Not The Usual Toothless Bulldogs

FAYETTEVILLE - Remember those Mississippi State folks who went 8-27 in Jackie Sherrill's last three seasons?

How about the hapless ones Arkansas whipped 52-6 here last season?

Remember those toothless Bulldogs who haven't beaten the Razorbacks since a 22-21 miracle win in Starkville, Miss., in 1998?

Recall those incompetent coaches and players who haven't notched a Southeastern Conference Western Division win since edging Ole Miss in their last game of 2001?

Or that bunch that lost, at home, no less, to Maine -Maine! - in the third game of this season?

The Bulldogs who were drilled at home by Auburn (43-14), killed at LSU (51-0) and embarrassed at Vanderbilt (31-13)?

Forget about them.

When Arkansas sprints onto the turf of Scott Field in Davis Wade Stadium this afternoon, the Hogs will run into a much different Mississippi State team than the one the Hogs are used to mashing.

Today's matchup will show Mississippi State football is a whole new ballgame.

Everyone from New York City to Los Angeles to our fair town is intrigued with the recent Steve Spurrier to South Carolina developments.

But what's been going on in Starkville - Croom for improvement - has been startling.

First-year Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom hardly is new to this SEC stuff. As an All-American center for legendary Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant from 1972-74, he was the unquestioned leader of the Crimson Tide offense, according to Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newson, an NFL Hall of Fame tight end who played with Croom at 'Bama.

Heck, at Alabama they still pass out the "Sylvester Croom Commitment To Excellence Award" every year.

Croom groomed for seven years under Bryant and has been an assistant coach for 27 years, including 16 in the NFL, coaching everything from linebackers to running backs and coordinating Detroit's offense from 1997-2000.

When the 50-year-old finally got this head coaching shot, making him the first black head coach in SEC football history, he warned the turnaround would take some time.

"My first goal is to lay a foundation," said Croom in his booming voice after being hired last Dec. 1. "I could do a quick fix, but the walls would come tumbling down."

That said, Croom's way ahead of schedule in this reconstruction project despite the 3-6 (2-4 in the SEC) record.

After notching Croom's first win in his first game (28-7 vs. Tulane), the Bulldogs dropped five straight.

Then Mississippi State had an off-week, and things just haven't been the same.

Next game, the Bulldogs shocked then-No. 20 Florida, 38-31, dazzling the 43,170 on hand in Davis Wade Stadium during the back-and-forther MSU won on Jerious Norwood's 37-yard paydirt zinger.

Next week, the Bulldogs knocked off Kentucky, 22-7, and two weeks back Croom returned to his hometown of Tuscaloosa, where his team hung with Alabama, trailing just 20-14 after three quarters during the 30-14 loss.

Mississippi State was off last week, not a good omen for the Hogs.

"I think that we have established during this last half of the season that we will play hard and that we do play a very physical brand of football," Croom said.

"What we have not established is that we play smart football and disciplined football at all times.

"We, hopefully, got that done during the off-week. We hope that will show during our game with Arkansas because that will be a key for us to have any degree of success against the Razorbacks."

Croom, of course, has tossed kudos toward Arkansas quarterback Matt Jones and figures he'll have his hands full with the Razorbacks today. He expects the Hogs to be "highly motivated," especially since they must win today and against LSU in Little Rock on Friday to become bowl-eligible and keep Arkansas coach Houston Nutt's perfect postseason appearance record (six straight) intact.

But don't expect the Bulldogs, those who survived Croom's new hard-core approach, to be shaking in their cleats this afternoon.

The Mississippi State media guide shows three faces of Croom on its cover.

But as his players quickly learned - as did we during his introduction at SEC Football Media Days - Croom has only one style.

Dead serious.

Mix in the rowdy crowd expected for Mississippi State's last home game, Norwood, who combined for 345 yards in the Bulldogs' two SEC wins, erratic, but dangerous, quarterback Omarr Conner, the hard-hitting mentality over there these days and budding confidence, and this could have all the ingredients of an upset.

Oddsmakers like the Hogs lots in the matchup, making Arkansas a 10-point favorite.

Sound easy?

Forget that.

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