Whether the Mississippi State secondary can slow down Texas A&M's explosive offense is truly one of the major keys of Saturday's game pitting two top-20 teams playing for third in the SEC West.
"They're extremely talented, especially in the [secondary]," A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "That allows you to do a lot from a pressure standpoint when you've got guys that can cover."
Led by senior Johnthan Banks, an All-American and Jim Thorpe award candidate, the Bulldogs' pass defense has not allowed an opponent to throw for more than 200 yards so far this season. They're also ranked 13th in the nation with 12 interceptions.
"They've got length at the corners, and they were No. 1 in turnover margin going into last week," A&M offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury said. "It's by far the most coverage looks we'll see. It's a huge challenge."
After falling to No. 1 Alabama 38-7 last week, Mississippi State still ranks sixth nationally in turnover margin and rankes first in turnover margin at home. Conversely, A&M ranks 101st in turnover margin on the road. For the Aggies to win, it will be paramount for freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel to protect the football, something he did in Saturday's 63-21 win over Auburn last week. That stopped a stretch of three games in which Manziel coughed up seven turnovers.
But even when Manziel has struggled to protect the ball, he's shown the ability to counteract bad plays with more good. And as the season has progressed, he's improved his passing to go with his amazing running skills, forcing defenses into a catch-22 when trying to stop him.
"If you give him all day to stand back there and throw the ball, he'll throw and beat you with his arm," Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said. "If you give him open spaces, he'll take off and beat you with his legs. You have to do everything to contain him."
And while Mississippi State has a good secondary, Mullen said it will be up to his front seven to contain Manziel and thus contain A&M's high-powered offense.
"You can't just let him sit there and throw the ball all day long, and you have to also do a good job of containing him and not letting him break into scramble mode and freelance, which is what he does best," Mullen said. "For us this is the biggest challenge. He can stay in the pocket and beat you, but he's much more dangerous when he starts to freelance on his own and create plays on his own."
Banks said the Bulldogs have closely watched film of A&M's losses to LSU and Florida, games in which both defenses were able to keep the Aggies' big plays to a minimum. A&M leads the nation in gains of more than 25 yards per 100 offensive plays, but Mississippi State ranks seventh in stopping explosive plays.
And as for their strategy, Banks said the Bulldogs have to make Manziel as uncomfortable as possible.
"That kid is an athlete playing quarterback. He makes stuff happen," Banks said. "We're going to go flying after him. We'll go out there and contain him."