In some ways, you can tell that Louisiana Tech's Derek Dooley greatly admires his Saturday opponent.
Sylvester Croom has gotten knocked around at Mississippi State, but he did it his way, Dooley said. He never stood down.
Then, after a dramatic eight-win season in 2007, the once-embattled Croom (still just 18-30 overall in Starkville) was hoisting the SEC's trophy for Coach of the Year.
"When he was building his program, the results didn't come early," said Dooley, who'll coach his second opener at Tech against MSU this week. "You watch his style: He never wavered. He never flinched. I'm sure he got a lot of pressure to do things differently. It just goes to show how much conviction he has in what he is doing. He stuck to his guns and the results finally came."
Dooley is hoping for a similar storyline in his own rebuilding project in Ruston, a season after missing bowl eligibility by one game.
The odds are long, if history is a guide. (Mississippi State leads the all-time series, 7-2; Dooley is 0-2 at Tech so far against SEC foes.) The opposing defense is a snaggle-toothed terror.
But history also says Tech won the last time these two met, a 38-23 victory at Starkville behind Jason Martin's 300-yard, four-score day in 1996. And the billowing excitement that surrounds this home game -- MSU is the first current SEC foe to ever play at The Joe -- has bolstered the coach and his still-emerging team.
School officials are expecting a record crowd, one that perhaps could eclipse the Tech home crowd of 28,714 -- a 17-16 win over nearby Louisiana-Monroe -- that has stood for 10 seasons.
"The biggest thing -- and this is a fact : When you look at last year, I was very disappointed in the way we competed against BCS conference programs," said Dooley, who saw his team fall by a combined 124-22. "I take full responsibility for that. I told the team that."
Still, Dooley will again steer the program directly into those kinds of challenges, with a goal of instilling a steely-eyed determination to get better.
Just a year in, his Tech teams have already faced top-five offenses from Hawaii and Boise State, along with eventual BCS champion LSU. Tech held Hawaii and Fresno State, ranked No. 32 in the nation in scoring, to below their season average for points.
Still to come this season is Kansas, and trips to recent BCS-bowl invitees in Boise and Honolulu.
"We need to continue to build," Dooley said. "These are the kind of games we want to be in. … How we'll fare, we'll find out."
Establishing offensive rhythm could be difficult for new Tech starting quarterback Taylor Bennett, a Georgia Tech transfer. Mississippi State ranked seventh nationally in pass defense and 35th in scoring defense, gaining momentum as the 2007 season wore on.
In fact, MSU allowed just one rushing touchdown while posting a season-ending 4-1 mark and an eventual win in the Liberty Bowl. Meanwhile quarterback Wesley Carroll threw for 832 of his 1,392 yards over that stretch.
That makes every Tech possession count, Bennett admits.
"They are very physical; they are fast and move to the ball quickly," Bennett said. "They come out and play straight up and try to beat you. You only get 7, 8, 9 possessions per game. That's not much; you have to capitalize."
Tech is 1-2 against Mississippi State in season openers, having won in 1968 with future NFL Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw at quarterback, then falling in 1980 and '88. Each of those contests was in Starkville.
Dooley sees history as prologue, though. That was then.
"We're not going to be held hostage to the past," Dooley said. "These are the kind of games that we need to play and our program needs to embrace it and enjoy it. It shows you where you are as a program."