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Marquee matchup features stellar quarterback play

 

Matthew Stevens

 

STARKVILLE -- Like looking into a mirror. 

 

This is the attitude of the analysts when evaluating both undefeated programs to meet in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Saturday night. 

 

It would serve to reason that the most important position on the field would have two players similar in every way possible. 

 

The truth is University of Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron and Mississippi State University junior signal caller Tyler Russell could've easily been teammates. 

 

When Dan Mullen got off the plane in Starkville in 2009 with then-athletic director Greg Byrne, Russell was the first star quarterback in the MSU head coach's inherited recruiting class and Russell to be resold on the new philosophy in the head-coaching office.  

 

Russell, who was the first MSU signee at quarterback since John Bond in 1978 to be a national All-American out of high school, signed with the Bulldogs over Alabama, the University of Mississippi and University of South Carolina. 

 

However, during the confusion of the end of the Sylvester Croom era and the hiring of Mullen, Alabama head coach Nick Saban made a visit to gauge the interest of the Parade All-American talent. 

 

"He made a late push but I wanted to stay home and games like this is why I decided to go to Mississippi State," Russell said. 

 

McCarron has started to generate some buzz around the Heisman Trophy, the annual award given to the best college football player, after having one of the most efficient seven-game start to a season. McCarron leads the nation in passing efficiency (183.63) while completing 68.8 percent of his passes for 1,476 yards, 16 touchdowns and no interceptions. 

 

The scouting report on McCarron is simple: he doesn't make mistakes. 

 

In fact, the last interception he threw was in Starkville when Mississippi State University linebacker Cameron Lawrence stole a pass from over the middle and nearly returned it for a touchdown. That error in judgement was nearly a calendar year ago. 

 

"I think A.J. has been a really good leader for us, affected the other players on the team and the last couple of weeks I think we have really come together a little better offensively, in terms of consistency and balance," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "(A.J.) has been able to process the information and get the ball where he needs to for the most part, pretty efficiently and effectively." 

 

As everything around McCarron, specifically the offensive line, has gotten older and more experience, the Tide quarterback has been given more and more freedom to lead the Alabama offense. 

 

In a 44-13 victory last week over the University of Tennessee, McCarron challenged the defense down the field by going 17-of-22 for a career-high 306 yards and four touchdowns. 

 

"You don't always force people into mistakes -- they make mistakes and he does a good job of not doing it," Mullen said. "A lot of times you'll see interceptions come after a sack, after there's been a bunch of pressure, a guy is trying to get rid of the ball too soon or getting a ball tipped. They don't do much of that." 

 

MSU's option on the other sideline is fueled with confidence as junior Tyler Russell has been given the keys to his team's offense. Russell, who was considered one of the better quarterbacks in the country four years ago coming out of Meridian High School, has given the Bulldogs an added element that's been missing for decades -- a downfield passing game. 

 

Russell is 122-of-203 (60.1 percent) for 1,573 yards, 15 touchdowns and one interception. The Meridian native is one of the main reasons why MSU is ranked 11th in the BCS, is 7-0 for the second time in the 113-year history of the program and owns the third-longest winning streak in the country.  

 

In three SEC games this season, Russell is 66-of-105 (62.8 percent) for 782 yards, seven touchdowns and zero interceptions. The signal caller is currently on pace to shatter mostly every single career and single-season passing record in school history. 

 

"The decision making and how he fast he makes his decisions is where he's really improved the most," Mullen said. "Through the years, he understood the offense but the amount of time he got to play last year, he understood that, 'Hey, I better know what's going on or I'm going to get hit pretty hard out here on the field. I've got to know where to go with the ball, when to go with it and get it out of my hands as fast as possible in this league.'" 

 

Both players' paths to this moment on Saturday are similar. They had to wait their turn behind a upperclassmen when they arrived to college, struggled early on to understand their role in the offense and then now have the spotlight to succeed. 

 

The game on Saturday night (7:30 p.m., ESPN) may not be a question who makes the most spectacular plays from behind center. The most valuable leader of the highly anticipated contest may be who makes the least amount of mistakes to put their team in a bad spot. 

 

"I think in understanding defenses and understanding the different looks he's gonna see," Mullen said Wednesday on the Southeastern Conference media teleconference when asked what will be his quarterback's biggest challenge. "When all of a sudden you expect one thing, they have a great disguise, the coverage rolls opposite the way you were expecting it to roll and you go from your first read to your second read and all of a sudden the second read is not there, the blitz is coming and you can go to a third guy, a check-down and get the ball out of your hands.

 

 

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