SEC Play, Finally

Denzel Nkemdiche likes where this Ole Miss football team finds itself today as it plays at top-ranked Alabama. The Rebels are the last of 14 teams to open Southeastern Conference play this season.

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"We would love to be 4-0 but 3-1 is the next best thing," said the redshirt freshman linebacker, the starting Stinger on the Rebels' defense. "We're running with it and looking forward to seeing what we can do in the SEC."

The other 13 ballclubs have already tried their hand in SEC play this season. Florida at 3-0 leads the way and is the only conference team to play three league games to date. Alabama is 4-0 and 1-0, with a 52-0 win at Arkansas the win in league play.

When all is said and done, all 14 teams will have played eight conference contests. Ole Miss has only SEC games remaining on its schedule. The Rebels return home the next two weeks for matchups with Texas A&M and Auburn, which is designated as Homecoming. Then comes an open date.

Last weekend the Rebels got back on the winning track after their 66-31 loss at home to Texas. A struggling Tulane team was the victim in New Orleans to the tune of a 39-0 Rebel victory, which came about with relative ease.

Ole Miss led 26-0 in the first quarter and didn't necessarily play all that well the rest of the way. But defensively the Rebels pitched a shutout, and Nkemdiche said anytime you can do that, you've done your job.

"It was Tulane that we played, but it was more a lot of eyes and assignments and lining up in the right place and being at the right place and executing that defense," he said. "That was bigtime. We definitely saw improvement with our eyes. We saw a big jump in execution. No matter what team we play if you don't have your eyes right, you'll give up big plays. We only had one big play last Saturday, and (the reason there weren't more) was because we had our eyes in the right place."

Tonight's game on ESPN with a projected 8:15 start time will be their toughest test so far, and maybe their toughest of the entire season. The Rebels hope to play better against this particular top-flight foe than they did the last time they met a legitimate power. That was just two weeks ago against the Longhorns in Oxford.

"The Texas game we had a lot of missed assignments," Nkemdiche said of the defense. "It wasn't the physical part. It was more us. We gave them a lot of yards by missed assignments and not putting our eyes in the right place. At Tulane we really sharpened down on that and made bigtime improvements in that."

On both sides of the ball, in all aspects of the game, the Rebels will have to be at their best to have any chance to win tonight. Nkemdiche said they know that.

"We've got to be physical. We understand it's going to be a battle to the end," he said. "We're going to have to play 60 minutes of hard-nosed football."

Denzel Nkemdiche
Chuck Rounsaville

The Loganville, Ga. (Grayson High) product had his first college interception against the Green Wave that helped preserve the shutout, even though it came early. It was in the first quarter when he picked off Tulane quarterback Devin Powell at the Green Wave 35 and returned it eight yards. Three plays later, the Rebels scored on a Bo Wallace to Donte Moncrief pass of 23 yards. The extra point by Bryson Rose was good, and Ole Miss led 26-0 with 1:24 still to go in the opening period.

Nkemdiche said he and his teammates believe they are ready for what they'll face. More than 100,000 will attend, and most won't be for them.

"When you go out there with your teammates, you're not scared of anything. You don't care who's in the crowd. You don't care what's going on. Everybody on the team is saying we've got to come home with this "W." This is business. We're going over there to handle business," he said. "If you're a team, if you're "one" going into a stadium like that, going against a team like that, you feel confident with your teammates."

And even though they try to go into every game the same, whether it's Texas-El Paso or Texas, Tulane or Alabama, they know the difference.

"We try to approach every game the same way, but it's tough," Nkemdiche said. "Down your schedule you have Alabamas, you have LSUs, you have Georgias. Games like this? These are the games we live for, games that we really look forward to, that we come to Ole Miss to play for."

Three more wins and they're bowling. Three wins in the final eight games will get them there. Nkemdiche admitted they've thought about that.

"We're halfway to a bowl. That's a big deal for us, because we haven't been to a bowl in a couple of years," he said. "We're just trying to get as many wins as possible and buying into what Coach (Hugh) Freeze has to say. Just keep getting closer and closer and stronger as a team.

"We're definitely expecting to make a bowl this year. We know it's not going to be handed to us. We have to work and prepare for the teams we're going to play. We've got eight SEC games. From here on out it's SEC. Physical, SEC football from here on out."

And it all starts tonight in Tuscaloosa with all of college football watching.

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