Alabama Crimson Tide: Jonathan Banks

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Mississippi State is a different team this year. The Bulldogs' 7-0 record speaks to that, their No. 11 ranking in the BCS standings a testament to how far they've come.

The No. 1-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide know that. The team they thumped 24-7 in Starkville, Miss., last season was one with flaws. Tyler Russell hadn't yet earned his spot as the starting quarterback. LaDarius Perkins was but a scant change-of-pace tailback, an afterthought behind Vick Ballard. Jonathan Banks was just beginning to make a name for himself as arguably the top cornerback in the country.

The Bulldogs finished the 2011 season in the Music City Bowl, one game above .500.

[+] EnlargeMississippi State's Tyler Russell
Spruce Derden/US PRESSWIRE]Mississippi State's Tyler Russell has shown a lot of poise this season, says Alabama coach Nick Saban.
This season has been much kinder to the Bulldogs, thanks in part to a schedule that ranks 98th in the country based on past opposition. Mississippi State has faced only two winning teams, both from the Sun Belt.

But you can only play the games on your schedule, and Mississippi State has done that well. Perkins leads the SEC with 724 rushing yards, Russell is 26th in the country in passing efficiency and Banks is tied for sixth in the nation with four interceptions.

Alabama coach Nick Saban said he's noticed a change in the Bulldogs, starting with the offense as guided by Russell, one he called the most balanced UA has faced all year.

"Russell's a big, physical, athletic guy who has a really good arm," Saban said. "He can throw the ball down the field. This year he's shown a lot of poise and his experience, in getting the ball out of his hand quickly. They're a much, much better passing team than a year ago when he just played, sort of shared time and played some, started some. There's not really anything he doesn't do well in my opinion."

UA senior linebacker Nico Johnson said the Tide aren't taking the Bulldogs lightly, describing them as the "most complete year they've had since I've been here." He said much of the success traces back to the emergence of their quarterback.

"He's pretty much their leader," Johnson said. "They follow him. When he's rolling, they're rolling. We have to make it less comfortable for all of them."

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