Tyler Russell could just as easily be wearing crimson on Saturday night in Bryant-Denny Stadium.
But he much prefers maroon.
Mississippi State’s junior quarterback was one of Alabama’s top targets at quarterback during the 2009 recruiting period. He grew up in Meridian, Miss., not too far from the Alabama border, and Alabama coach Nick Saban made a strong push while Russell was trying to decide whether to stay committed to Mississippi State after the coaching change from Sylvester Croom to Dan Mullen.
“I didn’t have a lot of time to make my decision, and I had a lot of coaches in the SEC calling me,” Russell said. “But after sitting down with coach Mullen and seeing his plan and sitting down with my family, I knew Mississippi State was where I needed to be.
“There’s just something special about being able to stay at home and have this kind of success. It’s what you dream about when you come here.”
Russell is a major reason the Bulldogs are off to a dream season to this point. They’re 7-0 for only the second time in school history, and it’s a season that would only get dreamier if they can knock off No. 1 Alabama.
“It’s been a while since we’ve had a team like we have now, and we’re just ready to go showcase what we’ve got,” Russell said. “Last year, we didn’t really know we could play with these guys until it got late in the game, and then it was too late. Now, we have that confidence and know what we can do, and I think you’ll see a different Mississippi State team.”
Much of the spotlight Saturday will be on the two quarterbacks. Between them, Alabama’s AJ McCarron and Russell have thrown 31 touchdown passes and only one interception.
McCarron leads the country in passing efficiency, although Russell’s not too far behind.
Still, it’s McCarron’s name that’s starting to pop up in the Heisman Trophy conversation and not Russell’s. McCarron has gone 239 straight pass attempts without throwing an interception. His last pick came a year ago against Mississippi State, and he’s thrown 16 touchdown passes this season in only 154 attempts.
Russell has just the one interception this season. He’s thrown 15 touchdown passes, and can tie the Mississippi State single-season record with his next scoring toss.
Prolific passing quarterbacks at Mississippi State have been a rarity, and Russell is on track to shatter all of the school passing records.
But what he wants is something McCarron already has.
“You start out at the bottom and work your way up,” said Russell, who’s thrown for 782 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions in three SEC games this season.
“In high school, I went to camp with AJ, and he was the better quarterback. That just motivated me to get better and push myself. It’s the same thing now. I’m trying to get to where he’s at. He has the national championship, and that’s what I’m trying to get, and his team is in the way. The only thing on my mind is going out and helping my team win this game.”
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Russell arrived at Mississippi State with a big arm. He redshirted that first season, played in spots his second season, then wound up starting in four games a year ago as a third-year sophomore.
Now, in his fourth year in the program, it’s obvious that Russell has become much more than just a passer. He’s doing all of the things it takes to be a top-flight quarterback, and he’s also one of the Bulldogs’ strongest leaders.
“They follow him,” Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson said. “When he’s rolling, they’re rolling.”
Mullen said Russell’s understanding of defenses has helped take his game to another level. He’s also making decisions so much quicker now and getting rid of the ball, which is a must if you’re going to survive against Alabama’s defense.
“He got to play last year and understood, ‘Hey, I better know what’s going on or I’m going to get hit pretty hard out here on the field in this league,’” Mullen said.
Russell said this is the closest team he’s been a part of at Mississippi State and that the Bulldogs won’t be intimidated by the stage or the environment Saturday night. This is the first time since 1942 that Alabama and Mississippi State will face each other as undefeated teams.
“It’s us against them, 70 of us against 100,000 or more of them,” Russell said. “We know we’re going into a hostile place to play, but you go in doing what you’re coached to do. You have to go out there and be loose and play your game, and our guys have done that over and over in games this year.
“We know we can do it, and I feel like we will.”