Given that Smith has played in just 27 out of a possible 50 games—and that doesn't count sitting out all 2008 with his first and most serious injury—an appeal would appear promising based on NCAA trends. Smith has had three major injuries, to both ankles and a knee, and surgeries. This season he started eight games, played in one more, and missed three entirely. But Smith did play all offensive snaps in one November game and most of them in the others so he is as strong as ever now.
"I'm feeling good," he said after bowl practices. Even if he wasn't, he'd do whatever necessary to get on the field tomorrow for one more start. "Oh yeah, it's a chance to go out as a winner."
There again he inferred that he might not entirely want a sixth season, which is understandable after all the years of recovery and rationing practices and game snaps. Playing in fall 2013 is an attractive idea; so is getting his post-college career in coaching started.
"Yeah, I'm still kind of thinking about it. We'll still have to see, I'm taking one day at a time." Ahhh, but Tobias, if you can secure a grad assistantship or something with State, you might have an office in that shiny new complex? Which, by the way, Smith said already has an unofficial title.
"It's like a mall in there, we're going to call it ‘Balis Mall'," he said. Referring of course to the near-mythic strength coach who will have a weightroom of truly amazing expanse. "It's state of the art, I've never seen anything like it," said Smith. Nor could the 2008 freshman have envisioned such a facility when he signed on with Mississippi State.
"I had no idea. All of it was kind of new to me, because I started getting recruited late so I really had no idea. With all this happening it's kind of been an eye-opening experience to me." Now it's up to Smith to decide if his experience ends tomorrow in Jacksonville. The prospect of what Balis will do in his mall (or maybe maul given the intensity of his workouts?) makes Smith shake his head over what future Dogs will face from the coach.
"Ohhhh…it's going to be gruesome, that's all I can say, it's going to be bad for them! I won't say bad, it's going to help them…but I don't know if they're going to like it all the time!"
ADJUSTMENTS: Between campus bowl camp and reporting to Jacksonville, the Bulldog secondary got a surprise as cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith suddenly accepted a similar position at SEC rival Auburn. That Smith, the only holdover from State's previous staff retained by Mullen, would leave is not a complete shock as so are three long-time cornerbacks he's handled. The timing was more interesting, but players understand the business.
And in this secondary's case they had no real bowl-week transition. Safeties Coach Tony Hughes has had as much to do with the whole backfield as with his own title-position, so adding cornerbacks to this week's coaching wasn't an issue.
"It's been great with Coach Hughes," Johnthan Banks said. "I played with him as a freshman." He did indeed, starting half a season at safety before moving to corner in 2010. The familiarity made this abrupt adjustment easy for everyone, especially Banks.
"And I've probably had the best week of practice since I've been at Mississippi State. Coach Mullen is a grind-hard, get-after-it coach; Coach Hughes is the same way. And Coach Smith was the same way. But it was a little different with those two."
What Mississippi State's defensive backfield wants to be really different in the bowl game is their quality of coverage. Simply, the Bulldogs got burned repeatedly in their four losses and usually with big, big passing plays. The common theme, coaches and players agreed, was problems in communicating mutual assignments that left one Dog chasing a receiver alone, without the expected support. This was a real surprise given how experienced the entire unit is.
Against a Wildcat offense that sets defenses up with a steady series of rushing plays, then hits them for the unexpected deep ball, such breakdowns could and likely would cost the game."Yeah, we have to communicate," said Banks. "That's something we've been working on in practice. As older guys we should never have communication problems. But it's football, it happens. We have to be sound and talk and get everybody in the right positions."
TROPHY TALK: Speaking of communication… Ever since he reached double-figures in interceptions midway of his junior season, Banks has openly and frequently proclaimed his ambition of owning the Mississippi State record for picks. Which will require one more now for the senior; he lines-up tomorrow with 16 career interceptions, tied with Walt Harris (1992-95).
He got his last pick on October 20 against Middle Tennessee, and while it tied the mark the return came at a cost. Banks hurt a knee on the tackle and while no one admits it he hasn't been 100% healthy since. None can say either if the nagging knee has been a factor in going five games without an interception, but at least it didn't keep Banks from winning the Jim Thorpe Award given to the nation's top defensive back.
So, is Banks still intent on setting the record, and has he ever discussed it with Harris? "I've never talked to Walt in my life. But I don't think about that now, I won the Jim Thorpe trophy." That might stretch credulity just a bit given how much setting the standard has meant to Banks.
By the way, while he hasn't talked to Harris, Banks is often in communication with his most famous predecessor. He and Fred Smoot speak, especially this year as Banks positions himself for the NFL draft. Hmmm, does the current Dog remind the alumnus that for all his fame, Smoot didn't win the Thorpe or any other college trophy?
"I never said anything about it, it didn't come up! It would be a big rah-rah contest between me and him, so I'm not going to get into that, no!"
NORTH(WESTERN)…: Part of the annual bowl-season fun is the inter-conference scorekeeping and sniping. Over the past decade comparing the Southeastern Conference and Big Ten has led that list for all sorts of reasons, not least the traditional stereotypes. You know, of the physical if plodding Midwesterners; against the fast and flashy Southern boys. Like most such stereotypes there is some central grain of fact to this one which has been blown entirely out of proportion.
It hasn't always been so but the SEC has held the upper hand for a couple of years now in direct bowl matchups. Yet Wildcats Coach Pat Fitzgerald isn't billing the Gator Bowl as SEC vs. Big Ten. "I think it means Northwestern vs. Mississippi State. That's been my focus. A couple of years ago we had the same challenge and opportunity, Northwestern and Auburn."
Which the Wildcats lost, as they have their other three bowl games under Fitzgerald. But this year can be different, not least because Northwestern whipped Vanderbilt in the regular season. "We handled our business and won against a SEC opponent," said Fitzgerald. As to the larger picture, "How's the Big Ten doing to take a step forward? It's a simple answer, win football games."
Still there have been plenty of players arrive from other regions to play Big Ten ball. Wildcat linebacker David Nwabuisi is one of them, out of Houston. "Just growing up in Texas you don't year a ton about midwestern football, or I didn't growing up," he said. "Playing in the Big Ten I realized what it is all about. I'd put up the guys we've got in our conference against anyone's."
…AND SOUTHEASTERN: Meanwhile the SEC has been strutting in recent bowl seasons, as well as scoring six-straight B.C.S. championships. Mullen coached in two of those games with Florida—including the 2006 Gators that beat Ohio State for the national title. He has managed MSU to bowl wins over Michigan and Wake Forest as well to help his league's record.
"The league as a whole takes a lot of pride in representing the Southeastern Conference on the field," Mullen said. "A lot of the teams in the league have had a lot of success out of conference. There's great players, you look in recruiting most SEC teams are ranked in the top 40 or 50 in the country in recruiting classes. And I'm talking every team in the league is there, you probably have seven of the top ten."
"So you have great players in the league, there's some excellent coaches, and we play pretty good football. And I think that shows when you start playing out-of-conference games." Mullen, by the way, has a 16-2 record in non-conference games at State, and a 15-win streak going back to 2009 including the pair of bowl victories.
And a player's perspective? Asked if Northwestern's backs and ends are as good as he's seen in college, Banks was honest. "They aren't going to be as good quality as I've seen," said a senior who has chased many a NFL draftee in his four seasons. "But they've got some good players on that side of the ball, we have a lot of respect for what they do and their players."
Guard Smith is more free with his praise, specifically of the Wildcat defense at the line of scrimmage. "They're big and they're physical and they're fast, sort of like a SEC line. I was impressed when saw them on film. It's going to be a dandy come Tuesday."
It will be for Northwestern if that front-four gets pressure on Tyler Russell as they did most Big Ten passers. State hasn't given up a lot of statistical sacks this season, but the quarterback has hit the ground a lot. A very lot some games. Smith acknowledges, as does Russell, that the ball might be held a little longer than protection can, well, protect. That is no excuse for the front-five.
"Any time you get a hit on the quarterback it takes a little bit out of you. Because it's one more hit wearing on his body. So it does kind of wear on yourself also."
Related to this, Russell left the Egg Bowl with a sprained right ankle. No official injury update was offered Monday but Smith is upbeat about the record-setting slinger. "Tyler I think is returned back to where he was when he was 100% at the beginning of the season, because of the rest we got. And as starters it took good care of us."
PLAY MAKERS, GAME BREAKERS: One Wildcat who'd be welcomed on any SEC or other conference roster is dazzling tailback Venric Mark, with his 109-yard game average and 6.2 yards each carry. The junior from Texas might pack just 180 pounds on his 5-8 frame but Mullen has seen him bust enough tackles to recognize a really physical runner.
More than that, "He's obviously pretty special out in the open field, not just running the ball but coming out of the backfield and catching the ball. In the kicking game when he gets in the open field he's very dangerous. But I think our guys are used to that, you look at our tailback. LaDarius Perkins is not a huge guy but plays pretty physical inside."
Perkins might not have the same statistical resume as Marks but he's a good half away from the 1,000 yard mark. And he can catch a pass (re: 2011 Gator Bowl) and return a kick just fine. So are the two directly comparable?
Linebacker Cameron Lawrence has an expert's opinion. "I see Perk as being a little more physical, a little lower center-of-gravity kind of guy. And Mark, trememdous speed, he can cut on a dime and has good vision. I wouldn't compare them, I would say him and (Brandon) Holloway are closer related than him and Perk."
An outside linebacker officially, Lawrence spends almost as much time lined up between the tackles and even as the middle-man in some State sets. Scouting has shown how often Mark makes great big gains coming right up the middle and finding vacated creases. This would seem to put the pressure on Lawrence and MLB Benardrick McKinney to stay home and stay smart.
"We're not going to change our gameplan based on one player," Lawrence said. "But do our thing and let it all work out."
HOT TIMES: Several factors contributed to the exceptional 2010 Gator Bowl turnout, such as the game falling on a Saturday and allowing easier travel scheduling; the ‘newness' of a bowl experience for Bulldog players and fans, and such. Then there was excellent weather that weekend with 70 degrees in daytimes.
Conditions are a good bit chillier this time around though Tuesday looks fine and warmer. But all complaints are relative to Fitzgerald. "It's twelve degrees up north," he reminded.
BRING AND RING: Nor is the Wildcats coach concerned about hearing cowbells tomorrow. "It's obviously a great tradition Mississippi State has," Fitzgerald said. "I think it's a neat thing about college football. We have our own traditions." Just in case though, Northwestern has played noise during some practices to prepare; including what Fitzgerald called "terrible music."