It was along those thought-lines that, when a cohort wanted a snap-opinion from the second game of the Bulldog season, my only answer was to point at the scoreboard and say that's why Auburn is in the top-twenty and Mississippi State has a new head coach.
Put another way, this whipping was all but scripted two and three years ago. While the Tigers were following the routine of finding, evaluating, signing, developing, and assembling football teams, State's program was crumbling from within due to the lack of a coherent strategy, consistently maintained. Without getting into any debates on the legacy of the previous regime (I was there for the good years, too) can we agree the whole…no, I can't say ‘process' because that implies an internal structure. Affair? Yeah, that's it, the whole affair hung together by erratic application of will, bravado, and even some luck. Remember, State's best seasons in the late 1990s coincided with upheaval and coaching changes all around the Western Division. I would cite a line from Joseph Conrad's ‘Heart of Darkness' here, but hopefully the point has been made without further literary pretension.
Anyway, back to the present. Sylvester Croom, the man willing and in my humble opinion able to set State on the right track, had a pretty good idea what to expect from his first SEC game in general and this matchup in particular. "I said going in they had far more talent than we did," Croom stated after the 43-14 rout. Did Auburn ever.
Since taking over State's program Croom has said, openly and clearly, that the Bulldog roster is not ready to match up with the SEC's contenders. We who watched practices, April and August alike, figured he was correct. Still a fair portion of the fan base, bless their hopeful hearts, either did not get the message or chose not to accept it at face value. I mean, we'd spent the last several years hearing the wonders and reading the rankings of each succeeding State recruiting class. And we know for a fact that recruiting ‘experts' are far better judges of talent than SEC coaches.
Then with the SEC opener looming Croom was candid about Auburn's advantages in talent, depth, and experience…and some were convinced the Bulldogs' was only doing what his old coach Bear used to (and Lou Holtz still does), making each foe sound like the Third Armored in cleats.
Well whadaya know? Croom was just stating the hard facts, as he reminded all Saturday. "Everybody thinks I've been poor-mouthing all the time. Our talent level has to improve." Even the most optimistic Bulldog backer must accept that honest assessment today after a demonstration of just how far behind the league leaders State still is.
Ahhh, but now for the sliver of silver lining from a dark day at Scott Field, even if at first it does not sound at all encouraging. There will be no Quick Fix program here.
That is to say, Croom and staff are not going to panic after taking a total whipping from an obviously better ball team. Instead of attempting to force a fast turnaround by cutting corners and taking shortcuts (i.e., in recruiting priorities, practice plans, player development on and off the field) this State staff is in it for the long haul. For two reasons. First, Croom wants to build a SEC program in what he believes is the Right Way, a plan he has made abundantly clear from December-day-1.
And second, because given tightened NCAA restrictions on eligibility, both initial and continued, there really aren't too many corners left that can be cut. So while Croom's approach might sound preachy to some, it is also practical in the current realities of college student/athletics.
I've said it before and will here again. Sylvester Croom is not just rebuilding. He's not even starting over from an existing base. He's had to burn down the rotten old house and rip out the cracked foundation, and start over from bedrock. And I guess if we want to push the metaphor to the limits, how well and how soon he succeeds will say as much about the builder as it does the inherent underlying support we at Mississippi State can provide. Or something like that.
Cashing In A Reality Check…
Now, how about the more immediate future? Having received their reality check, can the Bulldogs cash it in and put the proceeds into practice? The beating was painful but not entirely unexpected, so I don't anticipate that the players will sulk for long. Nor with their coaches let them. In fact, Croom's post-game forecast was for more demanding practices, so it seems the staff will try to turn the loss into as many positives as possible.
So will the Bulldogs, judging by what the quotable Kenny Kern said when asked how hard it would be to put Auburn behind. "Well, it's behind me now," the linebacker said. "We're moving on to the next game. Somebody is going to have to pay for this loss and we're moving on to Maine now."
Yes, payment is due this weekend…but not before some accounts are inspected this week. Croom said that even a maximum MSU effort might not have been good enough against Auburn. "But I know that's not as good as we can play. I told our guys if they think that's as good as they can play then they're in the wrong place." For sure any Dogs believing they have given their best already will find the practice fields a wrong place to be starting Monday.
"This is a character check for us," said senior Fred Reid. "Some of us may have had the big-head after the first game. But this is a gut-check for us and we have to come back out and not take anybody lightly. Not even Maine. We have to play everybody as hard as we can the rest of the season."
And even in their stomping State showed some hints of progress. Play-clock management was better. The offense was more varied the second time around, even if some of it was forced by an early deficit. Quarterback Omarr Conner, who said he was shaky in his Tulane debut, looked more confident and even poised despite the fact he was often running for his life this time. "I thought his rhythm was better," Croom said. "His accuracy was better, particularly in the three- and five-step drop game. He's still good on the move. Only thing, the last couple of passes could have been better. But he had pressure in his face."
More obvious though were the weaknesses Auburn exposed. State was overmatched at the line of scrimmage, both ways. Blocking in particular was beaten down. Croom said he wasn't naïve enough to expect the Dogs offense to pound up-and-down the field, but he was disappointed the way State was pushed around too often. The defensive front was a bit better but worn down by halftime as the offense could not relieve the pressure.
Tackling, particularly one-on-one, was much poorer all around and Auburn scored a big touchdown pass because three Dogs did not wrap up one Tiger receiver. Jared Cook is not punting for either the distance or hang time a senior should. And a week after getting just three flags against Tulane, State was penalized twice as often. One flag was very dubious, an offensive pass interference negating a big gainer by Will Prosser. Still Croom didn't think this was progress. "We'd get something going and self-destruct. We had some missed assignments that created some of those penalties."
The head coach did like one thing about the game, the way the second team used their opportunities in the fourth quarter to play loose and have some fun. And, score a pair of touchdowns. Typically those backup-squad points and efforts would mean little in the big picture…but Mississippi State is not in a typical situation this September, and Croom is quite willing to use the #2 units to make a point. As well as score them.
"I can assure you, the guys that made plays will get significantly more playing time. Anybody that did not give us the maximum effort in the game will not get the playing time next week." Whether Croom meant all starting jobs are again up for grabs, or that the second teammer are booked as starters already, he did not specify. This week's practices will tell that tale before next Saturday.
"It's still a work in progress for our team," said Croom. "But we'll keep trying to move the guys that keep fighting around and get in them in position where we can develop as a football team."
Which means in the next few days some Dogs had best cash this reality check…or some accounts might be closed. "We just have to come out next week, practice and try harder to get better," said Reid. "We can't take anyone for granted. We have to come back out and play hard, and that's the rest of the season."
NOTE: The status of game injuries will be updated in the Monday teleconference report.