There was no real way to know what to expect of Chris Relf when he became the full-time starting quarterback for Mississippi State last year. After all, Relf had never started a game for the Western Division Bulldogs and had attempted more rushes over his career (83) than passes (50).
For the first 10 games of 2011, he largely looked like the worst-case scenario. Against Florida, he attempted just nine passes and completed only four for a laughably paltry 33 yards. It was one of four games in which Relf failed to clear 100 yards and the second time he didn't even hit 40 (the other game was against LSU).
Then, Relf suddenly went on a tear, completing almost 70 percent of his passes in the last two regular-season games and the bowl and ringing up 793 yards, more than 44 percent of his season total. His passer rating jumped 75 points. Relf's interception percentage didn't change that much, but his touchdown percentage leaped from less than 3.8 percent to more than 8.2 percent. (All these numbers, as well as those in the chart below, are only against Football Bowl Subdivision foes. An inflated line from the Alcorn State game has been excised.)
The knock on that impressive improvement, though, is that it came against some of the worst passing defenses the Bulldogs faced all year. (That, and the yardage numbers are a bit inflated by a double-overtime game against Arkansas.) So did Relf get better in the last three games, with the infamous "click" taking place for a third-year player? Or did the Bulldogs' opponents simply get worse?
It might be a little bit of both, and then another factor thrown in. The fact of the matter is that Relf was far from average against the pass defenses he faced in the first part of the year -- he was studiously below average. In fact, Relf's passer rating in the first nine games against FBS competition was 15.6 percent below the average passer rating of those nine teams. He was markedly worse than most quarterbacks who faced those teams, even when adjusted for the fact that they included some incredibly tough pass defenses. (Alabama, LSU and even Florida were all among the 25 best passing efficiency defenses in the nation in 2010.)
But against the worst defenses Relf faced, he was great -- even when being graded on the same curve. In fact, Relf's passer rating against those three teams was 31.6 percent above the average passing efficiency yielded by those defenses. It was enough to put him just on the positive side of the ledger for the entire season, despite the fact that it accounts for just a quarter of the games.
Perhaps the most significant nod to Relf's improvement shows up, though, in how much his coaches trusted him in those games. The Mississippi State starter threw the ball at least 20 times in each of the last three games, a figure he had passed just once against FBS competition in the regular season. (That was against Auburn, far from the most intimidating pass defense in 2010.)
Obviously, that increased load helped translate into greater yardage in the stretch run. It also could have affected the passing efficiency numbers slightly, though not as significantly, for reasons that would take several paragraphs to explain.
Whether that improvement will continue into 2011 is, of course, anyone's guess. Mississippi State's current schedule has very few stretches that look anything like the final three games of 2010, and the Bulldogs will face more than their fair share of solid pass defenses even if a few don't pan out. If Chris Relf is going to put up eye-popping numbers in the passing game in 2011, there will be no doubt that he came about it honestly.