There are 15 undefeated FBS college football teams remaining at this point in the season.
Of those undefeated teams, four are from the Southeastern Conference. Three teams come to mind immediately — Alabama, South Carolina and Florida. You might have a little trouble coming up with the fourth team because it has been playing in the shadows of some of the more renowned teams in the conference.
The other undefeated SEC team is Dan Mullen’s Mississippi State team. The Bulldogs have been flying under the radar basically all season long. Mississippi State is only ranked No. 19 in the Associated Press poll, and it has yet to play a game that could really vault it in the polls.
But none of that has mattered to the Bulldogs. All they have done is win every game they’ve played this season, which include conference wins over Auburn and Kentucky. The Bulldogs are 5-0 for only the fourth time in 113 years of Mississippi State football. Mullen’s team is currently riding a seven-game winning streak, which is tied for the fifth-longest nationally and the fifth-longest in school history.
Mississippi State players are not being mentioned as potential Heisman Trophy candidates but that doesn’t mean there are not a whole lot of good football players in Starkville. Just ask Mullen about senior cornerback Johnthan Banks, who has been one of the league’s best defensive players this season.
Banks, a consensus All-American a favorite for the Jim Thorpe Award, now has 15 career interceptions, one short of Walt Harris’ Mississippi State record, and is five short of the SEC record. He has 19 tackles this season, two tackles for losses and three picks.
“I think he has come back with the sense that he wants to be the team leader,” Mullen said before the season started. “He’s not worried about how maybe coming back one year can up his draft status. He’s come back with the desire that he wants to leave an impact on our team as he walks out the door.”
Banks teams with senior cornerback Darius Slay and senior strong safety Corey Broomfield and junior free safety Nickoe Whitley to give the Bulldogs an experienced and talented defensive secondary.
Combined, the starting four have played in 130 games with 98 starts. They’ve also intercepted 37 career passes, with eight returned for touchdowns. State’s pass efficiency defense ranks 12th nationally, and its nine interceptions are tied for eighth-most in the nation.
The secondary has been a key for a defense that has not given up a touchdown in its last eight quarters against SEC competition in Davis-Wade Stadium. The Bulldog defense as a unit has allowed an average of just 76.0 first-half yards through its last four SEC home games.
The Bulldogs’ defense, and especially the secondary, will be tested this weekend when Tennessee brings its high-powered passing attack behind quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter to Davis-Wade Stadium for a Saturday night game. Tennessee is averaging 329.2 yards passing, while Mississippi State is giving up just 199.6 yards per game through the air.
“I think it will be a great challenge for our guys,” Mullen said. “They’re the two best receivers we’ve played so far this year. And on top of that, the best passing quarterback we’ve played this year. So, that combination is definitely going to be a challenge for our secondary, and it should be fun. Those are the guys that you depend on as the strength. Along with all of the leadership experience that we have on the back end they are going to have to step up and play great.
“As far as corners go, John Banks has great length. I think he is one of the taller cornerbacks out there and has played a bunch of football for us. He is a tremendous leader, is a great player and has a great attitude and work ethic. That is what makes him special,” the Mississippi State coach said. “Darius Slay has been surrounded by so many great players since he arrived on campus, and I think it has taught him to have a great work ethic and take his talent to learn the skills that he needs because he had a short career here.”
Tennessee coach Derek Dooley, who underwent hip surgery for a fracture on Tuesday and will coach the game from the press box, knows that State will be a formidable challenge for his team.
“We are obviously playing a good football team,” Dooley said. “They have won seven in a row, they know how to win and they are playing with a lot of confidence. They have a lot of good players on both sides of the football but the thing that kind of sticks out the most is that they play with great effort and toughness every snap and they are very sound. Their plus-11 takeaway margin is representative of how they play.
“They protect the football on offense, they prey on the mistakes of their opponents and they capitalize on them. Their defense is built around four senior, really good players — one up front [Josh Boyd], one at linebacker [Cameron Lawrence] and two at the perimeter [Banks and Slay], and that experience shows up. They are good players and they form the nucleus of their defense.”
Tennessee has lost two of its last three games but will come into the Mississippi State game with six consecutive wins in the series. The Vols have won nine of the last 10 meetings between the two teams, but if Mississippi State’s talented secondary has its way, the Vols’ winning streak in the series could be in serious jeopardy.