Backup Tyler Russell was easily Mississippi State's best quarterback during Saturday's win over Alabama-Birmingham.
That doesn't mean Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen is ready to say he's got a new starter.
"We'll see how practice plays out during the week, get everybody reps and whoever gives us the best chance to win, we'll go play with them," Mullen said. "Kind of like we do every week."
Mullen may be coy, but there's little doubt Russell has the momentum in the mid-season quarterback race. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound sophomore was terrific after replacing senior Chris Relf at the beginning of the second half, completing 11 of 13 passes for 166 yards and three touchdowns as the Bulldogs rallied from a 3-0 halftime deficit to a 21-3 victory.
Relf's benching was the culmination of a string of disappointing performances during the past month. He's thrown just one touchdown and four interceptions in his last four games and looked tentative against UAB before being pulled, completing 6 of 10 passes for just 46 yards in the first half.
His ineffective play is one of many reasons why the Bulldogs have had a disappointing season. After being ranked as high as No. 16 during the second week of the season, they are completely out of the national rankings and in last place of the SEC's Western Division.
Even so, Mullen says the quarterback competition will be completely open this week, throwing in an added twist that redshirt freshman Dylan Favre might also be used when Mississippi State (3-3, 0-3 Southeastern Conference) hosts No. 15 South Carolina (5-1, 1-1) on Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium.
Favre is the nephew of former NFL quarterback Brett Favre.
"There's a possibility all three of them could be in the game," Mullen said. "There wasn't a set plan going into the (UAB) game and we played two of them, so it could be the same scenario and I play three this week. I don't know. It depends on how the game shakes out Saturday."
Mullen has used multiple quarterbacks frequently during his time at Mississippi State, but usually Relf has been the unquestioned starter while Russell or Favre provided an occasional change of pace. Russell has completed 20 of 30 passes this season for 183 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. Favre has thrown two incomplete passes.
But that looks like it could change. Russell's precision in the passing game is something the Bulldogs have sorely lacked.
Relf has never been considered a traditional quarterback, often appearing more content to tuck the ball and run. Russell is much more likely to stand in the pocket and deliver passes, a trait he showed consistently against UAB.
And once he started hitting receivers downfield, the running game opened, allowing the Bulldogs' offense to move downfield with ease. Mississippi State had 298 of its 416 total yards in the second half.
Even through Relf and Russell have contrasting styles, MSU offensive coordinator Les Koenning doesn't expect the playbook to change much. He said one good quality of the Bulldogs' spread offense is its versatility between the run and the pass.
"You have the ability to do both," Koenning said. "It allows you to play whichever quarterback you need to play."
Koenning said he wasn't surprised at how well Russell played against UAB because he had completed nearly "90 percent" of his passes during the previous week of practice.
"Tyler had an exceptional week last week, so we felt comfortable putting him in the game," Koenning said. "Any time you feel comfortable with a kid, you give him a shot, and obviously his shot paid off for him."
As good as Russell was against UAB, there's little doubt South Carolina's defense will provide a much toughest test. The Gamecocks whipped Kentucky 54-3 on Saturday and have one of the SEC's toughest pass defenses, giving up just 128.5 yards per game.
"Their starters are all juniors and seniors," Mullen said. "They've got a lot of experience — played a lot of football. It's a very, very fast defense. That's the first thing that jumps out."