STARKVILLE, Miss. – Quarterback Tyler Russell knows what will decide the upcoming Southeastern Conference showdown between his No. 13 Mississippi State Bulldogs and the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide.
It's not a complicated formula.
"It's going to come down to who makes the least amount of mistakes," Russell said.
Sounds simple enough. But Russell and Alabama's A.J. McCarron are two of the nation's most efficient — and mistake-free — college quarterbacks.
And the two are remarkably similar.
Both look the part of a big-time college quarterback, standing about 6-foot-4 and over 200 pounds. They're also productive, accurate and have the awareness to know when to throw the ball away or take a sack.
Russell has completed 60.1 percent of his passes for 1,573 yards, 15 touchdowns and one interception while McCarron is completing 68.8 percent of his throws for 1,476 yards, 16 touchdowns and no interceptions.
But more than size and ability, Russell sees only one important shared trait: Both are winners.
"I feel like we've done a good job leading our teams," Russell said. "We're both 7-0, and that's all you can ask, for the quarterback to go out and lead the team."
Russell's emergence as one of the Southeastern Conference's elite quarterbacks has been one major reason the Bulldogs (7-0, 3-0 SEC) are still fighting for a Western Division title. The junior played part-time the past two seasons behind Chris Relf before stepping into the starter's role this fall.
But he hasn't seen anything like this Alabama defense so far this season. The Tide is giving up just 195.6 yards per game and 8.3 points per game, which lead the SEC by a wide margin.
Alabama coach Nick Saban isn't surprised by Russell's success. The Tide recruited him when he was a prep star in Meridian, Miss., and Saban said the same traits that made him an elite recruit have turned him into one of the SEC's best.
"There's not really anything he doesn't do well in my opinion," Saban said. "He's very aware, very instinctive. They've got a very good scheme in the passing game. They can throw the ball vertically down the field, but they've got a lot of short screens, bubbles, and they've got some guys who can catch the ball and run with it as well, which complements the running game."
McCarron is better known than Russell after helping the Crimson Tide (7-0, 4-0) to a national championship last season.
But fair or not, he was viewed as more of a game manager than a game changer during most of those victories.
That's not the case anymore. The junior is putting up numbers that have vaulted him into Heisman consideration.
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen says McCarron has plenty of ability, and also does a good job of using the considerable talent around him.
"You don't always force people into mistakes," Mullen said. "They make mistakes. And (McCarron) does a good job of not doing it. He doesn't force balls into bad situations. I think a lot of protection helps that, the experience and the talent on the offensive line."
The formula has worked perfectly so far. The Crimson Tide has cruised through its schedule so far, beating all seven opponents by at least 19 points.
McCarron has shrugged off the Heisman speculation. He said experience has turned him into a smarter quarterback and he doesn't feel the need to be a risk-taking gunslinger considering all the help he has on offense.
"I think maybe just throwing the ball a little bit more, knowing when to throw it away and having another down to live for the next play," McCarron said. "Other than that, my teammates are doing a great job making plays for me. Those guys deserve all the credit in the world, receivers going up and making plays, catching short passes and taking them a long ways."
AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Ala., contributed to this story.
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