SEC: Mississippi State Bulldogs

The Alabama Crimson Tide couldn’t handle the hurry-up. Clint Trickett might as well have blown kisses to Nick Saban the way he paraded West Virginia's offense up and down the field.

The Auburn Tigers struggled with the power running game. The same Arkansas Razorbacks' offense that ranked last in the SEC a year ago manhandled the Tigers’ front seven, posting 21 points by halftime.

The South Carolina Gamecocks just didn’t show up. Steve Spurrier’s defense laid down for the Texas A&M Aggies. His star running back, Mike Davis, shouldn’t have bothered dressing out.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsLes Miles and LSU joined several SEC teams who won their openers, but looked flawed in the process.
They all entered their season-openers with hopes of competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff, but the SEC’s three highest-ranked teams showed significant flaws in Week 1. The Gamecocks had their doors blown off. The Tide and Tigers won, but it wasn’t pretty. Even the LSU Tigers, a popular dark horse pick to reach the final four, had to be bailed out by a bit of Les Miles magic and the Wisconsin's' abrupt aversion to the running game.

By the time Monday rolled around, the dust settled and the big picture of the SEC became clear, it wasn’t what anyone expected. Somehow it was the Georgia Bulldogs and Texas A&M left standing as seemingly the league’s best hope of reaching the playoff.

But with all due respect to Todd Gurley’s inhuman exploits and Kenny Hill’s inspired performance, should we be sold? For that matter, should we be ready to call anyone the class of the SEC?

Right now there are far more questions than answers. Everyone, it seems, has flaws.

The East is a toss-up. Georgia certainly holds promise, but quarterback Hutson Mason still needs to show he can carry an offense, Gurley has to stay healthy and the secondary must continue improving despite missing so many starters from a season ago. South Carolina, meanwhile, has to do a complete 180 or it will lose to Georgia in two weeks and find itself in an insurmountable hole. Then there are the Florida Gators, who are a complete unknown given Mother Nature’s refusal to let them finally turn the page on 2013.

The West is even more convoluted. Texas A&M might be the real deal, but its offense is so young and it is still too early to say whether Mark Snyder has orchestrated the most impressive turnaround in history with that defense. Alabama has serious questions on defense, too, and at quarterback we might be jumping the gun a bit in proclaiming Blake Sims the answer. LSU could very well settle on Anthony Jennings under center, but he has the potential to be a reboot of Jordan Jefferson, which isn’t a good thing. Then there is Auburn, stuck with too many quarterbacks and not enough defenders, not to mention its brutal schedule.

If you’re looking for one of the favorites to run away with it, don’t hold your breath. In fact, if Week 1 showed us anything, it’s that while there are a bunch of good teams in the SEC, there is no one dominant team like in years past.

The Missouri Tigers won handily, the Ole Miss Rebels turned it on in the second half and the Mississippi State Bulldogs cruised to victory. All three should feel good about their dreams of reaching Atlanta.

Arkansas looked improved. So did the Kentucky Wildcats and Tennessee Volunteers. Though none of the them should go booking trips for the postseason, they could play the role of spoilers.

The only real slouch is the Vanderbilt Commodores.

When it comes time for playoff jockeying and the "my conference vs. your conference" disputes, parity will be the SEC’s No. 1 point of emphasis. But it will also be the reason it doesn’t yield an undefeated or even a one-loss team.

Alabama will get better. So will LSU and Auburn. Even South Carolina should improve with time. It is, in fact, only Week 1 we’re talking about.

But first impressions do mean something, and the first look we had of the SEC revealed a pack of teams loaded with potential but saddled with problems.

Until we find out who is ready to take a step forward and lead, it will continue to be a wide open race.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 1

August, 30, 2014
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Tennessee-Martin at Kentucky, SEC Network
Mark Stoops enters his second season at Kentucky, and he has a new starting quarterback, Patrick Towles. The third-year sophomore won the position battle in preseason training camp, and the Wildcats are looking for him to get off to a positive start. Establishing confidence early will be key, and against an FCS foe like Tennessee-Martin, that should be feasible. Stoops says Towles is “not on a short leash,” and that he has confidence in his new signal-caller. Just setting a positive tone with a convincing win would be good for the Wildcats as they continue to try to build depth, increase talent level and work their way up from the SEC cellar.

3:30 p.m. ET

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsMaty Mauk will open the season as Missouri's quarterback against South Dakota State.
South Dakota State at No. 24 Missouri, ESPNU
The Maty Mauk era begins at quarterback for Missouri. The Tigers are 13-1 in season openers under Gary Pinkel with 13 consecutive wins, and they’re 13-0 all time against FCS teams. The Tigers don’t have Kony Ealy and Michael Sam but still return several standout defenders such as defensive ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray, who aim to continue the Tigers’ defensive line success. Missouri also has the nation’s longest active turnover streak at 44 games.

West Virginia vs. No. 2 Alabama, ABC/ESPN2
The Crimson Tide open as heavy favorites against the Mountaineers, who were 4-8 a year ago. It sounds like Blake Sims will be Alabama’s starting quarterback today, but expect Jake Coker to play also. It appears this quarterback battle will continue for the time being. Clint Trickett is West Virginia’s starter after eight appearances and five starts last season. The Mountaineers play a pace that Nick Saban isn’t a fan of, so it will be interesting to see if that gives the Crimson Tide any trouble or if they simply impose their well at the line of scrimmage -- on both sides of the ball.

4 p.m. ET

Arkansas at No. 6 Auburn, SEC Network
A meeting of two coaches who are quite fond of each other, Bret Bielema and Gus Malzahn. All kidding aside, this is a contrast of styles (smashmouth football versus hurry-up no-huddle) and a matchup of two teams on the opposite ends of the spectrum last season, with Arkansas last in the SEC West and Auburn winning the SEC. The Tigers are looking to take the division title again while the Razorbacks hope for improvement. This is the start to a tough schedule for Arkansas (the nation’s toughest, according to the NCAA). Jeremy Johnson will start at quarterback for Auburn, but Nick Marshall will eventually see the field. When is unknown, as Malzahn has kept that to himself.

5:30 p.m. ET

No. 16 Clemson at No. 12 Georgia, ESPN
This was an entertaining affair last season, one that Clemson won 38-35. It should be another compelling game this time. After South Carolina’s thrashing at the hands of Texas A&M on Thursday, this would be a good opportunity for Georgia to flex its muscle, since many might now look toward the Bulldogs as the SEC East favorite. Both teams have quarterbacks with big shoes to fill (Cole Stoudt for Clemson; Hutson Mason for Georgia), and this could also be a chance to make an early Heisman statement for Georgia running back Todd Gurley.

7 p.m. ET

Idaho at Florida, ESPNU
Florida trots out its new offense under new coordinator Kurt Roper, and quarterback Jeff Driskel makes his return to the lineup for the first time since a season-ending leg injury suffered against Tennessee last season. The Gators are eagerly looking to start this season and put the past behind them; last season’s disastrous 4-8 campaign was unacceptable. Idaho is coming off a 1-11 year in 2013, so this is a game Florida should look to dominate early and build confidence.

7:30 p.m. ET

Southern Miss at Mississippi State, SEC Network
Mississippi State is looking to take a big step forward this season and returns 83 percent of its letter-winners from 2013 (57 total), which is the third-highest percentage in the nation. That includes quarterback Dak Prescott, linebacker Benardrick McKinney and defensive lineman Chris Jones, all of whom are poised for big seasons. Southern Miss is coming off a 1-11 season, and Mississippi State is looking for its 12th straight home win against a non-SEC team.

9 p.m. ET

No. 14 Wisconsin at No. 13 LSU, ESPN
This is a huge early-season battle between two squads that are strikingly similar. Both have experienced offensive lines and good running games going against inexperienced defensive fronts, and both have been mostly mum on their quarterback situations (though reports have Tanner McEvoy starting for Wisconsin, and Les Miles admitted both Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings will play for LSU). The running backs will probably be the focus, though. Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon is getting early Heisman publicity, and LSU true freshman Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 player in the 2014 class, is someone everyone is waiting to see.

Sunday, 7 p.m. ET

Utah State at Tennessee, SEC Network
This is one of the most intriguing games of the week, even though it doesn't involved a ranked team. Tennessee begins Butch Jones' second season, and there will be plenty of fresh faces on the field. Jones said Wednesday that between 28-30 freshmen could play on Sunday night. This Utah State team is a good one led by a dynamite quarterback, Chuckie Keeton, who threw for 18 touchdowns before a knee injury robbed him of his final eight games. Tennessee's starter, Justin Worley, earned the job this month and has 10 career starts. The Vols are hoping he can take a step forward, and he has some talented weapons around him to use.

Top Week 1 stories:
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Dan Mullen wants the pressure. He wants gaudy expectations and anxious fans.

Mississippi State’s head coach is entering his sixth season in Starkville, heading a team viewed as a legitimate contender in the SEC Western Division. It’s not something this program is used to and situations like this for programs like this usually don’t work out, but this is the exact position Mullen wants his team to be in.

“Hopefully we have a lot of pressure Week 10, 11 and 12 of the season and then we’ll see how we deal with it then,” Mullen said.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis"These guys want to win a championship," Dan Mullen said. "They want to get to Atlanta and go play for that title."
“These guys want to win a championship. They want to get to Atlanta and go play for that title. The expectations on the outside don’t get to them. … In their minds, this is what we want. There’s no pressure on them, that’s their goal to go out and accomplish this right now.”

And why not? In a league that has seen the talent gap from the top to the middle tighten in recent years, both divisions really are up for grabs. And the Bulldogs return 18 starters, 16 of whome are upperclassmen.

Mullen has a potential All-SEC quarterback in the very versatile Dak Prescott, the Bulldogs’ top five receiving targets from last year are back, and the defense is finally stacked with an SEC-caliber lineup in its two-deep.

The naysayers point at past failures this program has had, most notably it’s tumble in 2012. That’s when Mississippi State started the season 7-0 and rose as high as No. 11 in the AP poll before losing at Alabama 38-7. The Bulldogs then went into a full free fall, losing four of their last five games.

A year earlier, the Bulldogs went 7-6 after a 9-4 season that included wins over Florida, Georgia, Ole Miss and an absolute thrashing of Michigan (52-14) in their bowl game.

This is a program that has made it to one SEC championship game (1998) -- and lost -- and it hasn’t won 10 games in a season since 1999. In the past three seasons, Mullen is 0-15 against teams that finished the season ranked in one of the final polls, and SEC West foes Alabama, Auburn and LSU have a combined 36-3 record against Mississippi State since the start of the 2000 season.

History hasn’t been kind to the Bulldogs, and it certainly isn’t on their side, but players don’t care. They’re concerned about the present and foresee a special season in Starkville.

“To be honest, we don’t care about respect,” redshirt junior linebacker Benardrick McKinney. “We’re just going out there to play to win. We know what we can do. People are going to put us down, but that’s just a part of life.”

To Mullen, who is 36-28 during his five years with Mississippi State and owns the highest overall winning percentage by a Mississippi State coach since 1956 (.563), this is the most complete team he’s had in Starkville. For the first time, Mullen feels like he can rotate quality depth in and out at just about every position, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

He has an All-America-caliber defensive lineman in Chris Jones whom Mullen could see sharing a handful of reps this fall because there isn’t a lot of drop off with the players around him. He’s happy with playing five of his safeties and six of his linebackers this fall.

Jones might be the biggest talent on the team, but Mullen finally sees a deep, collective group of quality players who can carry this team in 2014.

“I don’t think we have superstars. I don’t know if were a team loaded with first-round draft picks, but I think we’re loaded with a bunch of really good football players,” Mullen said. “I like having that depth instead of having five superstars and then role players around them.”

On paper, Mississippi State’s nonconference schedule is an absolute cakewalk, but road trips to LSU, Alabama and Ole Miss could thwart their Atlanta hopes. But the Bulldogs aren’t running from it. They know that in order to be relevant in the SEC West in late November, this team has to take down the big boys.

There’s the opportunity to catch a relatively unproven LSU team on the road in late September, while Texas A&M and Auburn will visit Starkville. Then there’s that road trip to Alabama on Nov. 15, which could hold the Bulldogs’ SEC fate.

To senior cornerback Jay Hughes, the team isn’t even looking at its schedule. It’s looking at the players in the locker room and the coaches around them. That’s where their focus is, and where their confidence is bred. Hughes believes there’s something great in Starkville, and he can’t wait for the Bulldogs to show it.

“It’s almost like we know, man,” Hughes said. “We have as good of talent as anybody with the numbers that we have and the experience we have on the field. We have the talent, we have the numbers, so what are we going to do?"
Can anyone recall a season in recent memory that promises to be as wide open as this one? Every team in the SEC has holes. Every team has question marks. But almost every team has talent and legitimate hopes of a banner season.

How will it all shake out? This is our first shot at it, so take it easy on us. Like most of you, we will know a lot more about every team in the conference by the time the weekend is through.

But if there is one thing I'm confident in, it's that an SEC team will compete in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Sorry if I'm not buying that two will make it. Maybe next season, when all these inexperienced quarterbacks are a year more mature, but not now.
  • CFB Playoff (Allstate Sugar Bowl): Alabama
  • Cotton Bowl, Jan. 1: South Carolina
  • Orange Bowl, Dec. 31: LSU
  • Birmingham Bowl, Jan. 3: Vanderbilt
  • TaxSlayer Bowl, Jan. 2: Florida
  • Outback Bowl, Jan. 1: Georgia
  • Capital One Bowl, Jan. 1: Auburn
  • Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Dec. 30: Missouri
  • Belk Bowl, Dec. 30: Mississippi State
  • AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl, Dec. 29: Texas A&M
  • AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Dec. 29: Ole Miss

Breakout players from the SEC

August, 28, 2014
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Every year there are a handful of players who break out and become stars in the SEC. Johnny Manziel and Nick Marshall are two of the more obvious ones recently, but it doesn’t always have to be a quarterback. Just look at what Michael Sam did last season at Missouri. Who will this be this year’s breakout star? We predict five who could take that next step.

D’haquille Williams, Auburn: If you think Sammie Coates is good, Williams is on another level. The 6-foot-2, 216-pound wide receiver has yet to play a down in the SEC, but he could be one of the league’s top wide receivers by the end of the year. Some are even saying that this could be his one and only season at Auburn. Williams arrived from junior college in January and has blown away the coaching staff both in the spring and more recently in fall camp. His position coach, Dameyune Craig, went as far as to say he could have an impact similar to the one Jameis Winston had on Florida State last year. With Coates and Williams on the outside, it’s easy to see why Auburn expects to be more balanced on offense. – Greg Ostendorf

Ricky Seals-Jones, Texas A&M: He's big (6-foot-5, 230 pounds) and fast and gifted. Seals-Jones looked poised for a strong freshman season until a knee injury sidelined him for the final nine games of 2013. Now with three of the Aggies' top four pass-catchers from last season gone, there are receptions for the taking and expect Seals-Jones to get his hands on several. The former ESPN 300 recruit will work primarily as an inside receiver but also have a role as a hybrid tight end/H-back type in order to find the best matchups possible. Good luck to all the safeties and linebackers looking to cover this thoroughbred over the middle. – Sam Khan

De'Runnya Wilson, Mississippi State: If you’re looking for a physical freak, look no further than No. 81 for the Bulldogs. At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, he’s far bigger than any defensive backs he’ll come up against in the SEC. And chances are he can out jump them, too. Otherwise he wouldn’t be helping out Mississippi State on the hardwood when football isn’t in session. The former three-star prospect is raw, granted, but he’s brimming with potential. Once the sophomore gets a good grasp on the playbook and understands the nuances of the position, watch out. With the fleet-footed, shifty Jameon Lewis drawing defenses to the middle of the field, Wilson has the potential to be a serious vertical threat. – Alex Scarborough

O.J. Howard, Alabama: Don’t let last year’s numbers fool you. Fourteen receptions for 269 yards and two touchdowns isn’t overwhelming. But his inconsistency -- in five games he had zero receptions -- can be traced back to his inexperience and the play-calling. Now that he’s a year wiser and more mature, he could develop into an every-down tight end who can physically handle the trenches of the SEC. And with Lane Kiffin now directing the offense, his role is poised to expand. At 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds with the mobility of a much smaller receiver, he’s a matchup nightmare. – Alex Scarborough

Shane Ray, Missouri: The last time we saw Ray, he was scooping up a fumble and racing 73 yards the other way for the game-winning touchdown against Oklahoma State in the bowl game. Most defensive ends might have been caught from behind, but not Ray. There was no doubt when he picked it up. Despite playing a reserve role last year, Ray finished with 39 tackles, nine tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hurries. Now it’s his turn. Nobody’s in front of him, and the junior pass-rusher has a chance to put up similar numbers to Sam, the reigning SEC defensive player of the year. – Greg Ostendorf

SEC fearless predictions

August, 26, 2014
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Believe it or not, we are two days away from SEC football officially kicking off the 2014 season. And you thought we'd never get here!

Each season we make perfect prediction after perfect prediction. From weekly game picks to preseason teams, we think we've got this whole prognostication thing down to a science!

It's become a tradition here on the SEC blog to release our fearless predictions for the season ahead. I'm riding solo on them this year, but they shouldn't be any less correct this time around.

Here are my 10 fearless predictions for the SEC in 2014:

1. The SEC champion will have two losses ... but still make the playoff: With the talent gap between the teams at the top and the middle of the pack growing tighter, the SEC might be in store for the most exciting divisional races we've seen in a long time. No team is perfect. I've said this since the end of last season: No team will go undefeated in the SEC and no team will leave Atlanta with fewer than two losses. But with how strong the conference is this year, there's no way the SEC champ will be left out of the inaugural College Football Playoff.

[+] EnlargeMike Davis
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesMike Davis rushed for 1,183 yards on 203 carries and 11 scores in 2013.
2. Mike Davis will lead the conference in rushing: He can steamroll over you or just run by you. Davis has everything you'd want in a back and even though he's dealing with a rib injury, he'll lead the SEC in rushing yards this season. It won't hurt that he has arguably the nation's best offensive line in front of him. Georgia's Todd Gurley has yet to make it through an entire season healthy, while T.J. Yeldon will undoubtedly have his carries eaten into by Derrick Henry. With what should be a solid passing game taking some pressure off him, Davis will blow by the 1,183 yards he had last year.

3. The SEC will have 12 bowl-eligible teams: Last year, the SEC saw 10 teams go bowling. This year, Florida and Tennessee will reach at least six wins this fall and join the teams that made bowl games last year. Yes, a Tennessee team with brand-new offensive and defensive lines will go bowling, and yes, Florida's offense will be much better.

4. Will Muschamp will finally beat Georgia: After going 0-3 against his alma mater, Muschamp will finally get a win at the World's Largest Outdoor, eh, Party. It's a rebound year in Gainesville with a better offense. Of course, the game will be close, but quarterback Jeff Driskel will engineer a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter to end the bleeding the Bulldogs have caused the Gators the past three years. That means the SEC East title will come down to the Gators' home game with South Carolina on Nov. 15.

5. Arkansas will have two 1,000-yard rushers: The Razorbacks came close last year after Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams combined to rush for 1,926 yards. With so many unknowns still lurking in the passing game, coach Bret Bielema will have no problem handing the ball off to his duo as much as possible. Williams might even lead the Hogs in rushing this year after an impressive offseason. Stacking the box won't stop this duo.

6. The Mississippi schools will reach nine wins: It seems like whenever Mississippi State and Ole Miss have higher expectations, they fail to live up to the hype. Well, that ain't happening this season. With two very manageable seasons, and a host of talent returning, both of these schools will reach at least nine wins this season. Ole Miss gets Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State at home and should sweep nonconference play. Mississippi State has an extremely soft nonconference slate and gets Auburn and Texas A&M at home. Both Mississippi teams will pull a big upset on their way to nine wins.

7. Leonard Floyd will lead the SEC in sacks: Last year, Floyd led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks. This year, Georgia's best pass-rusher will push for All-American status by reaching double-digit sacks and leading the league. He's fast, strong and terrifying off the edge. Floyd had a great offseason and will be a nightmare for quarterbacks.

8. Vanderbilt will make it four bowl trips in a row: No James Franklin? No problem. What Franklin didn't take was the talented core of players the Commodores have. The Commodores return a strong offensive line and a deep, talented group of running backs. New coach Derek Mason also likes what he has defensively. The new 3-4 scheme will make the Dores faster off the edge with Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike moving to outside linebacker. Vandy should win its four nonconference games and will find two more wins to make it back to the postseason.

9. The SEC won't win the national championship: Look at prediction No. 1. While I think the SEC is stronger than ever as a whole, the winner of this league (I'm predicting Alabama) will be pretty beat-up come playoff time -- monthlong break and all. But it isn't just that. I think the country has a great set of teams at the top this year, and I don't see one SEC team really sticking out like seasons past. The seven straight titles were good for the league, but the conference will hit a two-year snag.

10. Ohio State will lose to another SEC team: The loss of quarterback Braxton Miller might have spoiled the Buckeyes' playoff hopes, but they'll find a way to meet an SEC team during the postseason and continue their time-honored tradition of losing to the SEC. Come January, the Buckeyes will be 0-11 against the SEC in bowl games.

SEC morning links

August, 26, 2014
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1. A number of SEC schools released their depth charts Monday, giving the media and fans alike something to talk about. But do they really matter? At Alabama, we learned nothing about the quarterback position as Blake Sims and Jacob Coker are listed on the same line atop the depth chart. At Mississippi State, Chris Jones is currently a backup at defensive tackle. Even if Jones doesn’t start the season opener, you can’t tell me he won’t play the majority of the game. I agree that depth charts are interesting and it’s a chance to see who won some of the position battles in fall camp, but at the end of the day, I don’t think they matter. Coaches are going to do what they want to do regardless of what they put out on a depth chart. But for those of you keeping track at home, Auburn and Florida will release their depth charts Tuesday.

2. Speaking of Florida, Pat Dooley and Robbie Andreu of the Gainesville Sun debated five hot topics about the upcoming college football season on Monday. For example, will the SEC get shut out of first ever College Football Playoff? Or is Jameis Winston a lock to win the Heisman Trophy? The two writers differ on their responses on these and the others. In my opinion, I can’t see the SEC getting shut out of the playoff, but I also don’t see the league getting two teams in. And no, I don’t think Winston is a lock for the Heisman. There’s a kid named Marcus Mariota who is getting a lot of hype out in Eugene, Oregon. However, the SEC’s chances of winning are shaky at best, writes Christopher Smith of Saturday Down South, and I tend to agree. The most likely candidates are Auburn’s Nick Marshall and Georgia’s Todd Gurley, but it won’t be easy for either of them to beat out Mariota or unseat Winston.

3. If you haven’t seen Gene Wojciechowski’s "Big Man on Campus" column from Monday, I encourage you to go give it a read. It’s an expansive preview of the upcoming college football season in which he gives his predictions for conference standings, the Heisman Trophy and the first-ever playoff. What caught my eye was a look at who could be this season’s Auburn. He mentions Auburn (doing it again), Mississippi State and Florida from the SEC, but to accomplish what the Tigers did a year ago, a team would have to rise up from the bottom of the conference. That leaves Arkansas and Kentucky, which goes to show how improbable Auburn’s turnaround really was. I can’t see either the Razorbacks or the Wildcats winning the SEC this year, but don’t be shocked if Florida turns it around and win the East.

Around the SEC
Tweet of the day

Recruiting changing in up-tempo era 

August, 25, 2014
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The SEC, a league that is known for its hard-nose, physical style of play is slowly transforming into a spread-offense, up-tempo league. It's a change that hasn't happened overnight and teams like Alabama, LSU, Georgia, with their pro-style offenses, will always have their imprint on the toughest league in all of college football.

With fast-paced offenses such as Auburn, Missouri, Ole Miss and Texas A&M having much success over the last few years, it's forcing defenses to change their philosophy on who they recruit to defend against these spread attacks.

The 6-foot-3, 245-pound middle linebackers are dwindling and replacing them are hybrid linebackers that can rush the passer and run sideline-to-sideline. There are 23 outside linebackers committed to SEC schools currently, all but one, Darrell Williams, weigh less than 220 pounds. There are only four inside linebackers committed to SEC schools.

SEC morning links

August, 25, 2014
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1. Game week is here. We are just three days away from South Carolina and Texas A&M. Steve Spurrier is ready. But there are still some question marks around the SEC, specifically at quarterback. Who does LSU go with against Wisconsin? Will Alabama ever name a starter before its first game? And how much will Nick Marshall play in Auburn’s season opener? The latter is yet to be determined, but Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said Sunday that both Marshall and backup Jeremy Johnson know what to expect as the Arkansas game approaches. If you’re like me, you’re just ready for all three schools to name a starter so we can stop talking about it.

2. For those hoping to see the SEC’s next Jared Lorenzen, it might be awhile. There was talk that Jeremy Liggins, who stands at 6-foot-3, 296 pounds, would take some reps as the Wildcat quarterback for Ole Miss this season, but that’s not going to happen. Instead, it will be Anthony Alford, a Southern Miss transfer who also plays baseball in the Toronto Blue Jays farm system. Alford was taken in the third round of the 2012 MLB draft. Don’t sleep on Liggins, though. Rebels' coach Hugh Freeze says there are multiple packages where the former high school quarterback will line up at tight end. And since we brought up Lorenzen, I encourage you read this piece on the former Kentucky gunslinger and his lifelong battle with weight.

3. We at the SEC blog looked at the most important game for every SEC team in 2014. Along those same lines, David Climer of The Tennessean put out his 14 for ’14 – the defining game of 2014 for every SEC team. Some are more obvious like Georgia going to South Carolina early in the season or Alabama making the trip to Death Valley to take on LSU. But I was surprised to see that Tennessee’s “defining game” is the season opener against Utah State. Don’t get me wrong. Utah State has one of the nation’s most productive quarterbacks in Chuckie Keeton, and the Vols can’t afford to lose that game. But the defining game? I’d make a case for the Florida game or maybe Vanderbilt at the end of the season. The Commodores have taken the last two in the rivalry. What do UT fans think?

Around the SEC
Tweet of the day

The SEC is no stranger to losing underclassmen to the NFL draft each year, making finding true fourth-year stars harder than ever.

In the 2012 draft, the SEC saw 12 underclassmen bolt for the NFL early. That number jumped to a record 32 players -- counting dismissed LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu -- in 2013. The league then lost 28 underclassmen to this year's draft.

In the past, the SEC hasn't had a problem replacing its young stars, but things might be a little more difficult this time. The SEC didn't just lose a plethora of talent, it lost bona fide star power.

Here's a list of a few underclassmen who no longer suit up for their schools:
That's just a short list, but of the guys listed above, all but Easley, who suffered an ACL injury early last season, were first-team All-SEC members last year, and only Ealy and Mason were left out of the first round of this year's NFL draft.

That's quite the haul for the NFL, and the SEC finds itself in a bind at certain spots because of the mass exodus of experienced seniors and underclassmen. We already knew that the league would likely see its offenses take a couple of steps back with such a great quarterback class gone, but plenty of other positions have been affected.

The SEC lost four of its top five receivers from last year: Evans, Beckham, Ole Miss' Donte Moncrief and LSU's Jarvis Landry. That's 257 catches, 4,677 yards and 36 touchdowns gone. South Carolina also lost top receiving option Bruce Ellington, who led the Gamecocks with 775 yards and eight touchdowns. These losses sting even more for Texas A&M and LSU, who are breaking in new starting quarterbacks this season.

Once again, the team affected the most by the underclassmen migration was LSU. A year after losing 11 underclassmen -- including Mathieu -- to the draft, the Tigers said goodbye to seven more underclassmen, a number that led the conference.

For a team entering the season ranked 13th in the preseason AP poll, LSU has a lot of ground to make up with Beckham and Landry gone, along with beastly running back Jeremy Hill, who rushed for 1,401 yards and 16 touchdowns during his redshirt sophomore season in 2013. LSU also parted ways with starting defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson.

Have Alabama pegged as your early SEC champ and in the College Football Playoff? Well, think about the fact that its defense lost a chunk of experience and talent. We already knew that seniors C.J. Mosley, Ed Stinson and Deion Belue were going to be gone, but add guys like Clinton-Dix, Jeoffrey Pagan, Adrian Hubbard and Vinnie Sunseri, who surely would have been staples in this year's relatively younger defense, and Alabama has some holes that need tending to. And don't forget that All-American Cyrus Kouandjio will likely be replaced by true freshman Cam Robinson.

Remember, talent isn't everything. Experience goes a long way in this league.

Think Florida's defense will continue to be elite under Will Muschamp? (It hasn't finished worse than eighth nationally in total defense during Muschamp's three years). Well, Easley was arguably Florida's best player before his season-ending knee injury, and corners Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson are both gone, leaving the Gators with an inexperienced secondary besides star cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III.

The departure of Clowney and Kelcy Quarles, who led South Carolina in sacks last year, makes the Gamecocks' defensive line less formidable, and while Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin might be a quarterback whiz, asking Kenny Hill to duplicate Johnny Football's success is a tall order.

Look, the SEC has gone through this before and come out fine. Last year, Auburn and Alabama finished the regular season ranked in the top four of the BCS standings, and seven league teams were ranked in the final AP Top 25. The loss of so many underclassmen didn't scare voters this year, either, as eight teams will enter the season ranked in the preseason AP poll.

Maybe it isn't anything to worry about, but if you're looking for a problem in the SEC, it's that the underclassmen who bolted manned very important positions for SEC squads.
A year removed from the deepest and one of the most talented quarterback classes in SEC history, the landscape has changed.

Some might say dramatically.

Consider this: The player who has dotted all of the preseason All-SEC teams as the top quarterback, Auburn's Nick Marshall, began his college career as a cornerback at Georgia.

What's that really mean?

Well, Johnny Manziel was just another unproven redshirt freshman two years ago at this time. Even at Texas A&M, nobody had any idea that Manziel was on the cusp of becoming a cult hero, not to mention a game-changing quarterback.

Now, you can't turn on the television without hearing Johnny Football's name.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsLast season Nick Marshall became the fourth QB in SEC history to rush for at least 1,000 yards.
Marshall's rise to the top of the SEC's quarterback pecking order hasn't been that dramatic. Nonetheless, his second life in the SEC proved to be a rousing success last season as he led Auburn within seconds of a national championship. Even with his trouble off the field this offseason, a year of seasoning in Gus Malzahn's system should make him even more effective.

He's as explosive as they come as a runner and has become a more polished passer.

"You saw it as last season went on, that he became a much more confident passer," Malzahn said. "You'll see an even bigger jump in his overall game this season because he's much more in tune with what we're asking of him. We should be able to do more, and he should be able to do more."

Marshall, who won't start the opener against Arkansas because of the citation he received this summer for marijuana possession, just missed being a 2,000-yard passer and 1,000-yard rusher last season. He passed for 1,976 yards and rushed for 1,068 yards, becoming just the fourth quarterback in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards.

His backup at Auburn, Jeremy Johnson, vowed this week that Marshall would win the Heisman Trophy this season. That might be a stretch, but whereas there were three SEC quarterbacks legitimately in that conversation entering last season -- Alabama's AJ McCarron, Georgia's Aaron Murray and Manziel -- it's a lot trickier to tab a big three in the SEC this season.

What's more, when you throw in South Carolina's Connor Shaw and LSU's Zach Mettenberger, it was really more of a big five a year ago.

All five are currently in NFL camps, meaning the door to join Marshall in the first-class quarterback cabin is wide open.

Two of the most experienced quarterbacks are Ole Miss' Bo Wallace and South Carolina's Dylan Thompson. Wallace is entering his third season as the starter, and more important, is finally healthy after being plagued with shoulder problems last season.

"I'm throwing it as well as I ever have," Wallace said. "Even the defensive guys are coming up to me and saying, ‘Your arm is back.' So not only do I feel it, but guys are seeing a difference on the field."

Wallace passed for 3,346 yards and accounted for 24 touchdowns last season. He also cut his interceptions from 17 to 10. So by any standard, it was a very good season. But Wallace admits that he didn't really have his fastball.

"The way I've always played is that I've sort of been a gambler and not afraid to try and fit a pass in there," Wallace said. "I always thought I could make that throw, whatever throw it was. I had to change the way I played a little bit. Looking back on it now, it probably helped with my timing and anticipating the throw. And now that my shoulder is back to where it was, that's going to get me where I want to be."

Thompson, who like Wallace is a senior, finally gets his shot as the Gamecocks' starter after serving as an ace reliever any time Shaw went down over the past few years.

"Everybody wanted to label Connor as a runner, and he was," Thompson said. "But he did a really good job of managing the game. He didn't take too many risks. He just worked the ball down the field. You looked up and they were in the end zone. That was a credit to coach [G.A.] Mangus and coach [Steve] Spurrier, and that's what I want to do."

With Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason naming Patton Robinette as the Commodores' starter Thursday night, that leaves two starting jobs in the league unsettled. Alabama is trying to decide between Blake Sims and Jake Coker, and LSU is trying to sort it out between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris.

Among those four quarterbacks, they have one career start.

In fact, other than Marshall and Wallace, the only other two quarterbacks in the SEC who have more than 10 career starts are Arkansas' Brandon Allen and Florida's Jeff Driskel. Both dealt with injuries last season, and a broken leg sidelined Driskel for all but the first three games.

"The SEC is going to be the SEC," Thompson said. "You're going to look up, and you're still probably going to have four teams in the top 10 at the end of the year. Those guys [from 2013] were also nobodies at some point. I guess that's what everybody is making it out to be. It's going to play out the way it's supposed to. That's what we're excited about, not just the quarterbacks, but all the players on this team."

Preseason All-SEC team

August, 21, 2014
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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.

SEC morning links

August, 20, 2014
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1. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has been sweeping social media and the SEC along with it. On Tuesday we posted a rundown of some of the notable challenges accepted by SEC nation, including Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, LSU coach Les Miles and Kentucky coach Mark Stoops. Later on Tuesday, two of the biggest-named coaches who hadn't yet been doused with the cold stuff took the challenges: Alabama coach Nick Saban and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier. Saban challenged Heisman Trophy winner and NFL running back Mark Ingram (an Alabama product), U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (a friend of Saban's from West Virginia), Florida coach Will Muschamp and none other than Paul Finebaum. Spurrier handed his challenges out to Saban, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and their respective coaching staffs. Saban had his team do the challenge with him and Spurrier had his coaching staff take the dousings with him. These challenges continue to raise a significant number of funds for the ALS Association and have provided some fun videos to boot.

2. Florida's offense is looking for a huge boost this season after a dismal season in 2013 and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper is what the doctor ordered. On Tuesday, Roper reflected on his journey from his own days as a high school quarterback to being the son of a coach. After the work he did at Duke last season and his extensive time coaching in the SEC, he should be a good fit for the Gators. Making the offense more high-paced and wide-open will allow the Gators to utilize the talents of quarterback Jeff Driskel and expect them to take a significant step forward, with Roper orchestrating the attack.

3. Many of us figured that Cleveland Browns fans would want a certain SEC product to be their starting quarterback when the Browns season begins next month, but who knew that that SEC quarterback would be Connor Shaw? In a poll on Cleveland.com asking readers to vote for who they think should be the starting quarterback in the season opener against Pittsburgh, Shaw -- a South Carolina product -- is winning in a landslide over first-round pick Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M. Of course, considering the way Manziel (and Brian Hoyer) performed and the timing of the poll, some reactionary votes are to be expected. But by that wide a margin? Wow. Give Shaw credit, he was the model of toughness and a winner during his South Carolina days and no doubt there are many happy for him after he performed well on Monday night against Washington.

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With Dak Prescott entrenched as the starter and Damian Williams a decently experienced backup, Mississippi State's quarterback spot looked fine.

With Jameon Lewis, Robert Johnson, Joe Morrow and De'Runnya Wilson, there were plenty of wideouts to draw from.

[+] EnlargeDillon Day
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesDillon Day and the rest of the Bulldogs' O-line will have to overcome adversity to win SEC games.
And with Josh Robinson, Nick Griffin, Ashton Shumpert and Aeris Williams all available, the running back position looked fine, too.

But if there was one area where Mississippi State needed to stay healthy, it was the offensive line. Depth, coach Dan Mullen pointed out late last week, was a major point of concern.

"That's the one position during the season that we can't afford any injuries," he said.

It turned out to be an auspicious statement. On Monday, we learned that projected starting right tackle Damien Robinson tore his ACL and will miss the season.

The Bulldogs were banged up enough as it was with starting guards Justin Malone and Ben Beckwith missing practice time during fall camp. Throw in the noticeable absence of Gabe Jackson, and it's hard to imagine what the Mississippi State offensive line looks like in Starkville today.

Now the second-string linemen Mullen was hoping he wouldn't have to call on until next season are suddenly being put to the test earlier than expected. "They're growing and they're growing quickly," Mullen said last Friday. But will they progress enough between now and the start of the season?

"They're going to be the huge group of inexperienced players that you'd love the opportunity to slowly build them in instead of having to throw them into the fire immediately," Mullen said.

Look for Justin Senior and Rufus Warren, two inexperienced reserves, to be the top candidates to replace Damien at right tackle. Mullen, when reached Tuesday morning, said there's also the possibility of moving a tackle to guard and working with different combinations on the interior of the line.

The good news is that there are 11 days until the opener and the first three weeks of the season don't look to be a huge challenge with non-conference cupcakes Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama. That means there's plenty of time for whoever wins the job to get comfortable enough in the offense before SEC play begins Week 4 at LSU.

Dillon Day, a three-year starter and Rimington Trophy watch list center, said he's looking forward to the run up to the season. Before Damien Robinson went down, Day said he was feeling good about the numbers on the offensive line.

"I've seen good things already," Day said. "Guys have been rotating in that haven't played, like Devon [Desper]. That was a big thing to have not just five guys but eight guys that can play.

"We have a lot of depth that can play now. That's a big thing, getting new guys in there and letting them play with the ones. And so far everyone has done really well with that."

With Damien Robinson out, that depth will be tested. And like any inexperienced player, we won't know how they'll perform until the pressure is on during a game situation.

If Mississippi State is going to finally break through in the SEC West, the offensive line is going to have to drive the train. Without them, the depth at receiver and running back is meaningless. Without them, Prescott could get banged up and his dark horse Heisman Trophy campaign could fall off the tracks.

There's a lot to like about the Bulldogs this year. The only question was how the O-line would hold up, and so far it's not off to a good start.

SEC morning links

August, 19, 2014
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1. Kentucky settled its quarterback race on Monday when coach Mark Stoops announced that sophomore Patrick Towles will be the Wildcats' starter. It's a nice story, because Towles redshirted last season and competed for the starting job twice before and lost. Instead of transferring, Towles continued to work and battled his way to the top of the depth chart. Not an easy thing to do in the winner-starts-loser-transfers trend that seems to be increasing among college football quarterbacks. The 6-foot-5, 238-pound Towles was even able to fend off highly-regarded true freshman Drew Barker, a prize recruit in the Wildcats' 2014 class. No word yet from Stoops whether Barker will redshirt this season, but regardless, former Wildcat great Tim Couch has sage advice for the young Barker: "It’s how you handle that year that is really going to determine the rest of your career."

2. Vanderbilt's quarterbacks are wearing knee braces in hopes of preventing injuries. It's not common to see healthy quarterbacks who haven't had knee injuries wear them and Vanderbilt's signal-callers did not engage in this practice in the 16 years that head trainer Tom Bossung has been there. After losing two quarterbacks to knee injuries last season, though, the Commodores decided to make the move. They're different from the offensive linemen's knee braces, but thumbs up to the Commodores training staff on the move. While it may not prevent all knee injuries, the decision to do it moving forward should help. It has become so common among offensive linemen, it will be interesting to see if this becomes a trend among quarterbacks across the nation.

3. Alabama brought in its fourth motivational speaker of fall camp, welcoming former Fresno State basketball star Chris Herren to campus on Monday. Herren got a positive response from the Crimson Tide players. Preceding Herren in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, during training camp was former NFL player and current league executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent, former NBA star Antoine Walker and well-renowned motivational speaker Eric Thomas. This is certainly not uncommon; plenty of programs bring in guest speakers or motivational speakers to get messages across to players. Still, it's beneficial because when you recruit at the level Alabama does, you bring in dozens of highly-regarded players who have been told often how good they are. Getting messages from people who have been through ups and downs like Herren or Walker or someone like Vincent who has played at the highest level of football as these players undoubtedly hope to, they can impart valuable wisdom and provide a different voice other than the coaches who are barking at them every day. Sometimes that different voice can have an effect.

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