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.
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."
Mississippi State averages 36.7 points per game on offense. Saban called the Bulldogs leading receiver Chad Bumphis "a really explosive, good receiver." The 5-foot-11 senior has 29 catches for 479 yards and six touchdowns.
"They are a really good running team, a really good passing team and overall a great offense, and that's the reason why they're undefeated," said UA defensive back Vinnie Sunseri. "We've got to be ready to come at them with everything they've got because that's what they're going to give us."
The Alabama defense answered the call against a high-powered Tennessee offensive attack, giving up just 13 points on the road.
While Tennessee was able to give the Tide defense fits, hitting for a few big plays at home, it wasn't able to challenge much on the other side of the ball. Alabama moved down the field at will, putting up 44 points against a secondary that appeared lost most of the game.
It's safe to say Saban doesn't expect the same lackluster level of resistance from Mississippi State.
"Defensively, they're one of the most difficult teams to score on in the country," he said. "They're ranked in the Top 10, and they have two really good corners. They're physical up front. They play with a lot of toughness."
All of Saban's compliments came to a head, the point being simple: "This is without a doubt the best team we've played this season."