jones is, it's hard to unplug, even for those around the coach whose lives are affected by his career.

Mississippi State might be the No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff rankings, but oddsmakers see them as an underdog. The Bulldogs don't seem to be bothered by the label. This is a big-time "prove-it" game for this program. Two years ago they also went into Tuscaloosa undefeated and left with a convincing defeat that sent their promising season south. Now they are eyeing a different ending, with the stakes much higher this time around.

Around the SEC
Tweets of the day

At first glance: SEC Week 10

October, 27, 2014
Oct 27
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We could be on the verge of another Separation Saturday in the SEC’s respective division races. If division leaders Mississippi State and Georgia successfully dodge upset bids from Arkansas and Florida, they will inch closer toward a meeting in December with a conference championship at stake.

As we move into what should be an incredible November in the SEC, let’s take a quick glance at some of this week’s top storylines:

Game of the week: No. 4 Auburn at No. 7 Ole Miss

LSU’s 10-7 comeback win over Ole Miss last weekend knocked the Rebels from the ranks of the unbeaten, but this game still carries enormous SEC West implications for both one-loss clubs. The loser might not be mathematically eliminated, but it will certainly face an uphill climb -- particularly if Auburn loses since it still must go on the road to face No. 3 Alabama and No. 9 Georgia. The fascinating matchup here will be Nick Marshall, Cameron Artis-Payne and Auburn’s spread running game against a vaunted Ole Miss defense that just surrendered 264 rushing yards to LSU. The Rebels also took some physical lumps against LSU, with key players such as Robert and Denzel Nkemdiche, Laremy Tunsil and All-America safety Cody Prewitt all missing time against LSU with injuries. If they don’t regroup quickly, the Rebels’ division hopes might be on life support by Sunday.

Player under pressure: Texas A&M’s Kenny Hill

He hasn’t been nearly "trill" enough lately. Nobody has at Texas A&M during an ugly three-game losing streak where the Aggies have lost to Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Alabama by a combined 142-51 margin. Hill’s numbers weren’t awful in that stretch -- he was 96-of-141 for 904 yards, six touchdowns and six interceptions -- but the Aggies simply were not competitive in any of those games. Hill was a Heisman Trophy contender a month ago, but Kevin Sumlin and Jake Spavital might turn to freshman Kyle Allen if things don’t start turning around quickly. Hill desperately needs to get back on track Saturday against Louisiana-Monroe before the Aggies close the season against a gantlet of Auburn, Missouri and LSU.

Coach under the microscope: Florida’s Will Muschamp

Every indication seems to be that the end is near for Muschamp at Florida. But what happens if his Gators pull a huge upset against hated rival Georgia on Saturday? Is there a scenario where the Gators miraculously look like a different team coming out of their open date and show some progress to end the season? It might require a miracle for Muschamp to return as Florida’s head coach next season -- and that’s pretty much what it would be if the Gators snap their three-game losing streak against Georgia.

Storyline to watch: Todd Gurley and the NCAA

Georgia expects to hear back soon from the NCAA regarding Todd Gurley’s reinstatement request. The Bulldogs’ star sat out during wins against Missouri and Arkansas after accusations that he accepted money for autographing memorabilia jeopardized his eligibility. Gurley remains one of the SEC’s leading rushers with 773 yards in just five games, and Nick Chubb has been an outstanding replacement during Gurley’s absence, but the Bulldogs have to love their chances against Florida if the one-time Heisman Trophy front runner returns to the lineup on Saturday.

Intriguing matchup: Maty Mauk against Kentucky’s secondary

Missouri quarterback Mauk has been awful in SEC play -- he has completed 40 percent of his passes, averaged 98 passing yards per game and tossed two touchdowns against five interceptions in four conference games == which could make things interesting on Saturday. Kentucky doesn’t have the most imposing defense, but it boasts arguably the most improved secondary in the nation this season. The Wildcats have intercepted 13 passes in eight games after picking off just three throws in the entire 2013 season. If Mauk fails to raise his game on Saturday, the Wildcats might give the defending SEC East champs all they can handle.
The Magnolia State is home to the No. 1- and No. 3-ranked teams in the country.

If you haven't found time to let that fact soak in, you should do so. It's been a crazy football season, but nothing better illustrates how upside down things have gotten than the transcendence of Mississippi State and Ole Miss.

Don't let the novelty of the rankings fool you, though. Neither program is a fluke. Their rise hasn't been due to smoke and mirrors. These are two solidly built football teams.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisBehind QB Dak Prescott, Mississippi State's offense is something to behold in the SEC and nationally.
Which brings us to today's Take Two debate: Would you rather have Ole Miss' defense or Mississippi State's offense?

Alex Scarborough: Five years ago, this would have been a simple answer. I would have taken Ole Miss' Landshark defense and been on my merry way.

But this isn't years past. This is a new SEC that thrives on offense.

For that reason, give me Mississippi State's offense. Give me Dak Prescott's mobility and arm strength. Give me Ben Beckwith at guard, Josh Robinson at tailback and De'Runnya Wilson at receiver. I don't care who you have, that's a hard bunch to stop. And I didn't even mention Jameon Lewis, Brandon Holloway and Malcolm Johnson.

The Bulldogs might not have the brand-name cache of others in the SEC, but those guys can put up points in a hurry. They lead the league in yards per game (529.7) and rank second in points per game (41.9). They're balanced, too, with 5.5 yards per rush and 9.1 yards per pass attempt. More than 23 percent of their plays go for 10 yards or more.

And they have the one thing no defense can account for: a star quarterback.

As long as they have Prescott under center, they have a chance. He wears No. 15 for a reason, and like Tim Tebow, he can will his team to victory. I won't even bother with Prescott's eye-popping statistics (you can find a Heisman Trophy tracker if you must know) because it's his leadership that's the most invaluable part of his game. Good luck stopping that.

Sam Khan: I hear you, Alex. I hear you loud and clear. And honestly, it's hard for me to pick against Prescott and Mississippi State because I, too, believe in the power of a star quarterback, and nobody has been better than Prescott this season.

But Ole Miss' defense has a nickname (the Landsharks) for a reason. It's that good.

[+] EnlargeOle Miss
Joe Murphy/Getty ImagesThe Rebels' defense has held all seven opponents this season to 20 points or fewer.
The numbers speak for themselves. No. 1 in the nation in points allowed per game (10.6) and goal-to-go efficiency (25 percent). No. 3 nationally in yards per play (4.15) and red zone efficiency (33.3 percent). No. 5 in turnover margin (plus-10). No. 12 in third-down conversion rate (29.6 percent). I could go on, but you get the picture.

There's a reason for the old adage "defense wins championships." It's cliché and simplistic, but it's true. A team can't beat you if it can't score, and nobody's better at keeping opponents out of the end zone than the Rebels. And that scoring average should be lower, considering seven of those points are the result of an Alabama fumble return.

I'll take Robert Nkemdiche, C.J. Johnson, Marquis Haynes and that defensive front. I'll take the heart of a player like linebacker D.T. Shackelford. I'll take a secondary with players such as Tony Conner, Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt. Speed, tackling, a good mix of youth and experience. Give me the Landsharks. Fins up.

Scarborough: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But here's the question I'd pose to you: When the Egg Bowl does roll around on Nov. 29, do you think Ole Miss will be able to stop Mississippi State offensively? Would the Rebs keep the Bulldogs under, say, 28 points? Because I'm not sure they will.

Wilson, at 6-foot-5, is a matchup nightmare. Pair that size with the speedy Lewis underneath and you're talking about a headache for any secondary. And it's not like you can focus on just the passing game, either. Robinson's ability to pound between the tackles would negate Ole Miss' pass-rush and demand a safety play closer to the line of scrimmage. He and Prescott running the read-option is dangerous because neither is easy to bring down.

While I think it would be a close contest and a ton of fun to watch, I think Prescott & Co. would put up points on the Rebs. Prescott's dual-threat ability and State's balance offensively is the difference, to me.

Khan: I do think the Rebels have what it takes to keep the Bulldogs' offense in check come Egg Bowl time. This defense is versatile enough to stop just about anything. They shut down a traditional offense, like Alabama's, save for one drive when the Crimson Tide mostly ran behind Cam Robinson. But that was the only touchdown the Rebels' defense yielded that day.

Against a talented spread team, like Texas A&M, the Rebels had answers there, too. The Aggies tried to run it and couldn't (1.5 yards per carry). They tried to throw it and couldn't do that either. And they put enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks to wreak havoc and force errant throws, which leads to turnovers. I think the Auburn game in a couple of weeks will be another good barometer for the Ole Miss defense.

Wilson is pretty talented. So is this guy -- you might have heard of him -- named Amari Cooper. When the Crimson Tide came to Oxford, he had a nice day (nine catches, 91 yards) but no touchdowns. T.J. Yeldon had 123 yards rushing, but again no touchdowns, and the Rebels kept Derrick Henry in check.

The Rebels haven't allowed more than 20 points in a game this season (that came on the road, to Texas A&M and, mind you, the final six came as time expired when the game was out of hand). I'd like their chances at keeping Mississippi State under that 28-point benchmark. When the time comes, it'll be entertaining to watch those two units go head-to-head, that's for sure.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 8

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
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The only good thing about a day full of blowouts in the SEC is that there are plenty of helmet stickers to hand out.

Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia: How do you top a 143-yard, one-touchdown performance in your first collegiate start? By rushing for 202 yards and two touchdowns in your second start. That's exactly what Chubb did in place of the suspended Todd Gurley on Saturday, leading Georgia past Arkansas, 45-32. He became only the third freshman in school history to rush for more than 200 yards in a game (Herschel Walker, Rodney Hampton). As long as Chubb keeps getting 30-plus carries a game, he's going to keep showing up on this list.

Marquis Haynes, DE, Ole Miss: Don't get me wrong. Senquez Golson is deserving of a helmet sticker with two interceptions on Saturday. But it was Haynes and the defensive line that set the tone for the Rebels. They held Tennessee to zero rushing yards in large part thanks to nine sacks on the night. Haynes led the way with five tackles, 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery during the 34-3 win. The freshman might not get the recognition of his counterpart Robert Nkemdiche, but he's one of the SEC's better young stars whom nobody's talking about.

Terrence Magee, RB, LSU: It was supposed to be Leonard Fournette with the huge game, but Magee said “move over freshman, I'm taking this one.” Magee rushed for 127 yards and two touchdowns on just nine carries in LSU's 41-3 win over Kentucky. That's 14.1 yards per carry for those counting at home. He also happened to be the team's leading receiver with three catches for 44 yards. Fournette might be the LSU running back to watch in the second half, but don't forget about Magee. He's not going anywhere.

Marcus Murphy, RB, Missouri: Murphy wasted no time putting his stamp on Saturday's game in Gainesville, returning the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. But he wasn't done yet. No, he had more in store for the Gators. Murphy made it 14-0 with a 5-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, and he would later return a punt 82 yards for another score. The senior finished with 224 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns on the night. He was one of the big reasons why Missouri won 42-13 despite only gaining 119 yards on offense.

Blake Sims, QB, Alabama: T.J. Yeldon, you deserve a helmet sticker. Amari Cooper, you deserve a helmet sticker. Alabama's defense, you deserve a helmet sticker. It was that kind of game for the Crimson Tide. But the nod here goes to Sims, who went 16-of-27 for 268 yards and three touchdowns in the Tide's 59-0 win over Texas A&M. He also made arguably the best move of the day on his 43-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter. This team, Sims included, was criticized after last week's win over Arkansas. It responded in a big way.

Midseason All-SEC team

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
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The many members of the Greatest Show on Turf who were honored at halftime. OK, so maybe we weren't perfect with our preseason All-SEC team, but how can you blame us? There are always surprises, and at the midway point, this season has been no different. Just look at which teams are leading the conference. Who saw that coming?

So we at the SEC blog came together and updated our all-conference team. There were some carry-overs from the initial list, but there are also some new names, some names that might have gone under the radar before the season.

Without further ado, here's your midseason All-SEC team:

OFFENSE

QB: Dak Prescott, Mississippi State
No quarterback has been better in the SEC. Prescott has 2,089 total yards with 23 touchdowns and has taken down three straight top-10 opponents.
Preseason pick: Nick Marshall, Auburn

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisDak Prescott has passed for 1,478 yards with 14 touchdowns and just 4 interceptions for the top-ranked Bulldogs. He's rushed for 576 yards and 8 scores and also has 35 receiving yards with a TD.
RB: Todd Gurley, Georgia
Suspension aside, Gurley has been the nation's best player. He still leads the SEC in yards (773), yards per carry (8.2) and rushing touchdowns (eight).
Preseason pick: Gurley

RB: Josh Robinson, Mississippi State
Once known as the “Bowling Ball,” he's a certified wrecking ball with his bruising style. He's second in the SEC with 689 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.
Preseason pick: Mike Davis, South Carolina

WR: Amari Cooper, Alabama
There's been no more dominant wideout in the SEC than Alabama's junior from South Florida. More than half of Tide QB Blake Sims' completions have ended up in Cooper's hands.
Preseason pick: Cooper

WR: D'haquille Williams, Auburn
We all knew he was going to be good, but this good? The junior college transfer leads Auburn in receptions (31), yards (493) and touchdowns (five).
Preseason pick: Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss

TE: Evan Engram, Ole Miss
Engram didn't receive as much preseason publicity as some SEC tight ends, but has been the league's best so far with 18 receptions for 264 yards.
Preseason pick: O.J. Howard, Alabama

OT: Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M
The senior has been solid, though not perfect, in his transition from right tackle to left tackle. He has done an overall fine job protecting Kenny Hill's blind side.
Preseason pick: Ogbuehi

OG: A.J. Cann, South Carolina
South Carolina's season hasn't gone as planned but Cann, a fifth-year senior, has been a consistent force from his left guard spot.
Preseason pick: Cann

C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn
There's been a lot of shuffling up front, but Dismukes has been the constant. The senior has started 43 of Auburn's last 44 games, including all six this season.
Preseason pick: Dismukes

OG: Ben Beckwith, Mississippi State
One of the driving forces in State's running game, the former walk-on has started 18 straight games and filled in for suspended center Dillon Day against Texas A&M.
Preseason pick: Vadal Alexander, LSU

OT: Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
Bo Wallace has been Good Bo, not Bad Bo, because of his O-line. Tunsil has kept watch of Wallace's blind side and helped the Rebs to the second-best passing game in the SEC.
Preseason pick: La'el Collins, LSU

DEFENSE

DL: Preston Smith, Mississippi State
At one point, Smith was named the SEC's defensive lineman of the week for three straight weeks. He does it all for the Bulldogs' stout defensive front.
Preseason pick: Chris Jones, Mississippi State

[+] EnlargeSenquez Golson
Joe Murphy/Getty ImagesSenquez Golson leads the SEC and is tied for second in the nation with five interceptions.
DL: Shane Ray, Missouri
Ranked second nationally in tackles for loss and third in sacks, Ray has been consistent. He has at least one TFL in every game and only one sackless game.
Preseason pick: Dante Fowler Jr., Florida

DL: Myles Garrett, Texas A&M
The true freshman is living up to the hype that defined his recruitment. His 7.5 sacks are a school freshman record and only a half-sack behind the SEC freshman record.
Preseason pick: A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama

DL: Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
The statistics don't tell the story of the sophomore, who has been a disruptive force for the Rebels. Example: the pressure he put on Kenny Hill on Saturday to force a pick-six.
Preseason pick: Nkemdiche

LB: Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State
Try to find a better linebacker who can blitz, clog the run, cover and play sideline-to-sideline as well as McKinney. He has a team-high 41 tackles with three sacks.
Preseason pick: McKinney

LB: Leonard Floyd, Georgia
With four sacks, the Bulldogs' chief pass-rusher hasn't had a truly dominant game yet, but he typically draws the most attention among UGA's pack of sack artists.
Preseason pick: Floyd

LB Xzavier Dickson, Alabama
It has taken him four years, but Dickson is finally having that breakthrough season. The senior leads Alabama with seven tackles for loss and five sacks.
Preseason pick: Ramik Wilson, Georgia

CB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
Tied for second in the SEC with six pass breakups, Hargreaves is rarely tested due to his terrific instincts, great range and solid tackling ability.
Preseason pick: Hargreaves

CB: Senquez Golson, Ole Miss
One of the SEC's best cover corners with an SEC-leading five interceptions (second nationally). He's tied for first in the SEC with eight passes defended.
Preseason pick: Tre'Davious White, LSU

S: Landon Collins, Alabama
It's hard to imagine where Bama's defense would be without Collins, who sealed Saturday's win with an interception. The talented junior leads the Tide in tackles and passes defended.
Preseason pick: Collins

S: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss
He may not lead his team in interceptions, but Prewitt is possibly the Rebs best defensive player. The veteran safety has 3.5 tackles for loss, two picks and 32 total tackles.
Preseason pick: Prewitt

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Elliott Fry, South Carolina
Fry leads the SEC with 10 field goals made and a conversion rate over 90 percent. The sophomore has a long of 45 yards and is perfect on 25 PATs.
Preseason pick: Marshall Morgan, Georgia

P: JK Scott, Alabama
Looking for Alabama's first-half MVP? Look no further than Scott, a lanky true freshman with a big leg. Forget leading the SEC, Scott ranks sixth in the country in yards per punt (46.7).
Preseason pick: Drew Kaser, Texas A&M

KR/PR: Quan Bray, Auburn
The senior might not have lived up to his potential as a wide receiver, but he's making an impact in the return game. Bray leads the SEC, averaging 25 yards per punt return.
Preseason pick: Christion Jones, Alabama

SEC morning links

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
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1. This is what Alabama football has come to -- fans losing their minds over a one-point win against Arkansas last Saturday. ESPN analyst Joey Galloway stoked the flames with his take:



Quick, someone check if Phyllis from Mulga is still breathing. Nick Saban isn't about to hear it from those crazed fans, though. He blew his top in yet another press conference eruption on Monday, saying, "It really sorta, if you want to know the truth about it, pisses me off when I talk to people that have this expectation like they're disappointed that we only won the game, 14-13, and in the way we played." The frustration Saban speaks of is obvious. But as Steve Spurrier found out when he built Florida into a powerhouse in the 1990s, out-of-control fan expectations come with the turf.

2. Speaking of crazed fans, a Tennessee supporter hoping to help his Volunteers in their game at No. 3 Ole Miss on Saturday posted a Snapchat photo taken in August of Rebels star defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche smoking from a bong. What started as a message board post on Sunday night naturally spread to social media. Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze acknowledged it during his Monday press conference, saying, "I'm very aware of the picture and also when it was taken and where it was taken." He also said he is "super confident" the school's drug policies are being enforced properly.

3. From the "It was bound to happen" file: Some Florida fans have created websites called HireDanMullen.com and WeWantDan.com in hopes of persuading athletic director Jeremy Foley to fire coach Will Muschamp and hire Mississippi State's Dan Mullen. One of the sites even links to Foley's email address. If Muschamp is truly on his way out, Mullen does make a lot of sense with his success at MSU and as the offensive coordinator at Florida under Urban Meyer before that. In fact, the Gators offense hasn't done much since Mullen left. These new sites aren't much to look at, but they are reminiscent of the classic FireRonZook site, which has morphed into an anti-Muschamp site, by the way.

Around the SEC
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Florida’s defense was gassed. Hands on their hips and sucking for air, the Gators were beaten down by Alabama’s offense for four quarters. After 87 plays, they were ready for the game to be over. They’d been dominated. Their body language told the story.

 But even after posting 42 points and 645 yards of offense, Alabama’s offensive line wasn’t pleased with the outcome. There were too many penalties, too many instances of miscommunication up front. The inside running game, which had been a point of emphasis for weeks, didn’t have much success.

“We didn’t play a perfect game,” said center Ryan Kelly after the game on Sept. 20. “I put a lot of that blame on me, especially with the snap count issues. We’re better than that.

“You look at what we can do, even if we have some false starts and missed calls ...”

Kelly didn’t have to finish his sentence. We can imagine what more Alabama could have done operating at prime efficiency: instead of finishing second all-time in total offense, the Tide might have broken the single-game school record.

Against Ole Miss on Saturday, Kelly and Co. will have another opportunity to show what a perfect game looks like. And if you’re the Rebels, that should frighten you.

Because if Alabama’s offensive line starts dominating again and the inside running game comes back, there won’t be a single phase of the offense you can attack.

“We want to get downhill on guys,” Kelly said this week. “The more that we can run the ball, the more it evens out the passing game.

“We don’t want to be a heavy pass team, but we’re going to take advantage of the looks we get. I’m not going to say that checking it out to wide receivers is a bad thing. We certainly want to run the ball down hill. We’ll see what happens this week.”

With Robert Nkemdiche and a skilled group of pass-rushers on the other side, nothing will come easy for Alabama’s offensive line. The way defensive coordinator Chris Kiffin likes to bring pressure can make for difficult blocking assignments.

“Their quickness is really a tremendous advantage that has given us problems in the past, and they do a lot of movements and a lot of stunts up front,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban. “They’ve got some really good pass-rush guys – No. 10 [C.J. Johnson] does a great job off the edge, usually plays into the boundary. They have a lot of experience. I think they have nine starters back on defense.

“Without getting technical, they do a good job of trying to take away what you want to do based on their scheme. They’ve been very, very effective doing that, but it still goes back to their quickness, the stunts, the way they can pressure you, and they do a good job of disguising things in the back end, mixing it up, making it more difficult for the quarterback.”

Brian Vogler, Alabama’s senior tight end, said Ole Miss’ front seven is, “The best we’ve seen yet.” The way they slant, he said, can throw you off.

Negative plays could be a killer for Alabama. Three-and-outs won't do the defense any favors against Ole Miss’ uptempo offense.

Controlling the pace of the game will be key.

“It’s a huge thing,” Vogler said. “You want to keep it out of their hands and keep it in our hands and control the tempo of the game, make the most of the possessions we get and try to capitalize on those opportunities.”
video
When Ole Miss hosts Alabama on Saturday afternoon, the game will feature the Rebels' uptempo spread offense and the Crimson Tide's traditional power running game with a lot of play-action passing mixed in.

While a vast majority of teams in the SEC have been focused on defending the new and innovative uptempo offenses that have spread like a wildfire throughout the conference, Ole Miss has quietly been building its defense to stand up to the more physical teams of the SEC West. The transformation is working; the Rebels are No. 4 in the country in total defense, yielding just 248 yards per game.

In two full seasons of recruiting, Rebels coach Hugh Freeze has led Ole Miss to the No. 5 recruiting class and the No. 17 recruiting class. Ole Miss currently has the No. 24 class in the country. But with several ESPN 300 members remaining on the recruiting board that number is sure to increase.

Prior to Freeze’s arrival in Oxford, Mississippi, the Rebels didn’t have a top 20 recruiting class in any year since ESPN started doing recruiting rankings back in 2006.

Nobody will argue that the Ole Miss-Vanderbilt series has the acclaim or reputation of Alabama-Auburn or Florida-Georgia. It certainly isn’t close to being as volatile, either.

But to those around the programs and those invested in these teams, this series is very much a rivalry. Mississippi State and LSU might bring out more passion in Ole Miss fans, and Vandy’s followers might have more hatred for Tennessee, but this game resonates with folks in Oxford and Nashville.

Saturday marks the 89th meeting between the schools. They recruit many of the same players out of the Tennessee area and the series has been pretty competitive in its long history. Ole Miss leads the series 48-38-2 but is 27-22-2 in Nashville, where Saturday’s game will be played.

[+] EnlargeHugh Freeze
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsOle Miss coach Hugh Freeze and quarterback Bo Wallace will try to beat Vanderbilt for the second year in a row.
“They’re a tough team because they bring it every time, no matter what,” said Ole Miss defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, who made his college debut in last year’s Vandy game. “They’re in the SEC, and SEC teams are always good. The Southeastern Conference is a hard conference; I don’t care who you play. If you do sleep on a team, you can lose. I don’t see us sleeping on no team.”

The series has been played annually since 1970. Vandy has won six of the last nine against Ole Miss, including three of the last five in Nashville. Ten of the last 15 meetings have been decided by eight points or fewer, and the last two were decided a combined five points.

The only team that Vandy has played more than Ole Miss (88 times) is Tennessee (108).

“It’s always been a fun and exciting game to be a part of,” junior Vanderbilt offensive lineman Spencer Pulley said. “I know the community and fans have really gotten into it, especially the last couple of years. As far as a rivalry, over the last couple of years it’s really turned into a good one.”

In 2012, Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace threw a career-high 403 yards and wide receiver Ja-Mes Logan caught eight passes for 160 yards – both career-highs -- only for the Rebels to blow a 17-point lead. The Commodores scored 14 unanswered points in the third quarter and won 27-26 on a 26-yard touchdown pass from Jordan Rodgers to Chris Boyd with 52 seconds remaining.

Last year, Ole Miss snapped the Commodores’ three-game winning streak with 29 second-half points in a 39-35 victory, capped by an exhilarating 75-yard touchdown run with 1:07 left.

The images of a cutting, darting Scott still plays in the minds of some Vandy players, and it’s added a little fuel to Saturday’s game.

"It sticks with me, 'cause every time I think about Ole Miss, I think about that last play,” Vandy defensive lineman Adam Butler said. “And I just think about if we would've stayed with our fundamentals, which is an area that coach said we didn't really stick with in this past game.”

Ah, yes, the last game. A comedy of errors for the Commodores. With seven turnovers, seven penalties, less than 280 yards of offense and no points on offense, Vandy was steamrolled in its home opener 37-7 to a Temple team that won just two games last year.

Head coach Derek Mason is embarrassed, and so are his players. But they’re motivated by the fact that Ole Miss visits for a late afternoon game at LP Field, just down the road from Vandy’s campus.

Mason will be baptized into this rivalry on Saturday, but players filled him in on the importance – and bragging rights – this game holds.

“The veterans got up and talked about the rivalry between the two schools and how tight it’s been,” Mason said. “That’s when your leadership starts to come out and shows you what the scope of this game is. Not only is it an SEC opponent, it’s a rivalry game. There’s always a little more on these rivalry games, but I think it helps us understand where we need to go, what the level of intensity is going to be.”

Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze is very familiar with this game. He spent three years in it as an assistant at Ole Miss from 2005-2007, when the Rebels went 1-2 against the Commodores. As the head coach he’s 1-1, and knows it’s dangerous to discount the Commodores.

“We’re not going to overlook them,” said Freeze, whose 15th-ranked Rebels are coming off a 35-13 victory over Boise State. “We’ll get them ready. It’s an SEC football game on the road.

“They’ve always played us tough up there, for whatever reason.”

What will add a little more to this game is the atmosphere inside LP Field. With a large contingent of Ole Miss fans residing in and around the Nashville area, there’s a chance that this could actually feel like a home game for the Rebels. The short drive from Oxford, Mississippi – roughly 230 miles – should also help pack a lot more red and blue into "Nashvegas."

“This game is going to be a live atmosphere,” Ole Miss receiver Laquon Treadwell said. “I can’t wait.”

SEC morning links

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
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1. Raise your hand if you saw that coming from Texas A&M last night? Nobody? That's OK, I didn't and neither did my SEC colleagues, as evidenced by our Week 1 predictions. The Aggies coming out of Columbia, South Carolina with a win wasn't far-fetched but absolutely dominating? That was unexpected. Especially for the College Station-area Ashley Furniture store. Ashley promised customers free furniture if the Aggies beat the Gamecocks by 10 or more points. The result? More than $1 million in free furniture given away. The Aggies themselves were pretty fired up, evidenced by this celebration video involving Kevin Sumlin and the team. But the biggest story on Thursday night was none other than quarterback Kenny Hill, who -- in his first career start -- broke Johnny Manziel's single-game school record for passing yards and completions. Hill proved that the Aggies are far from a one-trick pony.

2. There's some good and some not so good to take away from Ole Miss' win against Boise State on Thursday night. The good is the defense was stout. The not so good was that quarterback Bo Wallace wasn't as consistent as you'd like a senior quarterback and third-year starter to be, throwing three interceptions and four touchdowns. Those are two of the three things we learned from the Rebels 35-13 win over the Broncos. Robert Nkemdiche was certainly pleased with the defensive effort. Here's a look at some of the plays that changed the game for the Rebels.

3. Nick Saban hasn't publicly named Alabama's starting quarterback, but reading into his commentary during his radio show on Thursday night, but it certainly sounds like Blake Sims might take the first snap. Saban dropped a few hints into his thought process Thursday and one report claims that Sims will indeed start, citing a source. Saban lauded Sims' experience, something Jacob Coker lacks after arriving in Tuscaloosa, Alabama just this summer. "Here's the thing everybody needs to understand that people don't understand," Saban said. "We have a guy playing quarterback who has been in the system for a long time and really has a really good understanding, very confident in what he's doing. I know he didn't play very well in the spring game and that's how a lot of people evaluate him. But he has done very well this fall and he did very well last spring and he has a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge."

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SEC morning links

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
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1. You’re up LSU. Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason named Patton Robinette as his starting quarterback on Thursday night, leaving only one starting battle -- LSU’s -- publicly open. Tennessee (Justin Worley), Kentucky (Patrick Towles), Texas A&M (Kenny Hill) and now Vanderbilt have all announced the victors in their quarterback races lately after allowing the races to extend well into preseason camp. At Vandy, Robinette, who came into August as the favorite, won out over LSU transfer Stephen Rivers and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary. “We were just looking for the most consistent guy day in and day out. He had very few lows, a lot of highs and really just did a great job of keeping his composure,” Mason said in announcing his decision.

2. You’ve probably seen 100 lame, subjective lists where some bored columnist ranks the best SEC fan bases -- usually in a summertime column when there’s no actual news to cover. Emory University’s sports marketing analytics group tries to gauge fan support in a more scientific fashion (you can read about its methodology here) and it found that six of the top 12 fan bases are in the SEC, led by Nos. 3-6 Georgia, Florida, Auburn and Arkansas. Surely Alabama and LSU fans can find some nits to pick with this study, but take that up with the folks at Emory. As they explained, evaluating the quality of a sports brand is a complicated endeavor.

3. Let’s revise that item from this post yesterday. It turns out that the organizers of a charity fundraiser in Mobile, Alabama, don’t want infamous Crimson Tide fan Harvey Updyke to be associated with the event after all. That’s the smart move. This is an event designed to engender goodwill for a great cause, not give a jerk the dunking or pie in the face that he so richly deserves. Former Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron’s mother, Dee Dee, is involved in the event, which will be held in tribute of a 7-year-old boy who recently passed away after a battle with cancer. Here’s hoping it turns into the successful event it should have been all along before adding Updyke threatened to turn it into a sideshow act.

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Preseason All-SEC team

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
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With the season exactly a week away, we're taking one last look at the best players the SEC has to offer.

We've ranked the 25 best players, every position and the top players at every position. That's a lot of rankings, but with the coaches announcing their All-SEC teams later Thursday, we thought we'd create our own 2014 preseason team. We're also releasing our ESPN.com All-American team on Thursday, so you're getting quite the gift!

The esteemed Chris Low and I put our heads together to create one team that we think won't garner any criticism. It's perfect, really:

OFFENSE

QB - Nick Marshall, Auburn: Although he started his SEC career as a cornerback at Georgia, Marshall enters the 2014 season as the most explosive quarterback in the conference. He’s also improved as a passer and should be even better now that he has an entire year in Gus Malzahn’s offense under his belt.

RB - Todd Gurley, Georgia: The only thing holding Gurley back last season was injuries. He just missed rushing for 1,000 yards for the second straight season but says he’s 100 percent healthy again. He has the perfect blend of size and speed and will be right in the mix for the Heisman Trophy.

RB - Mike Davis, South Carolina: He might have flown under the radar heading into last season, but Davis left little doubt that he was one of the premier running backs in college football. He’s built low to the ground and is tough to tackle but also has breakaway speed.

WR - Amari Cooper, Alabama: Lingering injuries a year ago kept Cooper from matching his production as a freshman, when he was virtually unstoppable down the stretch for the Crimson Tide. He’s once again healthy and poised to reclaim the mantle as the top college pass-catcher.

WR - Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss: All Treadwell did as a true freshman was lead Ole Miss in receiving with 72 catches. At 6-foot-2 and 229 pounds, he’s moving from the slot to the outside receiver position this season and has the hands, speed and size to have an even bigger season as a sophomore.

TE - O.J. Howard, Alabama: Coach Nick Saban has had some good tight ends at Alabama but nobody as talented as Howard when it comes to getting down the field and making big plays in the passing game. The 6-6, 240-pound Howard will be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.

OT - Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M: The Aggies just keep churning out premier tackles, and like Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckel before him, the 6-5, 305-pound Ogbuehi is moving from the right side to the left side this season. Already some analysts have pegged him as the top tackle in next year's NFL draft.

OG - Vadal Alexander, LSU: Now in his third season as a starter on LSU’s offensive line, the 6-5, 340-pound Alexander is a powerful run-blocker and equally effective as a pass-protector. Of his 22 career starts, 13 have come at left guard and nine at right tackle, so he’s also versatile.

C - Reese Dismukes, Auburn: A finalist for the Rimington Trophy last season, Dismukes has been a starter since his freshman season, spanning 37 career starts. He’s the one who makes that Auburn offensive line go and a big reason the Tigers led the country in rushing last season.

OG - A.J. Cann, South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ offensive line has a chance to be one of the best in the league, in large part because Cann returns as one of the top interior offensive linemen. He’s a dominant run-blocker and a force at the point of attack.

OT - La’el Collins, LSU: Some thought the 6-5, 321-pound Collins might turn pro after last season, but he elected to return for his senior season and should be one of the top college tackles. He started his career at guard but is now protecting the blind side for the Tigers.

DEFENSE

DL - Dante Fowler Jr., Florida: The Gators' top pass-rusher, Fowler could be a monster this year as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker. Fowler covers so much ground with his speed. He can terrorize the backfield and drop back to cover running backs and tight ends.

DL - A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama: As a freshman, Robinson led Alabama with 5.5 sacks and had eight tackles for loss as both an end and tackle. Robinson is extremely disruptive up front and has barely scratched the surface with his potential.

DL - Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss: He arrived in Oxford as the nation's No. 1 overall recruit, and although he only had two sacks and eight tackles for loss as a freshman, he's been the Rebels' best player this offseason. Nkemdiche has moved to his more natural position of tackle and has been nearly unstoppable in camp.

DL - Chris Jones, Mississippi State: He might not have had the hype attached to his name that Nkemdiche had as a freshman, but he made more of an overall impact for the Bulldogs. Jones can line up both inside and out and isn't just disruptive for his own sake. He creates tons of plays for his teammates.

LB - Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State: Quietly, McKinney enters the 2014 season with 173 tackles in the past two seasons. He's the captain of Mississippi State's defense at middle linebacker but has the speed to cover ground all over the field and can play outside if needed.

LB - Leonard Floyd, Georgia: After he led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks last season, Floyd's hype is growing by the minute. His teammates have had trouble blocking him all offseason, and with his tremendous speed and strength, he should be an absolute terror off the edge.

LB - Ramik Wilson, Georgia: With his ability to cover so much ground and frustrate opposing backfields, Wilson has played himself into consideration for a first-round NFL draft grade for next year. During his first year as a starter with the Bulldogs in 2013, Wilson led the SEC with 134 tackles.

CB - Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida: As a freshman last season, Hargreaves became one of the nation's best cover corners. He blankets receivers and has tremendous range, and he led the Gators with three interceptions and 14 passes defended in 2013.

S - Landon Collins, Alabama: Another Alabama safety with the potential to be one of the first defenders taken when the NFL comes calling, Collins can do just about everything for the Crimson Tide. He's a true ball hawk when he drops back but is also physical enough to play deep inside the box.

S - Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss: His range and and ball skills make him a dangerous man to throw against. Prewitt was named an All-American last year after defending 13 passes and leading the SEC with six interceptions.

CB - Tre’Davious White, LSU: He's excellent in man-to-man situations and led the Tigers with nine passes defended in 2013. He had only two interceptions last season, but with the amount of ground he can cover and his nose for the ball, White should have no problem pushing past that number this fall.

K - Marshall Morgan, Georgia: After a rocky first season, Morgan connected on 22 of his 24 field goal attempts in 2013. He really improved his long game, too, making 7 of 8 kicks from 40 yards or more.

P - Drew Kaser, Texas A&M: Not only did Kaser damage a light in A&M's indoor practice facility earlier this week, he was an All-American and a Ray Guy Award finalist last year after booming 17 punts 50-plus yards, putting 17 inside the 20-yard line and averaging a school-record 47.4-yard average per punt.

KR - Christion Jones, Alabama: One of the most versatile players in the league, Jones ranked second in the SEC in kickoff returns (28.7 yards per return) and punt returns (14 YPR) and returned three kicks for touchdowns last season.
OXFORD, Miss. – Before Ole Miss' historic 2013 recruiting class came together, No. 1 overall recruit Robert Nkemdiche had a question for his eventual teammates.

Instead of joining a powerhouse such as Alabama, Florida, Georgia or LSU, why not start something special for the future? Why not help build something special?

On Feb. 6, 2013, the seeds for success were planted as the Rebels signed the nation's No. 5 recruiting class, adding the No. 1 receiver (Laquon Treadwell) and offensive tackle (Laremy Tunsil), the No. 2 safety (Tony Conner) and the No. 1 junior college defensive tackle (Lavon Hooks) to a haul that included the grand prize of Nkemdiche.

"I wanted to make history," Nkemdiche said. "We're going to say we helped bring this program to where it is now. It'll be like we brought this up. We sat through all the 'Ole Miss is nothing' [talk], and we still did what we had to do to bring it up."

For years, that talk has dominated the Ole Miss narrative. Success has been sporadic and short-lived in Oxford. Ole Miss hasn't won an SEC title since 1963 and has endured 19 losing seasons since claiming the national championship in 1962.

This recruiting class not only provided the Rebels with immediate field help, it gave a fan base hope. Coach Hugh Freeze's legacy and the perception of the entire program rests with this class.

That's quite the burden for a group of players still waiting to jump into their 20s, but that's how important and how good this class is.

"It's a lot of pressure, but we're going to humble ourselves," Tunsil said. "We're going to lead the team, we're going to take care of the team."

It didn't take long for this group to earn respect, as older players naturally drifted toward them. Some expected them to come in and push their high school weight around, but that didn't happen. For the most part, they sat and listened. They watched and learned. Then, when they were asked to perform, they impressed, even through the development process.

"We always wanted to do extra work," said Treadwell, who led the Rebels with 72 receptions as a freshman. "We took it upon ourselves to push everybody and make sure we're always working and trying to fix something that's wrong.

"It's a cool feeling, but I think with the way [we] work, they have no choice. Summer workouts, I'm always trying to push everybody, trying to be out front and give it my all on every play. It carries over when they see it in film. It's like, ‘Well, he's doing it right, so if he's telling me something, I'm sure he knows what's going on.'"

The core of this class lies in Nkemdiche, Treadwell and Tunsil. All three were heavy contributors last year, with Treadwell and Tunsil making the biggest impacts. Treadwell was named the SEC Freshman of the Year by the league's coaches, and he started 12 games. Tunsil started nine games at left tackle and was a second-team All-SEC selection.

Nkemdiche struggled to consistently showcase the dominance that made him such a special high school player, and he registered two sacks and eight tackles for loss. But with his mind and body in better shape -- and a move to defensive tackle -- Nkemdiche is primed for a big second season.

Those are the stars, but there are plenty of other important parts to this class. Conner collected 66 tackles in 12 starts last season and has All-SEC written all over him, while tight end Evan Engram was one of Ole Miss' best offensive weapons (21 catches for 268 yards and three touchdowns) through eight games. Ankle surgery ended Engram's season after that, but he was still named a second-team All-SEC member.

Freeze also hopes to see more development this year from a few pieces that could be crucial to the future. He has his eye on running backs Jordan Wilkins and Kailo Moore, and wide receiver Quincy Adeboyejo, who Freeze has pegged as a breakout candidate. The quarterback of the future could also lie in Ryan Buchanan or DeVante Kincade.

"The big thing that you would hope from them is that they're maturing mentally as young men on and off the field and understanding how to handle the grind more than they did when they first arrived," Freeze said of his sophomores. "That to me is the next step in their sophomore year."

Tunsil said the goal of this class is to bring a national championship back to Oxford. He and his classmates want it now. That might be a little premature, but that sort of thinking has been infectious throughout the team, and it has these sophomores eager to continue what they think will be an extraordinary journey.

"It's great that we could trust one another to do something special, and it's happening right before our eyes," Nkemdiche said. "After this huge year we're going to have, they're going to know we came for a purpose."

SEC's Super Sophomores in 2014

August, 7, 2014
Aug 7
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Everybody’s talking about the top players, top quarterbacks, even the top newcomers as we count down the days to the start of the 2014 season.

[+] EnlargeAlex Collins
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsAfter rushing for more than 1,000 yards as a freshman, what does Arkansas' Alex Collins have in store for his sophomore season?
 What about the top true sophomores?

The SEC is absolutely loaded in the department. Below, we list the 10 best. We’ll call them the Super Sophomores, and these are true second-year players out of high school, meaning junior college transfers, sophomores who redshirted their first season or sophomores who went to prep school for a year after leaving high school aren’t eligible.

Here goes, and they’re listed alphabetically:

Alex Collins, RB, Arkansas: Bret Bielema’s track record for producing marquee running backs speaks for itself, and the 5-foot-11, 215-pound Collins has the tools to be the next great one. He became the 10th true freshman in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards last season (1,026) and was named SEC Freshman of the Year by The Associated Press. Even as a freshman, Collins proved to be a pounder and did some of his best work in the fourth quarter.

Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida: If there’s a better all-around cornerback in college football, good luck finding him. The 5-11, 194-pound Hargreaves started the final 10 games last season for the Gators and earned third-team All-American honors by The Associated Press. He ranked second in the SEC in passes defended (1.17 per game) and had three interceptions as a freshman. Beware if you throw the ball in his direction.

Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama: When have the Crimson Tide not had two premier running backs under Nick Saban? This season, it will be T.J. Yeldon and Henry sharing most of the carries. And as good as Yeldon is, the 6-3, 241-pound Henry is the more physically imposing of the two. He has a better feel now for everything a back is responsible for in Alabama’s offense, and as we saw in the Sugar Bowl last season, he is a lightning-fast locomotive with the ball in his hands.

O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: Saban hasn’t had a tight end at Alabama as talented as the 6-6, 240-pound Howard, who showed only flashes of how good he could be a year ago. But this season, it’s on. He has improved as a blocker, and with so many talented skill players around him, he will be a prime target in Alabama’s offense. He has the speed to get down the middle and make plays and will be a real weapon in both the play-action game and in the red zone.

[+] EnlargeChris Jones
John Korduner/Icon SMIExpect Chris Jones to be a force in the middle of Mississippi State's defense this season.
 Chris Jones, DT, Mississippi State: There are talented young defensive linemen just about everywhere you look in the SEC, and the 6-5, 308-pound Jones doesn’t take a backseat to anyone. He says he’s still an end at heart, and the scary thing is that he’s athletic enough to still move out there and be effective. But where he’ll wreak the most havoc is from a tackle position. He’s slimmed down from the 315 pounds he played at last season and will be an absolute beast in the middle of that Mississippi State defense.

Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss: The No. 1 overall prospect in the country when he signed with the Rebels, Nkemdiche started in 10 games last season, six at end and four at tackle. He’s now settled in at tackle and is down to 285 pounds after arriving closer to 300. He’s powerful enough to overwhelm blockers and has the explosiveness to blow by them. He finished with eight tackles for loss a year ago, and his big-play numbers are only going to go up as a sophomore.

A’Shawn Robinson, DE, Alabama: The Crimson Tide’s most disruptive defensive lineman last season, and one of the SEC’s most disruptive defensive linemen, was just a freshman. The 6-4, 320-pound Robinson is poised for a huge sophomore season after leading Alabama with 5.5 sacks a year ago. He started in only two games last season, but can play end or nose in the Tide’s base 3-4 set and move inside to tackle when they go to four down linemen.

Rashard Robinson, CB, LSU: Even with a late start, Robinson developed into one of the top young cornerbacks in the SEC last season. He didn’t become eligible until the week of the opener, but it was obvious to everybody that the 6-3, 177-pound Pompano Beach, Florida, product had the range, wingspan and instincts to be a lockdown corner. He shut down Texas A&M’s Mike Evans in the win over the Aggies, and his best football is yet to come.

Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: Now pushing 230 pounds, the 6-2 Treadwell is even more physically imposing for his second tour through the SEC, and all he did as a freshman was lead Ole Miss with 72 catches, the second most in school history. He’ll move from the slot to the outside receiver position this season, and his combination of size, hands and speed makes him one of the most difficult matchups in the league.

Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss: Coach Hugh Freeze says very matter of factly that the 6-5, 305-pound Tunsil was as gifted an offensive tackle as he’s ever seen coming out of high school, and Tunsil has certainly lived up to that billing. He returns as the Rebels’ left tackle after starting nine games there a year ago and earning second-team All-SEC honors by the coaches. He allowed just one sack all last season.

Five who just missed the cut:

Montravius Adams, DT, Auburn

Tony Conner, S, Ole Miss

Hunter Henry, TE, Arkansas

Marquez North, WR, Tennessee

Tre’Davious White, CB, LSU

SEC lunchtime links

August, 4, 2014
Aug 4
12:00
PM ET
With camps underway or about to open, there is no shortage of news and notes from around the SEC. Let's dive right in:

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