STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) — Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill needed all of about five seconds to describe why No. 15 Mississippi State has moved from the bottom half of the Southeastern Conference to contending for the Western Division title.
"They've really improved their throwing game," Stockstill said.
It's a simple explanation, but also quite true. The once ground-bound Bulldogs are now able to throw the ball with some of the SEC's best, thanks to a breakout season from first-year starter Tyler Russell.
He'll lead Mississippi State (6-0) against Middle Tennessee (4-2) on Saturday in a non-conference game at Davis Wade Stadium as the Bulldogs try to continue their best start since 1999.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound junior from Meridian, Miss., has thrown for 1,382 yards, 12 touchdowns and just one interception this season. He spent two seasons as the backup for Chris Relf in 2010 and '11, and has seamlessly stepped into the starter's role.
Russell's best performance came in last week's 41-31 victory over Tennessee. He completed 23 of 37 passes for a career-high 291 yards and two touchdowns, outdueling Tennessee's better-known Tyler Bray.
The breakout performance has brought some attention. The soft-spoken Russell said he's not seeking the spotlight, but doesn't mind that it's found its way to Starkville.
"That comes with it," Russell said. "Being in the SEC, we're 6-0 and we have a chance to be 7-0. If we take care of business this week, we go and play Alabama. This is why we came to Mississippi State. This is the reason I wanted to be here."
And Russell is fortunate to have several playmakers around him. LaDarius Perkins is third in the SEC with 599 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Chad Bumphis is sixth in the SEC with 468 receiving yards and six touchdowns.
Then there's tight end Malcolm Johnson, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound sophomore who missed the first five games with a torn pectoral muscle, but returned for the Tennessee game and made two big catches for 34 yards.
The last one was a 9-yard touchdown catch in the final minute that sealed the victory. It was an acrobatic, one-handed grab in the back of the end zone.
"You expect those things from Malcolm," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. "He does have such great ball skills and even in practice you see him make those catches."
While Mississippi State has a plethora of playmakers, Middle Tennessee must adjust to life without its best offensive player.
The Blue Raiders lost running back Benny Cunningham for the season after the senior suffered a knee injury near the end of last week's victory against Florida International.
Cunningham was having a sensational season, with 600 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in just five games.
"It's very unfortunate for him and our football team," Stockstill said. "But it's a situation that we can't make excuses about. We can't whine. We can't cry in our milk right now."
The Blue Raiders won't be totally helpless without Cunningham. Drayton Calhoun and Jordan Parker have combined for more than 400 rushing yards behind Cunningham and junior quarterback Logan Kilgore has thrown for more than 4,000 yards in his career, including 1,422 yards this season.
Stockstill is familiar with Mississippi State. The Bulldogs won back-to-back meetings between the two programs in 2008 and '09.
"Those years they solely relied on their running back," Stockstill said. "They'd turn and toss it to him or turn it and hand to him, and then rely on their defense."
Not anymore. Russell has made the Bulldogs' offense much more dynamic.
And now he's working on making sure Mississippi State is more consistent. The Bulldogs have had some hiccups already in non-conference play, needing a fourth-quarter rally to beat Troy 30-24 one week before a lackluster 30-10 victory over South Alabama.
"We have to take care of the business," Russell said. "We have to play like (the No. 15) team in the nation."
Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP