SCOTT: Croom making it hard on Orgeron

Ole Miss Ed Orgeron's struggles this season are exacerbated by the progress made by Mississippi State in Sylvester Croom's fourth season as head coach.

An argument can be made for Kentucky's coach Rich Brooks as the SEC coach of the year at this point. Even Croom said Brooks would definitely get his vote for the award.

An argument can also be made for Croom, whose team is one victory away from being bowl eligible for the first time since 2000. The Bulldogs have had their share of dark moments this season, especially their 45-0 loss to LSU in the opener and a 38-13 loss at West Virginia in which they fell behind 31-0.

Then again, a 19-14 victory at Auburn and a 31-14 victory at Kentucky reveal a lot about a program that is building talent, depth and experience as well as a hard-nosed, physical toughness that Croom and his staff have worked hard to instill in his Bulldogs.

This isn't a pretty team by any means. If the Bulldogs can't run the ball and play tough defense, they're not going to win by spreading the field and throwing the ball 40 times a game. True freshman quarterback Wesley Carroll has exceeded expectations and shows potential to be a quality SEC quarterback; but if the Bulldogs need him to carry the team, they're not playing the way they've been taught by Croom and his coaches.

The Bulldogs can take that path to a bowl, but it won't be easy. Following last week's open date, State faces Alabama at home this Saturday, followed by a game at Arkansas on Nov. 17 and the Egg Bowl at home on Nov. 23. All three games are winnable, and despite the way Ole Miss has played so far, all three games are losable.

A 6-6 record would be acceptable. Anything less would be painful. A 7-5 record would be outstanding at this point. An 8-4 record? Probably too much to expect, but then again, who thought the Bulldogs would win at Auburn and Kentucky?

"We've got a great opportunity ahead of us, and it's going to be a great challenge," Croom said. "It's not going to be easy. The three teams we have to play down the stretch, they're not going to give us anything. And it's at that point of the season right now where just about everybody in our conference is still fighting for something."

While the SEC still has a team left standing in the national championship race in LSU, and possible BCS bowl teams in Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and Florida, the SEC might come up short in its bowl math. That means someone could be left out in the cold come bowl season.

At this point in the season, every SEC team but Ole Miss has at least five overall wins, including Vanderbilt at 5-4.

It's way too soon to start predicting bowls with any sort of accuracy, but here's what we do know: The SEC starts with one guaranteed spot in a BCS Bowl (Sugar) for the winner of the SEC championship. If LSU plays for the BCS national championship, that's two SEC teams in BCS games. Then the SEC has bowl tie-ins with the CapitalOne, Outback, Cotton, Chick-fil-A, Liberty, Music City and Independence bowls.

That's nine possibilities for 11 teams. So what happens? The Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego is the only bowl with a designated at-large berth, but it has to choose a seven-win team over a six-win team for the at-large berth. The SEC's best bet there would be to convince the Poinsettia Bowl to take a seven-win SEC team so any six-win SEC teams could fill the bowl tie-ins.

Another possibility for the SEC would be the Bell Helicopters Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth. Air Force will likely get one spot, and the spot belongs to the Pac-10; but the mighty Pac-10 appears unlikely to able to fill all of its bowl openings, so the folks in Fort Worth could go with a bowl-eligible team from another conference.

"My concern is there are six teams already bowl-eligible, and there are five other teams in the SEC with five wins," Mississippi State athletic director Larry Templeton told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. "And we have eight spots. It could very easily take seven wins to get a spot."

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Richard Scott is a Birmingham-based sports writer, author and Tiger Rag's SEC expert. Reach him at rscottsec@yahoo.com.


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