KNOXVILLE — There still are nearly four days left for talking.
Tennessee visits Mississippi State late Saturday night in a game that's key for both football programs for different reasons, and while most of the discussion in Knoxville and Starkville will remain on those respective parallels, at least one area of chatter will intersect.
Again the Volunteers are sending their highly regarded receiving corps against a ballhawking secondary. Again it's strength on strength. Again players on both sides are relishing the opportunity.
"I know their coaches are putting in their heads that we have two good receivers over here," Tennessee's Justin Hunter said Tuesday morning after the Vols' practice. "I think it goes both ways. They're talking about us, we're talking about them and it's going to show up on game day who's better."
In the spotlight will be Tennessee's Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson trying to beat Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay, the Bulldogs' skilled cornerbacks.
"It's going to be pro football players on pro football players," Mississippi State defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said Monday.
Each side brings some impressive credentials to the festivities. Hunter ranks third in the Southeastern Conference in receiving yardage per game and second in catches per game, and his name appears on most first-round projections for April's NFL draft. Patterson is third in the league in all-purpose yardage.
"You look at Tennessee and the first thing that jumps out to you is the explosiveness of their offense," MSU head coach Dan Mullen said. "Those are the guys that we depend on as the strength of our team with the leadership and the experience we have on the back end. They're going to have to step up and play big."
The 6-foot-2, 185-pound Banks was a preseason first-team All-SEC selection, and his 15 career interceptions have him just one off the Mississippi State record. The 6-foot-1 Slay, who's from the same high school in Georgia as Tennessee corner Justin Coleman, has become a playmaker in his first year as a starter. Together, the duo have seven interceptions this season and are a big part of why the Bulldogs are tied atop the SEC with Alabama with 15 takeaways.
"They're both extremely talented," Vols coach Derek Dooley said. "These guys are NFL guys now. Their scheme helps them play a lot of zone so they can just prey on a quarterback breaking down.
"There's not that many, to me, big-time corners out there who have the size, the athleticism and the instincts. These guys have it. You don't have that many interceptions by luck."
The adjectives Dooley used for Banks and Slay mirrored the ones he used for North Carolina State's David Amerson, a projected first-round pick whom Tennessee victimized on a couple of long touchdown passes in the season-opening win. Hunter said Banks is a more physical version of Amerson who "gets in your face" trying to disrupt routes and timing.
Like he did before facing Amerson, Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray said the Vols plan to do what they do.
"They've got a great defense," he said. "They've got guys all around making plays. It's going to be a tough game. We're not going to hold anything back. We don't care if we're playing [NFL star] Ed Reed or any of those guys. We're going to go after them."
Banks downplayed the matchup but expressed confidence in his and Slay's shutdown abilities.
"It's football," he said. "That's what we're here to do. I am really excited about playing those guys.
"[Slay's] good enough to hold anybody in the country. I think I'm good enough to guard anybody in the country. The game plan will be the same."
There are other parts of the anticipated matchup. Nickoe Whitley and Corey Broomfield, Mississippi State's starting safeties, have 16 career interceptions between them. Vols slot receiver Zach Rogers and tight end Mychal Rivera combined for 133 yards and a touchdown on nine catches in the loss at Georgia.
While Georgia's defensive game plan dictated more opportunities underneath for Rogers, Rivera and Tennessee's running backs, the Vols are preparing for a different style from the Bulldogs.
"You study stuff, and then sometimes you go out there and they run a whole different scheme," Rivera said. "We've just got to stay studying the film and we'll see what they give us on Saturday. They've got playmakers everywhere, so we've just got to pick and choose our spots."
Tennessee's top spots are Hunter and Patterson, and Mississippi State will try to erase them with Banks and Slay.
"We're just going to go try and attack [them] and see how much they can do with the pressure on them," Patterson said. "We just go out and do what we know we can do, and we know we can do some good things. We know we've got a lot of receivers that can go out and make big plays."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...