Camp start: Thursday
Opener: Jackson State in Starkville (Sept. 1 on Fox Sports Net at 7 p.m.)
Fun fact: Coach Dan Mullen is 5-0 in "bowl games," having gone 3-0 against Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl, 1-0 against Michigan in the Gator Bowl and 1-0 against Wake Forest in the Music City Bowl.
Tuesday's preview: Missouri
LSU's Tyrann Mathieu is among the most recognized players in the Southeastern Conference, with his "Honey Badger" nickname and his dazzling talents that enabled him to be a Heisman Trophy finalist last December.
But is he the best cornerback in the SEC?
That question is being debated this summer because of Mississippi State's Johnthan Banks, who plays for a program that rarely receives national media hype and rarely matches LSU's success. Banks doesn't delve into the comparison but knows being linked with Mathieu is a compliment in itself.
"I'm just going to go out there and be Johnthan Banks," the 6-foot-2, 185-pounder said at SEC media days. "I'm going to do what Johnthan Banks does and keep getting better and make my team the best Mississippi State can be. I think Tyrann Mathieu is a good football player and does a lot of great stuff for his team.
"I respect him, but I'm not going to get in that conversation of comparing myself to another cornerback."
While Mathieu was tallying 76 tackles, six forced fumbles and two interceptions for the Tigers last season, Banks was compiling 71 tackles, three forced fumbles and five interceptions for the Bulldogs. Each also proved stout on punt returns, with Mathieu averaging 15.6 yards a return and scoring two touchdowns and Banks averaging 10.4 yards and scoring once.
Mathieu was among four LSU players named to the SEC's preseason first-team defense as voted on by the coaches, while Banks was Mississippi State's lone first-team representative on either side of the ball.
"I think they're a different style of player," Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen said. "We use them very differently within our systems, so it's hard to compare them exactly.
"Mathieu is one heck of a football player who makes plays and does an amazing job in utilizing his ability. John has done that for us in a lot of ways, making big interceptions at key moments of the game and eliminating receivers during the game. He may, in a different manner, be just as good of a player."
Banks last season became Mississippi State's first semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award since Pig Prather in 2001. He has made 32 career starts, and his 12 career interceptions are second in school history behind Walt Harris, who racked up 16 from 1992 to '95.
A resident of Maben, Miss., Banks has been a lifelong fan of MSU football, and his most admired players were Fred Smoot and Robert Bean.
"Growing up as a kid, I went to one Mississippi State football game against Memphis, and those guys were balling out of control," he said. "I loved it. I never wanted to be a cornerback. I always wanted to be a quarterback, but it turned out the opposite. The cornerbacks I could always remember were Fred Smoot, Robert Bean and [former Florida State and NFL star] Deion Sanders."
Banks considered leaving early after last season but returned to join a defense that has opposite corner Corey Broomfield and safety Nickoe Whitley back in the secondary. Cameron Lawrence and Deonte Skinner return as linebackers, and the most defense important player up front is tackle Josh Boyd, who is being asked to help fill the void of Fletcher Cox, the 12th overall pick in April's NFL draft.
Mississippi State was more bend than break defensively during last year's 7-6 finish, ranking eighth in the SEC in yardage allowed (350.6) but fourth in points allowed (19.7).
The Bulldogs return only five starters offensively, and those include receivers Arceto Clark, Chad Bumphis and Chris Smith. That is somewhat misleading, however, considering junior quarterback Tyler Russell made four starts last year and junior tailback LaDarius Perkins has rushed for a combined 988 yards the past two seasons as the change-of-pace back for former starter Vick Ballard.
Though Mississippi State has dominated the Egg Bowl since Mullen's arrival with three wins in three tries, the Bulldogs are living with an 0-12 record against the rest of the SEC West in that same stretch. The Bulldogs have endured two straight tough losses to Auburn and lost in double overtime to Arkansas in 2010, but the past two seasons against Alabama and LSU have yielded four double-digit setbacks.
"We have been right there with Alabama and LSU until the fourth quarter," Banks said. "Alabama just has a little more depth than us, and LSU just has a little more depth than us, but we're right there."
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...