NCF Nation: Johnthan Banks

After seeing a record 12 SEC players taken in the first round of the NFL draft, it's time to look at who could go in the second round.

NFL draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. has his second-round mock draftInsider all ready and has eight SEC players going in tonight's second round. There are some real SEC gems remaining and I'm sure there will be a few surprises as well.

Here's a look at Kiper's mock draft:

No. 41: Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee (Buffalo Bills)

No. 43: John Jenkins, DT, Georgia (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

No. 46: Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama (Buffalo Bills)

No. 48: D.J. Swearinger, S, South Carolina (Pittsburgh Steelers)

No. 51: Kevin Minter, LB, LSU (Washington Redskins)

No. 54: Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State (Miami Dolphins)

No. 55: Cornelius Washington, OLB, Georgia (Green Bay Packers)

No. 58: Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M (Denver Broncos)

Kiper also has his list of the 10 best available players on Day 2Insider. Three of them are SEC players, including Lacy, who is listed at No. 2 on Kiper's list. He was a projected first-rounder heading into the draft, and even though he is listed as Kiper's top running back in the draft, he fell out of the first round.

Talk about a second-round steal.

Here are the SEC players listed and a little from Kiper on each:

No. 2: Lacy -- "The top runner on my board, I think Lacy has more talent coming into the pros than former Alabama star Mark Ingram."

No. 8: Minter -- "Minter has solid sideline-to-sideline range, even though he didn't jump out on film."

No. 9: Jenkins -- "Jenkins fits as a 3-4 nose tackle who can stuff the run and take on double teams."
Tuesday brought us the final day of the NFL combine and even more speed, as defensive backs showcased their stuff in Indianapolis.

Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner arrived at the combine as the top-rated defensive back in this year's NFL draft, but had an up-and-down day. He had an impressive official 40-yard dash time of 4.37 seconds, which was the second-fastest 40 time of the day, but he struggled during drills -- dropping a handful of balls. Milliner also had a 36-inch vertical jump and a 122-inch broad jump. He's probably still the top-rated corner in this year's draft with his 40 time and it doesn't sound like his field drills will knock him out of that top spot.

[+] EnlargeDarius Slay
AP Photo/Dave MartinMississippi State CB Darius Slay showed off his leaping ability during NFL combine workouts.
Mississippi State cornerback Darius Slay made some good noise as well after he won the 40 battle, sporting a time of 4.36. That sort of time will certainly help his draft stock, especially after his name was buried a bit heading into the combine. He also had 14 reps of the 225-pound bench press, registered a 35.5-inch vertical and claimed 124 inches in the broad jump.

While Slay helped himself in Indy, teammate Johnthan Banks didn't. He might have won the Thorpe Award, as the nation's best defensive back, but Banks didn't have a good day at the combine. He ran an unflattering 4.61 in the 40 and struggled during field work. He had just 10 bench reps, but sported a 34-inch vertical and a 125-inch broad jump. Banks will have a chance to make up for Tuesday at Mississippi State's pro day.

When it came to showcasing some real strength, Georgia safety Shawn Williams topped all SEC defensive backs with his 25 bench reps. That number ranked third among defensive backs at the combine. He was also one of the fastest safeties out there with his 4.46 in the 40. He also had a 36-inch vertical. Williams really helped himself out with all that strength and speed he showed.

LSU safety Eric Reid also impressed when it came to speed and strength. He tied for the best vertical jump of the day with a height of 40.5 inches and he also tied for the top broad jump (134 inches). Reid also ran a 4.53 40 and did 17 reps on bench.

Florida safety Matt Elam had a big drop in field drills, but he turned some heads with his 4.54 40 time and he was able to get 17 reps on the bench. The 5-foot-10 Elam also registered a 35.5-inch vertical.

The other big story of the day revolved around the performance of former LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu. A lot of questions surrounded the Honey Badger, who was dismissed from LSU's team before the 2012 season, but he looked like he was in pretty good shape during Tuesday's workouts. While he tied for last with just four reps on bench, Mathieu was very impressive during field drills, showed good speed with his 4.50 in the 40, and registered a 34-inch vertical and a 117-inch broad jump.

Mathieu might have a lot of past off-field issues, but there's no doubt that he's a ballplayer, and Tuesday certainly helped him as far as the draft is concerned.

You can read about all the defensive back performances during the final day of the combine here.
The NFL draft is right around the corner, and as we say goodbye to national signing day, we're turning our attention back to players who just left the SEC.

Following the 2012 season, the SEC was gutted by a tremendous amount of players looking to make futures for themselves in the NFL. And when you take a look at mock drafts, you can tell that the conference is losing a lot of very good talent in 2013.

ESPN NFL draft gurus Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay released new (early) mock drafts for April's NFL draft, and both are chock-full of SEC talent. Both Kiper's mock draft Insider and McShay's mock draft Insider have 16 SEC players going in the first round. Kiper has six SEC players going within the first 10 picks, including Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel going No. 1 to the Kansas City Chiefs and A&M defensive end Damontre Moore going No. 2 to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

McShay's top SEC players in his mock draft are Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner (No. 3 to the Oakland Raiders) and Joeckel (No. 4 to the Philadelphia Eagles).

Alabama dominated with at least four players making both mock drafts.

Here's a quick look at where SEC players stand in each mock draft:


1. Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M -- Kansas City
2. Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M -- Jacksonville
4. Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama -- Philadelphia
5. Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia -- Detroit
8. Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia -- Buffalo
10. Barkevious Mingo, DE, LSU -- Tennessee
12. Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee -- Miami
14. Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri -- Carolina
15. Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida -- New Orleans
18. Chance Warmack, OG, Alabama -- Dallas
20. D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama -- Chicago
24. Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State -- Indianapolis
26. Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama -- Green Bay
29. Matt Elam, S, Florida -- New England
31. John Jenkins, DT, Georgia -- San Francisco
32. Kevin Minter, LB, LSU -- Baltimore


3. Dee Milliner -- Oakland
4. Luke Joeckel -- Philadelphia
6. Barkevious Mingo -- Cleveland
9. Jarvis Jones -- New York Jets
10. Chance Warmack -- Tennessee
13. Damontre Moore -- Tampa Bay
14. Sharrif Floyd -- Carolina
16. Cordarrelle Patterson -- St. Louis
18. Sheldon Richardson -- Dallas
19. Alec Ogletree -- New York Giants
21. Eddie Lacy -- Cincinnati
24. Johnthan Banks -- Indianapolis
25. Sam Montgomery -- Seattle
26. John Jenkins -- Green Bay Packers
31. Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee -- San Francisco
32. Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama -- Baltimore

Signing day booms and busts revisited

February, 6, 2013
There are always surprises and disappointments in every signing class.

It’s just the nature of the business, although I’m not sure it’s politically correct to refer to recruiting as a business. At least, not in the SEC.

Anyway, with most of the hay in the barn from national signing day 2013, keep in mind that it’s impossible to evaluate prospects only hours after their letters of intent are faxed in. So much can happen -- both good and bad -- over the next couple of years.

If you don’t believe so, here’s a look back at the “best surprises” and “biggest disappointments” for all 14 SEC teams going back four years ago to the 2009 signing class.


[+] EnlargeChance Warmack
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsAlabama's Chance Warmack developed into one of college football's top offensive linemen.
Best surprise: OG Chance Warmack (Atlanta)

Warmack was not an ESPN 150 prospect, and 34 other players were ranked ahead of him that year in the state of Georgia. The home-state Bulldogs didn’t recruit him, but he landed at Alabama and became a three-year starter for the Tide and established himself this past season as the most dominant interior offensive lineman in college football.

Biggest disappointment: WR Kendall Kelly (Gadsen, Ala.)

Ranked as the No. 7 receiver in the country by ESPN, Kelly moved to defensive back, experienced some health issues and wound up taking a medical hardship.


Best surprise: WR Cobi Hamilton (Texarkana, Texas)

Unranked among the top 40 receivers nationally, Hamilton didn’t get an offer from Texas until two weeks prior to signing day. He stuck with the Hogs and blossomed in Bobby Petrino’s offense. Hamilton led the SEC this past season with 1,335 receiving yards and caught 18 career touchdown passes.

Biggest disappointment: CB Darius Winston (Helena, Ark.)

Winston was the most coveted in-state prospect since Darren McFadden and ranked by ESPN as the No. 3 cornerback in the country. But he never developed into a full-time starter at Arkansas and struggled with consistency. He was injured for part of this past season, his final one in a Hogs uniform.


Best surprise: WR Emory Blake (Austin, Texas)

Blake was ranked as the No. 73 receiver in the country by ESPN and chose Auburn on signing day over Texas Tech and Colorado. He finished his career as Auburn’s fifth all-time receiver with 128 catches and 16 touchdown receptions.

Biggest disappointment: QB Tyrik Rollison (Sulphur Springs, Texas)

Rollison was a Parade All-American and considered one of the Tigers’ prized signees in the 2009 class. He redshirted his first season, and after being suspended for the Outback Bowl, transferred to Sam Houston State that next spring and then to Tyler (Texas) Junior College.


Best surprise: OG Jon Halapio (St. Petersburg, Fla.)

The Gators got Halapio as the No. 144-ranked offensive guard in the country, and when he committed in May, he had very few offers. Now heading into his senior season at Florida, Halapio has 33 starts under his belt and is one of the leaders of the Gators' offense.

Biggest disappointment: DT Gary Brown (Quincy, Fla.)

Brown was ranked as the No. 2 defensive tackle in the country by ESPN, but reported to school overweight and redshirted his first season. He was dismissed that next February without ever playing a down at Florida following his arrest for allegedly slapping a woman at a party.


Best surprise: S Shawn Williams (Damascus, Ga.)

Williams was not ranked among the top 30 prospects in the state of Georgia. He made his mark initially on special teams and then emerged as the Bulldogs’ enforcer in the secondary from his safety position. He was second on the team with 98 tackles this past season.

Biggest disappointment: RB Washaun Ealey (Twin City, Ga.)

Ealey was an ESPN 150 prospect and ranked as the No. 8 running back in the country. He led the Bulldogs in rushing each of his first two seasons, but a pair of suspensions landed him in hot water with coach Mark Richt. Ealey was encouraged to move on following his sophomore season and wound up transferring to Jacksonville State.


Best surprise: OG Larry Warford (Richmond, Ky.)

Not ranked among the top 50 guard prospects in the country, Warford established himself as one of the top guards in the SEC the past two seasons and earned All-SEC recognition as a senior.

Biggest disappointment: QB Morgan Newton (Carmel, Ind.)

An ESPN 150 prospect, Newton made the SEC All-Freshman Team his first season. But his career never took off from there, and he was plagued by a shoulder injury in 2011. He served mainly as a backup this past season and finished his career with 15 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions.


Best surprise: DT Bennie Logan (Coushatta, La.)

Logan was ranked as the No. 72 defensive end in the country, and LSU initially offered him as a grayshirt. But a firm offer came in the weeks leading up to signing day, and Logan blossomed into one of the SEC’s top defensive tackles each of the past two seasons.

Biggest disappointment: DT Chris Davenport (Mansfield, La.)

Davenport was one of 10 ESPN 150 prospects LSU signed in 2009, and he was ranked as the No. 7 defensive tackle in the country. Some had him ranked as a five-star prospect, but he was never able to crack the defensive line rotation at LSU and eventually moved to offensive line. He transferred to Tulane after this past season without ever starting a game at LSU.


[+] EnlargeJohnthan Banks
Spruce Derden/US PresswireJohnthan Banks went from unnoticed out of high school to arguably the nation's top defensive back.
Best surprise: CB Johnthan Banks (Maben, Miss)

Banks’ only scholarship offer was to Mississippi State. He was from a tiny town in Mississippi and flew under the radar, but wound up being a four-year starter and won the Jim Thorpe Award this past season as the top defensive back in college football. He finished with 16 career interceptions to tie the Bulldogs' all-time record.

Biggest disappointment: RB Montrell Conner (Monroe, La.)

Conner had offers from USC, Oklahoma, Georgia and Tennessee and was ranked as the No. 7 running back prospect in the country by ESPN. He redshirted his first season and left the program in August of that next year. He attended junior college in 2010 and then signed with Troy.


Best surprise: RB Kendial Lawrence (Rockwall, Texas)

Lawrence picked Missouri over SMU, Louisville and Iowa State and was ranked by ESPN as the No. 100 running back in the country. He capped a solid career at Missouri this past season by rushing for 1,025 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Biggest disappointment: QB Blaine Dalton (Blue Springs, Mo.)

A dual-threat quarterback and one of the top prospects in the state of Missouri, Dalton enrolled in school early. But he was arrested twice in less than four months and dismissed from the team before he ever played in a game.


Best surprise: LB Mike Marry (Largo, Fla.)

Ranked as the No. 94 prospect in the state of Florida and unranked in the ESPN 150, Marry has been one of the leaders of the Ole Miss defense the past two seasons from his middle linebacker position. He had 10.5 tackles for loss this past season to finish second on the team. A three-star prospect, Marry picked Ole Miss over Duke, Iowa State and South Florida.

Biggest disappointment: WR Pat Patterson (Macon, Miss.)

Ole Miss beat several big-name teams, including Alabama, to get Patterson, an ESPN 150 prospect and widely considered the top prospect in the state of Mississippi that year. He showed flashes as a true freshman, but couldn’t stay out of trouble off the field and was dismissed prior to his sophomore season after catching just 12 career passes.


Best surprise: S D.J. Swearinger (Greenwood, S.C.)

A three-star prospect, Swearinger was originally committed to Tennessee, but backed off that pledge after Phillip Fulmer was fired and signed with South Carolina. Swearinger ended up being a three-year starter for the Gamecocks and finished second on the team in tackles each of the past two seasons. He was a second-team All-SEC selection this past season.

Biggest disappointment: RB Jarvis Giles (Tampa, Fla.)

An ESPN 150 prospect and ranked as the No. 6 running back in the country, Giles left the team early during his sophomore season after plummeting down the depth chart behind Marcus Lattimore and a few others.


Best surprise: WR Zach Rogers (Nashville, Tenn.)

Even though he wasn’t nearly as heralded as most of the signees in the Vols’ 2009 class, Rogers emerged this past season as one of the more underrated receivers in the SEC with 32 catches, including seven touchdowns, and averaged 15.3 yards per catch.

Biggest disappointment: RB Bryce Brown (Wichita, Kan.)

Brown has some serious competition for this dubious distinction. There were multiple disappointments in the Vols’ 2009 class. But as ESPN’s No. 2-ranked running back prospect in the country, Brown gets the nod. He rushed for 460 yards as a freshman, but sat out that next spring practice and never played again for the Vols after Lane Kiffin left for USC.


Best surprise: WR Ryan Swope (Austin, Texas)

Swope was more of a running back coming out of high school and ranked by ESPN as the No. 116 athlete in the country. He carved out a splendid career at Texas A&M in becoming the Aggies’ all-time leading receiver. In his last two seasons, he caught 161 passes, including 19 touchdowns.

Biggest disappointment: DT Chris Henderson (Dallas)

Henderson was ranked by ESPN as the No. 16 defensive tackle in the country, but failed to qualify academically and didn’t make it to campus.


Best surprise: RB Zac Stacy (Centerville, Ala.)

Alabama and Auburn both passed on Stacy, who was ranked by ESPN as the No. 98 running back prospect nationally. He finished his Vanderbilt career this past season by rushing for 1,000 yards for the second straight year and set the Commodores’ all-time rushing record in the process.

Biggest disappointment: WR Brady Brown (Argyle, Texas)

Brown was ranked among the top 60 prospects in the state of Texas, and the Commodores were hoping he could add some punch to their passing game. He suffered a leg injury as a freshman and wound up leaving the program following the 2011 season without catching any career passes.

Where they ranked as recruits: Defense

January, 30, 2013
Now that we’ve examined where the offensive players on the 2012 Associated Press All-SEC team ranked as high school recruits, we look next at the defensive players.

Whereas only four of the 12 offensive players (counting the all-purpose player) on this season's All-SEC team were ESPN 150 prospects, nine of the 11 defensive players made the ESPN 150 cut as high school recruits. Eight of the 11 were ranked among the top 10 prospects nationally at their position.

The only two who weren't ESPN 150 prospects were Texas A&M defensive end Damontre Moore and Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks.

Here's a look back:

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Kim Klement-USA TODAY SportsSouth Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney was ranked No. 1 overall in the ESPN 150 in 2011.

DE: Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina -- A five-star prospect and ranked No. 1 overall in the ESPN 150 in 2011. Received a grade of 95 and described by some analysts as one of the most talented and physically impressive high school prospects to be evaluated since the advent of recruiting rankings.

DE: Damontre Moore, Texas A&M -- A three-star prospect and unranked in the ESPN 150 in 2010. Ranked as the No. 48 defensive end prospect nationally. Six of the top 15 defensive end prospects that year signed with SEC schools -- No. 4 Corey Miller (Tennessee), No. 5 Adrian Hubbard (Alabama), No. 9 Corey Lemonier (Auburn), No. 10 Chris Martin (Florida), No. 14 LaDarius Owens (Auburn) and No. 15 Justin Maclin (LSU).

DT: Sharrif Floyd, Florida -- A four-star prospect and ranked No. 25 in the ESPN 150 in 2010. Ranked as the No. 3 defensive tackle prospect nationally. The No. 1 defensive tackle prospect that year was Florida teammate Dominique Easley. The Gators also signed a third top 10 defensive tackle prospect -- Leon Orr -- in that 2010 class.

DT: Sheldon Richardson, Missouri -- Ranked No. 107 in the ESPN 150 in 2009. Ranked as the No. 8 defensive tackle prospect nationally. There were three tackle prospects ranked ahead of him that year who signed with SEC schools -- No. 2 Gary Brown (Florida), No. 4 Josh Downs (LSU), and No. 7 Chris Davenport (LSU).

LB: Jarvis Jones, Georgia -- Ranked No. 59 in the ESPN 150 in 2009. Originally signed with USC before transferring to Georgia. Ranked as the No. 6 outside linebacker prospect nationally. The No. 1 outside linebacker prospect in that class was Manti Te'o. Jones was ranked as the No. 7 overall prospect in the state of Georgia in 2009. Future Georgia teammates Branden Smith (No. 2) and Chris Burnette (No. 6) were ranked ahead of him.

LB: Kevin Minter, LSU -- Ranked No. 133 in the ESPN 150 in 2009. Ranked as the No. 11 outside linebacker prospect nationally. Counting Jarvis Jones, eight of the top 15 outside linebacker prospects that year either signed with an SEC school or wound up at one. Florida got two of them -- No. 2 Jelani Jenkins and No. 8 Jon Bostic.

LB: C.J.Mosley, Alabama -- A four-star prospect and ranked No. 99 in the ESPN 150 in 2010. Ranked as the No. 7 outside linebacker prospect nationally. The only outside linebacker prospect to sign with an SEC school ranked higher was Georgia’s T.J. Stripling at No. 5.

CB: Johnthan Banks, Mississippi State -- Unranked in the ESPN 150 in 2009. Ranked as the No. 27 athlete nationally, one spot behind eventual LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne. Banks, who grew up in the tiny town of Maben, Miss., only received the one scholarship offer from Mississippi State.

CB: Dee Milliner, Alabama -- A four-star prospect and ranked No. 16 in the ESPN 150 in 2010. Ranked as the No. 2 cornerback prospect nationally. Florida State’s Lamarcus Joyner was ranked as the country’s No. 1 cornerback prospect that year. Florida signed three of the top 10 cornerback prospects in 2010 -- No. 3 Josh Shaw, No. 5 Jaylen Watkins, and No. 7 Cody Riggs.

S: Matt Elam, Florida -- A five-star prospect and ranked No. 9 in the ESPN 150 in 2010. Ranked as the No. 2 athlete nationally. The No. 1 athlete that year was eventual Florida teammate Ronald Powell. Auburn signed three of the top 10 athletes in 2010. Two of them, Antonio Goodwin and Shaun Kitchens, were part of the 2011 armed robbery of a trailer and kicked off the team. The third was receiver Trovon Reed.

S: Eric Reid, LSU -- A four-star prospect and ranked No. 71 in the ESPN 150 in 2010. Ranked as the No. 7 safety prospect nationally. Reid was one of two top 10 safety prospects the Tigers signed that year. The other was Tharold Simon, who wound up playing cornerback. The No. 1 safety prospect in 2010 was Jonathan Dowling, who signed with Florida and was kicked off the team during his freshman season by Urban Meyer.

The streak is over and the monkey is gone. Northwestern finally can celebrate a bowl win.

The Wildcats claimed their first postseason victory in 64 years after downing Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. Although the game didn't go as planned for either squad, Northwestern rode opportunistic defense (17 points off turnovers) and a big third quarter from Trevor Siemian to its first bowl win since the 1949 Rose. Surprisingly, there was little drama as Northwestern's defense clamped down.

Let's take a look at how it went down:

It was over when: Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell threw his fourth interception, a wounded duck on third-and-10, and Northwestern's Nick VanHoose returned the ball inside the red zone with 9:54 to play. Northwestern led by only seven at the time but scored three plays later to take a 14-point lead with 8:10 left. To truly seal the win, Wildcats defensive lineman Deonte Gibson dropped Russell on fourth-and-20 with 1:42 left.

Game ball goes to: Northwestern defensive ends Quentin Williams and Tyler Scott. Both of the Wildcats' top edge rushers stepped up in the bowl win. Williams set the tone for the game with an interception returned for a touchdown on the third play from scrimmage. He also had a sack and two tackles for loss, while Scott dropped Russell twice in the win.

Stat of the game: Both teams entered the game among the nation's best at taking care of the ball, but things changed in Jacksonville. The Wildcats and Bulldogs combined for seven turnovers, including three first-half interceptions by Mississippi State's Russell, who threw four picks after throwing just six in the regular season. Northwestern came in with just 12 giveaways, tied for sixth-fewest nationally, while Mississippi State had 13 giveaways (tied for ninth). Both teams ranked in the top 10 in turnover margin but looked sloppy with the ball.

Stat of the game II: Third-down efficiency played a huge part in the game, and Northwestern had a significant edge there. The Wildcats moved the chains 10 times on 19 third-down opportunities. The biggest conversion came with the game tied in the third quarter, when Siemian made a tough throw on the run to Rashad Lawrence to convert a third-and-10 in Wildcats territory. Northwestern scored the go-ahead touchdown three plays later. Mississippi State, meanwhile, was a mess on third down, converting just 1 of 11 chances.

Unsung hero: Northwestern freshman superback (tight end) Dan Vitale. Mississippi State's defense did a good job taking away Venric Mark and Kain Colter, but Vitale, a freshman, gashed the Bulldogs for seven receptions and 82 yards. He provided the receiving threat Northwestern needed against a good Bulldogs secondary.

What Northwestern learned: It can win a bowl game, for starters. After several near misses (2008 Alamo, 2010 Outback), Northwestern finally got over the hump in the postseason. Pat Fitzgerald and his staff did a masterful job coaching a young team not predicted to do much to just the school's third 10-win season. After blowing three fourth-quarter leads in Big Ten play, Northwestern made enough plays on both sides of the ball to hold off the mistake-prone Bulldogs. Northwestern needed this win to legitimize its program and should be right in the Legends division mix next fall, as most key players return.

What Mississippi State learned: Russell can be rattled. The junior turned in a record-setting season for the Bulldogs but had a miserable performance in the bowl, completing only 12 of 28 passes for 106 yards with two touchdowns and the four picks. Mississippi State wins with discipline and Russell didn't have enough of it with the football. The Bulldogs played without star cornerback Johnthan Banks for most of the second half, and his absence showed. After a 7-0 start, Mississippi State had an extremely disappointing finish and lacked any decent wins on its résumé.

Mississippi State keys for Gator Bowl

December, 31, 2012
Here’s a look at three keys for Mississippi State in Tuesday’s matchup with Northwestern in the Gator Bowl:

1. Setting the tone early: It’s been a while since Mississippi State last won a football game. The Bulldogs beat Arkansas 45-14 back on Nov. 17 and lost four of their last five games to end the regular season. They need to have some success early in this game and regain their edge. That means moving the ball on offense and establishing themselves on defense. In three of their four losses, they trailed by 10 points or more at halftime and don’t want to have to play from behind against a Northwestern team that likes to play up-tempo on offense and is very good at keeping the chains moving with its zone-option game. Moreover, the Bulldogs have proven to be money when they have the lead late. They’re 28-0 under Dan Mullen when leading after three quarters.

2. Finding some balance on offense: Mississippi State’s Tyler Russell was one of the more improved quarterbacks in the country this season and put up excellent numbers. Senior receiver Chad Bumphis also had his best season, with an SEC-leading 12 touchdown catches. But when things went bad for the Bulldogs toward the end of the season, their running game went into the tank. Against SEC competition, they were 13th in the league in rushing offense with an average of 111.2 yards per game and were held under 50 yards rushing in three of their four losses. They need to get running back LaDarius Perkins going in this game. He needs just 60 yards to reach 1,000 for the season, and being able to generate a running game will keep the Wildcats from loading up and coming after Russell.

3. Secondary revival: At one point this season, Mississippi State would have rated right up there as one of the top defensive backfields in the country, and the Bulldogs are still plenty talented back there. Senior cornerback Johnthan Banks won the Thorpe Award as college football’s top defensive back. The problem was that the Bulldogs didn’t play like one of the top defensive backfields to close the season. They had several communication breakdowns and gave up an average of 273.4 passing yards and 12 touchdowns in their last five games. They were burned for five touchdown passes in the 41-24 loss to Ole Miss to end the regular season. Establishing a stronger pass rush will help, but Mississippi State also needs to get back to playing to its talent level in the secondary and not allow Northwestern any big plays in the passing game. The Bulldogs were second in the SEC this season with 30 interceptions, but only picked off four passes in their last five games.

Northwestern keys for Gator Bowl

December, 30, 2012
Let's look at three keys for Northwestern in Tuesday's matchup against Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl:

1. Establish the run early and often: Northwestern has been at its best when going up-tempo with the zone option game. Mississippi State isn't great against the run (69th nationally, 166 yards per game), so it's imperative for Wildcats tandem Venric Mark and Kain Colter to establish the ground attack behind a physical line early in the game. Northwestern's passing attack has been up and down, and the Wildcats don't want to get into obvious passing situations against a veteran Bulldogs secondary featuring Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks at cornerback. The Wildcats offense needs to hit on a big run play or two and convert manageable third downs.

2. Turning the tables: Northwestern and Mississippi State both do a great job of taking care of the football. The Wildcats lead the Big Ten and are tied for 10th nationally in average turnover margin (plus-1.08 per game), while Mississippi State is even better (tied for fifth nationally, plus-1.42 per game). The teams have combined for 55 takeaways (30 for Mississippi State, 25 for Northwestern), while committing only 25 combined giveaways (12 for Northwestern, 13 for Mississippi State). The Bulldogs have won 23 of their past 25 games when winning the turnover battle, so it's vital that Northwestern protects the football and makes smart decisions in the passing game. The Wildcats have recorded timely takeaways throughout the season and might need one or two to beat Mississippi State.

3. Win the fourth quarter: Northwestern would be undefeated if it could have held fourth-quarter leads against Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan. Although the Wildcats still consider clutch play their hallmark, they need to show they can finish the game if they establish an early lead. Northwestern has been outscored 87-60 in the fourth quarter this season. Mississippi State, meanwhile, hasn't had any issues blowing late leads. The Bulldogs have won their past 38 games when leading after three quarters, including a 28-0 mark during coach Dan Mullen's tenure. Both teams have been good in the first three quarters, but the Bulldogs definitely have the edge in the fourth. Northwestern must change that Tuesday.

Pregame: Gator Bowl

December, 30, 2012
Mississippi State (8-4, 4-4 SEC) vs. Northwestern (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten)

WHO TO WATCH: Northwestern running back Venric Mark. A year ago, Mark was a nonfactor at receiver. Now he's an All-American because of his explosiveness both as a running back and as a return man. The junior gave Northwestern its first true threat at running back since 2008 and, alongside quarterback Kain Colter, changed the offense from a pass-happy attack to more ground-based. He ranks 23rd nationally in rushing (109.2 yards per game), first in punt-return average (20.1 ypr) and ninth in all-purpose yards (170.7 ypg). He needs 148 yards in the bowl to set Northwestern's single-season record. Despite his size (5-foot-8, 175 pounds), Mark likes running between the tackles and challenging much bigger defenders. But his breakaway speed is his best attribute, and he's responsible for 23 plays of 20 yards or longer and 10 plays of 40 yards or longer.

WHAT TO WATCH: Mississippi State's secondary. There might not be a better cornerback tandem in the country than Johnthan Banks, the Thorpe Award winner, and All-SEC selection Darius Slay. Banks and Slay combined for nine interceptions, 22 passes defended, two fumble recoveries and three tackles for loss. Northwestern doesn't throw the ball nearly as much as it did in previous seasons and might be even more hesitant to challenge Banks and Slay. It'll be interesting to see how both men help against the run, an area in which Mississippi State has had some issues (69th nationally). The Bulldogs are very experienced and dangerous in the secondary with 124 starts and 40 interceptions (eight returned for touchdowns) combined among the starting four.

WHY TO WATCH: Northwestern is a young team that exceeded most expectations with nine wins and easily could have had more (three blown fourth-quarter leads). The program is enjoying an unprecedented period of sustained success, but it continues to be haunted by a bowl losing streak that stretches back to the 1949 Rose. Northwestern hopes to erase the "final negative," as coach Pat Fitzgerald puts it, and notch just the third 10-win season in team history. Mississippi State, meanwhile, does its best work in the postseason and brings the nation's longest active bowl win streak (five games) to Jacksonville, Fla. The Bulldogs struggled down the stretch after a 7-0 start and are still seeking a signature win to cap the season. Quarterback Tyler Russell leads a record-setting Mississippi State pass attack against a Northwestern defense that, while improved, still is prone to breakdowns.

PREDICTION: Northwestern 27, Mississippi State 24. Russell will make some plays in this one, but Northwestern has the better résumé, easily could be in a better bowl and ended the season playing much better than Dan Mullen's Bulldogs (lost four of last five). Mark and Colter will find enough space against an average Mississippi State run defense, and Northwestern will force a key turnover or two in the second half. It'll be close, but Northwestern prevails to end the bowl losing streak.

SEC to produce 15 first-rounders?

December, 14, 2012
If the latest mock NFL draft by ESPN analyst Todd McShay is any indication, the SEC will shatter its record for most players selected in the first round this April.

McShay has 15 SEC players going in the first round, including five among the top 10 picks.

The SEC record for most players selected in the first round is 11, which happened in 2007. The SEC produced nine first-round picks last year and 10 the year before.

The 2013 draft could be the biggest bonanza yet for SEC players, and 12 of the players McShay projects to go in the first round are underclassmen.

ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has also updated his Big Board of the top 25 NFL prospects, and it includes 12 SEC players. The No. 1 player on Kiper's board is Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones.

Below is a rundown of the SEC players McShay projects to go in the first round:
  • No. 2 -- Texas A&M defensive end Damontre Moore (Jacksonville Jaguars)
  • No. 4 -- Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel (Philadelphia Eagles)
  • No. 6 -- LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo (Tennessee Titans)
  • No. 7 -- Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner (Detroit Lions)
  • No. 10 -- Alabama offensive guard Chance Warmack (Cleveland Browns)
  • No. 13 -- Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones (New Orleans Saints)
  • No. 14 -- LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
  • No. 15 -- Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews (New York Jets)
  • No. 17 -- Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree (Cincinnati Bengals)
  • No. 21 -- Georgia nose guard John Jenkins (Pittsburgh Steelers)
  • No. 22 -- Tennessee receiver Justin Hunter (Seattle Seahawks)
  • No. 23 -- Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson (Chicago Bears)
  • No. 25 -- Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks (New York Giants)
  • No. 26 -- Auburn defensive end Corey Lemonier (Baltimore Ravens)
  • No. 29 -- Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd (San Francisco 49ers)

SEC: Who will transform in a bowl?

December, 7, 2012
Johnthan Banks is probably soaring after winning the Jim Thorpe Award. The award given to the nation's top defensive back would make any corner giddy, but Mississippi State's senior is still looking for more.

After such a good first half of the 2012 season, Banks had some struggles during the second half. Through the first seven games, Banks recorded four interceptions and was at the center of the debate for the country's top cornerback. But by the end of the season, Banks had the same amount of interceptions and was probably tired of watching highlights of him during the last five games.

The All-American talent had a bit of a drought in the month of November, and you know that had to have irked him. He thrives on making big plays and wasn't making the kinds that made him so deadly in the defensive backfield. The player so used to frustrating quarterbacks and wide receivers even saw himself chasing down receivers from behind. Getting beaten was never really something Banks had to worry about, but he was a victim at times in November.

But Banks is still a special talent, and against Northwestern in the Gator Bowl, he'll look like the old Banks that made a living taking the ball away from the opposition.

The Wildcats don't really throw the ball all that much. In fact, Northwestern ended the season ranking 112th in passing offense with 166.8 yards per game. The Wildcats also threw just 14 touchdown passes, but also only threw four interceptions. With an offense that is very run heavy, the Wildcats will try to keep Banks out of their way as much as possible.

But the Wildcats will have to throw the ball, and when they do, Banks will be there to make it very difficult for them. He hasn't been productive in the big-play department in quite so time, but that will change on Jan. 1. The Wildcats will be forced into tough situations with Banks manning the Bulldogs' defensive backfield.

He's going to make life miserable for Northwestern's passing game. The interception drought will end and Banks will truly look like the Thorpe Award winner when the Bulldogs take on the Wildcats in January.
Saturday serves as both a blessing and a curse for Mississippi State's defense.

On one hand, the Bulldogs' defense has a chance to redeem itself after Alabama rolled right over this unit last week. The problem is that Mississippi State is taking on the SEC's best offense.

Texas A&M has the fifth-best offense nationally, averaging 542.9 yards per game, and is third in scoring (45.5). Thanks to a group of talented skill players, a veteran offensive line and the human highlight reel at quarterback, the Aggies' offense has been one of the most fun ones to watch this season.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
Mark Zerof/US PresswireMississippi State coach Dan Mullen hopes his talented secondary can help slow Texas A&M's explosive offense.
"They are going to spread you out across the field and create those matchups for their talent," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said.

Mike Evans and Ryan Swope have been outstanding at wide receiver this season for the Aggies, combining for 83 catches for 1,225 yards and seven touchdowns. Ben Malena has been a pleasant surprise at running back (525 yards and five touchdowns).

But we know what really makes this A&M offense tick: Johnny Manziel.

The redshirt freshman has received Heisman love, and he has killed teams with his arm and his legs. He's averaging 277 yards passing and 99 rushing each game. He also has combined to score 29 touchdowns in his first season on the field.

"If you give him all day to stand back there and throw, he'll throw and beat you with his arm. If you give him open spaces, he's going to take off and beat you with his legs," Mullen said. "You have to do everything to contain him."

And good defenses have done so in the second half of games. Florida and LSU clamped down on Johnny Football in their wins against the Aggies, and the Bulldogs are looking to take some of what the Gators and Tigers did and expand on it Saturday.

Mullen knows he has to put pressure on Manziel, but he can't be too aggressive because running lanes could open up. And you obviously can't give him time to stand in the pocket.

Only two defenses have calmed Manziel's storm, and the Bulldogs certainly have the talent to do it, as well, especially with such a talented secondary.

This is the same unit that gave up some big plays against Alabama, but it's also the same unit that has arguably the nation's top cornerback duo in Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay, who have combined for 10 of Mississippi State's 12 interceptions.

Communication issues hurt this group against Alabama, but don't expect these players to have the same sort of issues Saturday. And with the way Manziel likes to improvise, things could get tricky for him if he doesn't settle down under duress.

"Your concern is that this is a really, really good secondary," A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "Not only is it a good secondary, it's an experienced secondary."

To take some of the pressure off that secondary, all eyes will be on Mississippi State's defensive line. What was expected to be a strong part of this defense hasn't really lived up to expectations.

The line has combined for eight sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss through eight games. The core was supposed to be junior college transfer Denico Autry and veteran Josh Boyd. They've combined for just three sacks and seven tackles for loss.

"I want pressure every play," Mullen said. "I guess if every time a team tries to throw the ball and it ends in a sack, that's what I want."

In a perfect world, Mullen would get that. For now, he'll have to hope for flat-out improvement up front. And he'll need it if this defense is going to rebound Saturday.

Bulldogs go out and take their respect

October, 14, 2012

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Fittingly, senior offensive guard Tobias Smith was the last player out of the Mississippi State locker room late Saturday night.

With cowbells still clanging in the distance, he limped out wearing a smile as wide as his massive barrel chest.

Talk to coaches or players, and they’ll tell you the same thing: Smith is the heart and soul of this football team. He’s fought through injuries his entire career, including a nasty knee injury a year ago.

But he just keeps chugging along, a lot like the Bulldogs, who have been fighting for respect this entire season despite rising to No. 19 in the polls.

Their 41-31 victory over Tennessee should quiet some of the doubters, at least for now.

“That’s all we’ve been hearing, who we hadn’t played and how our schedule was soft,” said Smith, who left the game in the second quarter after re-injuring his knee, but returned for both of Mississippi State’s fourth-quarter touchdown drives.

“We have a lot of faith in each other and a lot of faith in our coaches, and we know what kind of team we are. We showed it tonight.”

Something else the Bulldogs showed (and have been showing all season) is that they’re learning how to win.

When they need a play, somebody’s there to make it.

“What’s happened for us is that in years past during big times in the game, everybody kind of looked around,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “This year, everybody’s like, ‘Give me the ball. I’m going to be the one to make the play.’

“It’s not just one guy, either.”

[+] EnlargeMississippi State's Tyler Russell
Spruce Derden/US PRESSWIRE]Mississippi State's Tyler Russell completed 23 of 37 passes for 291 yards and two touchdowns against Tennessee.
Take your pick from Saturday.

There was Johnthan Banks’ strip of Tennessee running back Devrin Young on the sideline in the fourth quarter when it looked like the Vols might be putting together a drive to go ahead. The Bulldogs led 27-24 at the time and turned Banks’ big play into a touchdown three plays later.

“Hopefully, we’ll get the respect we deserve now, because our team’s for real,” Banks said.

On offense, the Bulldogs started fast, then hit a lull, but closed with a flurry.

Junior quarterback Tyler Russell passed for a career-high 291 yards and two touchdowns. He now has 12 touchdown passes this season and only one interception.

He was at his best in the game-clinching drive when he hit Chad Bumphis for 10 yards on a third-and-7 play. Russell had the presence to change the play at the line and went to his third option. Later in that same drive, he scrambled away from pressure and connected with Bumphis for 23 yards.

And on his final touchdown toss, he lofted one to the back of the end zone for a leaping Malcolm Johnson in the final seconds.

“Tyler missed some reads earlier and could have very easily gotten flustered, but he just stays calm and makes the plays he needs to,” Mullen said.

That’s been the trademark of this entire team, which is why Mullen didn’t fret during the first five games, when the Bulldogs tended to play down to their competition.

Coming into Saturday’s game, Mississippi State’s toughest test had probably come against Troy on the road. The Bulldogs’ other victims were Jackson State, South Alabama, Kentucky and Auburn, so it’s not exactly been a murderer’s row for Mississippi State.

That’s what made the Tennessee game so important.

“Our locker room was ridiculous,” Banks said. “Ya’ll can’t imagine what our locker room was like. This is the biggest win probably since I’ve been here.”

Now, we find out what Mississippi State does with it. This is the first time the Bulldogs have been 6-0 since 1999.

Up next is Middle Tennessee at home, and then comes a wicked stretch that begins with Alabama on the road. But a victory over Middle Tennessee would ensure a third consecutive winning season for the Bulldogs, and the last time that happened was 1997-2000, when they had four straight under Jackie Sherrill.

“We’re halfway,” Mullen said. “It’s been a great first half with a lot of football to play.”

That may be, but the Bulldogs have some doors open to them that haven’t been open for a long time.

“Four years ago, we went out and sold these kids on being able to build something special here in your home state of Mississippi,” Mullen said. “We’ve had 20 straight sellouts now. The atmosphere was unbelievable, and these kids believe in what we're doing, believe in themselves and believe in each other.

“It all shows out there on the field.”

Instant analysis: Miss. State 41, Tenn. 31

October, 14, 2012

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- With cowbells clanging away, Mississippi State remained unbeaten Saturday night with a 41-31 victory over Tennessee at Scott Field.

Here’s an instant analysis from the game:

It was over when: After Tennessee had pulled within 34-31 with a little more than five minutes to play, Mississippi State put together the game-clinching touchdown drive, which was capped by Malcolm Johnson’s one-handed touchdown catch in the back of the end zone. The big play in the drive was Tyler Russell’s 10-yard pass to Chad Bumphis on a third-and-7 play over the middle. Russell came back later in the drive, and was able to scramble and hit Bumphis for 23 yards down to the Tennessee 23.

Turning point: With Mississippi State leading 27-24, Tennessee running back Devrin Young was stripped of the ball on the sideline by Johnthan Banks, who pounced on it at the Vols’ 30-yard line with 9:12 remaining. Mississippi State scored three plays later to take a 10-point lead with just less than eight minutes to play.

Game ball goes to: Russell finished with a career-high 291 passing yards. He was 23-of-37 with a pair of touchdown passes and no interceptions. In three SEC games this season, he’s thrown seven touchdown passes and no interceptions.

Key stat: Mississippi State is off to its best start since 1999, when the Bulldogs played in the Cotton Bowl.

Key stat 2: Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray was held to 148 passing yards, his lowest output as a starter.

What it means: Mississippi State (6-0, 3-0) gained the legitimacy it was looking for with its biggest win of the season. The No. 19 Bulldogs likely will now go into the Alabama game Oct. 27 unbeaten; they get Middle Tennessee at home next week. The Vols (3-3, 0-3) are now looking at a long October. They get Alabama at home next week and then South Carolina on the road after that.

Welcome from Cowbell Central

October, 13, 2012
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Talk about colors that clash.

Maroon and orange mix about as well as oil and water, which segues into what should be the matchup of the night: Tennessee’s passing game vs. Mississippi State’s secondary.

The Vols lead the SEC in passing offense at 329.2 yards per game. Quarterback Tyler Bray and his top two receivers, Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson, are all high on NFL draft lists for 2013.

They’ll go against a veteran Mississippi State secondary led by senior cornerback Johnthan Banks, who already has three interceptions this season. It’s not just Banks, though. Senior safety Corey Broomfield, senior cornerback Darius Slay and junior safety Nickoe Whitley have combined with Banks to intercept 37 career passes, and they’ve returned eight of those for touchdowns.

The cowbells are already clanging in what should be an electric atmosphere at Scott Field.

The No. 19 Bulldogs are bent on proving that they’re a legitimate top 25 team after a cushy schedule to this point. A win Saturday night opens up all sorts of possibilities for them this season.

For the Vols, they just need an SEC win, or it's an October that could really get ugly. They get Alabama next week at home and then South Carolina on the road the week after that.