Just as it should be of course, as Mississippi State prepares for its annual adversary and another Battle for the Golden Egg. Even by outsider standards the stakes are high for both squads. The Bulldogs (8-3, 4-3 SEC) are assured of post-season play for a third-straight year but are still bidding for their best available bowl berth. A nine-win regular season gives State a good if far from assured shot at the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Otherwise the Bulldogs appear in line for another New Years Day in Jacksonville at the Gator Bowl. In either case, the likely matchups would offer an excellent opportunity to become only the third ten-win State squad ever…if they take care of Saturday business in Oxford. For their part the Rebels (5-6, 2-5) are playing for bowl eligibility, though there remains some chance a five-win SEC team might yet find its way into a bowl based on lack of .500 teams around the country. Ole Miss obviously would rather take care of this themselves.
And certainly the home team grates at a three-year losing string in this rivalry. Meanwhile Mississippi State intends extending the winning streak into a fourth season, something not enjoyed by Bulldogs in seven decades. Not that many of these players have read those records or anything, nor need to; least of all most of the 2012 seniors.
These Bulldogs can write their own history with perfect career records against the Rebels. Banks, a leading part in Coach Dan Mullen's first recruiting class, is among them. Back in summer the all-conference cornerback stated a goal of going 4-0 in the Egg Bowl, and Banks is not about to back away from such statements today.
"I don't mind. It ain't no pressure," Banks said. "This is what we do. We go out and play football and we're going to win football games. It ain't no pressure at all."
There is a difference though between feeling un-pressured, and having a sense of game-week urgency. No wonder Banks enjoys the ‘juice' he's seen from teammates. "Going out at practice we've got to be different this week. Everything is different. They don't like us, we don't like them. We're just going to go out and play football. Play hard, play physical, and come home with a win."
The trick is not confusing this confidence with cockiness. Banks has had his scouting time this week and sees a Rebel offense more than capable of winning conference games. It is certainly a more productive lineup and system than State shut down a year ago at Scott Field. "They're very different," Banks said. "They do pretty good on offense."
Especially when quarterback Bo Wallace has time to find his receivers; Moncrief, Logan, Sanders, et.al. A week ago they were hauling in balls against LSU at times with ease, particularly Donte Moncrief who has blossomed this sophomore season. With size and speed and remarkable body control, he is a handful for any defensive back…which has State folk naturally suggesting Banks draw this assignment.
Maybe so, Banks said. And maybe not or at least not all the time because the Bulldogs aren't going to build a coverage plan around any isolated receiver. They didn't do it against Tennessee or Arkansas for examples and things worked out well for State. Banks does say he admires young Moncrief—"I like him, he's a pretty good receiver"—but he can't obsess over a single matchup.
"I'm looking forward to going out and playing against anybody. I'm just going out to do my job, and do it well." As for Wallace, who flings it around freely, yes there will be completions and even big plays. At the same time, "He's a quarterback and they make mistakes."
Just as challenging for State as the personnel is the opponent's plan of hustling to the line and hiking early, before the defense is presumably set. Banks and Bulldogs have seen it before this season and showed mixed results. The trick to Banks is shrugging off frustrations and getting ready for the next snap. This is where he expects having a bunch of seniors and juniors in the secondary to be a favorable factor.
"Just being out there and playing with guys. We just have to get the calls in, adapt to it quick, we have a lot of old guys and we have to adapt and be prepared and go out there and make some plays." Though the senior is also seeing good work from some younger defenders such as Jamerson Love and Jay Hughes since they worked into the regular rotation; in Hughes' case even starting.
Besides providing depth, key against an offense that snaps fast and often, the younger defenders have also allowed State's staff to make some November shifts. One is getting senior-season safety Corey Broomfield back at times to his old and comfortable cornerback job. But in the past two games Banks himself has been switching around to a nickel-corner or just plain extra safety-type spot. It's not new; back in 2009 he started at safety half-a-season.
The scheme is just to give more and different coverage looks to the quarterback…and get proven playmakers in positions harder to avoid. Especially Banks.
"I think it helped our team, moving me over the field. People are trying to go away from me this year. Moving me around makes it a little more difficult for the other team to prepare for."
And should somebody sling it the wrong way tomorrow, Banks can add a bonus to his Egg Bowl celebrations. He notched his 16th career interception back on October 20, putting him in a tie with Walt Harris (1992-95) for first all-time at Mississippi State. Along with finishing his Bulldog tenure perfect against the rivals, Banks has long proclaimed an ambition of leaving with that record.
But not at the expense of what truly counts. "I'm not worrying about that 17th pick. I just want to win."