SCOTT: Croom, Dogs turning the corner

The win over Florida in coach Sylvester Croom's first year at Mississippi State was a big one.

So was last year's win at Alabama, Croom's alma mater and the same program that chose to hire Mike Shula instead of Croom.

The win over Auburn early this season? Huge. The win at then-No. 14 Kentucky three weeks ago? Even bigger.

Saturday's 17-12 home victory over No. 21 Alabama? The biggest of them all.

"We've got bragging rights now," said Croom, a native of Tuscaloosa. "I don't have to say anything, but if I want to I can."

Not only does it give the Bulldogs bragging rights but it also makes Mississippi State bowl eligible for the first time since 2000. Perhaps most important in the big picture is the way it offers yet more proof that the program is moving in the right direction in Croom's fourth year at State.

"I reflect on our improvement every day. I thank God daily for the players and coaches that I have been blessed with," Croom said. "For some of these guys, they did not have to come here but they did because they wanted to build a championship program for this state. In three hours, we changed the way people look at this program across the nation."

With victories over Alabama, Auburn and UAB this season, the Bulldogs are the unofficial Alabama state champs. Just last year, many Bulldogs fans were wondering if Croom would make it at State. Many were convinced he wouldn't get things turned around and wanted him gone sooner than later. Even one year later, the Bulldogs are hardly flashy or impressive in the way many college football programs are regarded today. No one's going to confuse them with wide-open, high-flying teams like Oregon.

Their defensive stats are middle-of-the-pack for the most part. Outside of senior defensive end Titus Brown, who finished off Alabama with a sack on the final play of the game, the average SEC fan can't name more than one or two of the Bulldogs' defensive starters.

Their offensive stats are downright ugly in spots. Their passing stats look like something out of a different era – one with single-wing jump passes. True freshman quarterback Wesley Carroll shows signs of promise, but at this point he isn't exactly evoking the echoes of Jackie Parker.

Punter Blake McAdams can be very good at times but remains inconsistent for the most part. Kicker Adam Carlson is 7-of-10 on field goals but hasn't made one longer than 39 yards.

What the Bulldogs do have, though, is a sense of identity. The Bulldogs know who they are and who they aren't. They know they have to run the ball, play resilient defense, bring plenty of pass-rush pressure, and force turnovers.

That combination worked against Auburn when the Bulldogs forced five turnovers and returned one for an interception in a 19-14 victory. It worked against Kentucky when they sacked Kentucky quarterback Andre Woodson three times, kept the pressure on him throughout the game, and forced six turnovers in a 31-14 victory.

Last week, they forced Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson out of his game with relentless pressure and intercepted two passes. One came when cornerback Anthony Johnson returned an interception more than 100 yards for a touchdown and a 10-9 halftime lead with four seconds left in the first half. The next came three plays into the second half when safety Derek Pegues returned an interception 38 yards, setting up tailback Anthony Dixon's 3-yard touchdown for a 17-9 lead. In both cases, Wilson had State defenders breathing down his neck.

Even Carroll understands. He knows he doesn't have to carry the offense. He needs to be smart and poised, take care of the ball, and make a few plays in the passing game. He's doing those things and doing his part to fit into the team identity.

That identity also includes a hard-nosed mentality, a certain physical and mental toughness that is a reflection of the Bulldogs' coaching staff, particularly Croom. From the moment he arrived on campus, Croom has been steadfast in his mission to build the program from the bottom up, demanding discipline and commitment and making life difficult for anyone who didn't want to follow the rules or meet the demands. Many of those who were unwilling didn't stick around – some by their own choice, some because they were told to go.

Croom's critics have been frustrated by his stubborn determination to do things a certain way, often wondering if he was flexible enough to make the right adjustments. Some have been impressed by his stubborn resolve to stay the course. Regardless of how people feel about him, the fact remains that he took a program hit hard by losses and NCAA sanctions and has given his team a sense of direction and purpose.

For now, that direction is pointed toward a bowl game. With the SEC facing concerns about finding bowls for all of its bowl-eligible teams, six wins won't offer any guarantees at this point. One more win, or even two, over Arkansas and/or Ole Miss the next two weeks would do it.

At this point, who's going to bet against State? The Bulldogs aren't likely to make any big changes over their next two games. They could use a lot more help than they're getting from their receivers, but don't look for them to start spreading the field with multiple receivers and throwing the ball 40 times.

After all, the Bulldogs know who they are. And that's a lot more than many teams can say, even at this late point in the season.

"It means a lot and it really says a lot about this program," Brown said of the victory over Alabama. "We can compete with anyone in the conference, and these guys come out to work every day. I'm glad to see the hard work finally paid off."


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

Tiger Blitz Top Stories