Unfortunately for Croom, all the SEC opener showed last weekend is that the Bulldogs still have a long way to go to become one of the better teams in the Southeastern Conference. Getting shut out at home by South Carolina, Mississippi State goes into game two a heavy underdog to fourth-ranked team in the country.
They'll get their chance to do the improbable this weekend as they take on the Auburn Tigers Saturday morning looking to defeat a ranked team for the first time since 2004. That team stunned Florida 38-31 in Croom's first season and showed that anything is capable on any given Saturday.
Offensively, the Bulldogs started the season with a whimper against a South Carolina defense with nine new starters. Mississippi State made just 11 first downs and had only 161 yards of total offense as starting quarterback Michael Henig went out in the first half with a cracked collarbone leaving redshirt freshman Tray Rutland (6-2, 221, RFr.) to handle things. While he looked good at times, Rutland was unable to get the Bulldogs in the end zone and finished the night 6-15 for just 63 yards and one interception.
Because of his struggles and the lack of depth at quarterback wide receiver Omarr Conner (6-0, 220, Sr.) was moved back to quarterback this week to take some snaps as the number two QB. Experienced at both positions, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Conner see some action Saturday against the Tigers at both receiver and quarterback.
Brandon Thornton is expected to get the bulk of the work at running back.
Mississippi State will have to do something at the quarterback position to make up for the loss of freshman tailback Anthony Dixon. Expected to be the starter Saturday after rushing for 64 yards on 14 carries in his first college game, the 6-1, 235-pounder broke a bone in his pinky and had surgery on Wednesday. It will force him to miss Saturday's contest. Without him sophomore Brandon Thornton (5-9, 194, So.) from Homewood will get the start. Against South Carolina Thornton ran the ball nine times for 25 yards. Also expected to see action is true freshman Arnil Stallworth from Daphne.
With Conner expected to play some quarterback this week the Bulldogs are left a little thin at wide receiver with sophomore Keon Humphries (5-10, 180) the top performer and the big-play threat for Croom's offense. Behind him senior Will Prosser (6-3, 205) is expected back in a limited role after missing the opener. On the other side Conner backs up junior Tony Burks (6-4, 214) while fellow junior Lance Long (5-11, 186) was the leading receiver in the opener with five catches for 41 yards. Tight end Eric Butler (6-3, 251, Jr.) is one of the top players in the conference at his position.
Up front on offense the Bulldogs will be playing a different starting lineup than they used in the season opener against South Carolina. The core of the line remains intact with veteran Brian Anderson (6-6, 300, Sr.) expected to start for the 20th consecutive game. This game will be a little different for Anderson though as he'll start at right guard for the first time. Rounding out the starting line will be J.D. Hamilton (6-4, 290, Jr.) at left tackle, Anthony Strauder (6-3, 295, So.) at left guard, Royce Blackledge (6-4, 293, Jr.) at center and redshirt freshman Craig Jenkins (6-4, 319) at right tackle.
While the offense struggled to get anything going in the opener, the defense basically shut down Coach Steve Spurrier's Gamecock club with the exception of a trick play that went for a 54-yard touchdown. Giving up just 10 first downs and 274 yards of total offense, the defense allowed Mississippi State a chance to hang around until late despite not having any help from their own offensive unit.
The Bulldogs are a very talented and experienced group on defense with six seniors in the starting lineup led by linemen Deljuan Robinson (6-3, 287), Andrew Powell (6-1, 290) and Michael Heard (6-2, 259). All three are productive players and Heard is very active off the corner. The other starter may be the most talented of the group in junior Titus Brown (6-3, 247). The top backups are redshirt freshman Quinton Wesley (6-4, 300) and junior Avery Hannibal (6-1, 245).
One of the SEC's top players patrols the middle for the Bulldogs as senior Quinton Culberson (6-0, 234) can make plays from sideline to sideline using good speed and a tenacious attitude. Flanking him are sophomores Anthony Littlejohn (6-2, 225) on the strong side and Jamar Chaney (6-1, 230) on the weak side. In the opener Chaney led the team in tackles with eight while Culberson added seven stops with two coming for losses.
Derek Pegues (3) is perhaps Mississippi State's best athlete and a leader on defense despite being a sophomore.
In the secondary the leader of the group is big Jeramie Johnson. Built more like a linebacker, the 5-11, 213 senior made six tackles against South Carolina. He is joined in the secondary by fellow senior cornerback David Heard (6-0, 192) along with sophomores Keith Fitzhugh (5-11, 203) and Derek Pegues (5-10, 192). Pegues is a talent who has the ability to be one of the league's best corners as well as return men.
Handling the kicking for the Bulldogs will be sophomore Adam Carlson while fellow sophomore Blake McAdams returns as one of the SEC's top punters. Conner was the punt returner in the opener, but could be replaced by Pegues who also returns kickoffs.
Saturday's game is scheduled for an 11:30 a.m. start and will be shown live on Lincoln Financial Sports.