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.