Not that I had any expectations of Mississippi State doing well against LSU. Hey, even good Bulldog teams have been bumfuzzled by bad Tiger squads in all hours of the day. And since this is definitely not a vintage MSU lineup my only honest hopes for this matchup were to stay within five--yes, five--touchdowns, put a few points on the board, and avoid losing any key player to injury.
Well. Strikes one, two, and three. The Tigers could have named the final margin, the Bulldogs never got close enought to punt the ball across the goal line, and to pour acid on the wounds Omarr Conner was knocked out for a period to be determined. Just, I am compelled to add, moments after I asked aloud from my press row seat why the starter was even in a 34-0 game. More on this later, as it actually fits into the fundamental themes of how Sylvester Croom intends to do this long, hard, painful, and likely agonizing job over the next few years.
Yeah. Years. As much as it hurts to say, and to realize, the debacle at Tiger Stadium is in many ways a more meaningful barometer of the state of State than the preceeding defeats. Each loss has opened more eyes to just how sad the situation is here in 2004, to the point that now if anyone out there really, truly still believes turning Mississippi State around only requires a coaching change and couple of recruiting classes, then they are either blissfully blind or pathologically optimistic.
Yeah, I've said something to this effect each of the last three weeks; that Auburn exposed the differentials in talent and depth on the roster, and Maine pointed up lacks of confidence and experience. And still some argued that there is sufficient talent in uniform right now to compete in the SEC. Any who can make that same claim today either just aren't watching or can't bring themselves to accept the brutal facts of the MSU-matter. There are very good--or should we say bad--reasons why State is 9-30 since the Snow Bowl.
And, why it will take a while to total nine more wins. I should believe that, blind optimists aside, we can all agree that from now on whenever the word 'future' comes up in a MSU context the image is not that of forecasting the weather but of, say, predicting the economy. That is, thinking really long-term.
An aside: having said that, I'm certainly not advising we throw in our metaphysical hand regarding these next two Bulldog games, if only because they represent State's best and likely only chances to match and exceed the 2003 win total. But the possibilities for success clearly are dimmed with every day Conner's knee keeps him on the sideline. What summer and fall exposure to preparations for the season showed was how much emotional faith this roster, offense and defense alike, was investing in the sophomore slinger. Now they've had one of the few remaining props kicked out from under them, and how the Bulldogs respond this week and weekend might in fact reveal more about how much they are able to trust each other than anything that has happened so far.
Now, back to the future, which is what Croom has been looking at ever since he arrived. I say this because last week, in the aftermath of Maine and preceeding the LSU trip, the coach made some interesting and, for fans, informative comments about the program, about why this team is struggling, and how no matter what does or does not happen this first year he is not going to deviate from the long-run gameplan.
To give a context for accurate understanding of the statements, the questions essentially aimed at how could a team with what we had been lead to believe were some great athletes struggle against a Division I-AA team, and how long does Croom forsee the rebuilding process taking. Those who take recruiting ratings as gospel might want to skip the next paragraph.
"What I really don't think our fans understand is exactly where our program was," the coach said. "I keep getting statements about what great talent we have; I think there is to some degree a total misunderstanding of where the program was." Indeed despite the past three seasons there was still the notion out there that the Bulldogs only needed to plug in a player here and there and a new gameplan and all would fall into place.
Oh, and another aside: I here and now accept a degree of responsbility for helping feed part of that attitude when printing glowing, or at least favorable, reviews of the recruiting classes of 1999-2003. I also got caught up in the excitement of having recruits listed in various top-tens and 40-bests and so on. Hey, I never bought into the internet bubble economy, so I had to invest my gullibility funds somewhere, right? From now on I promise to pour a pound of Morton's-per every 'star' on any recruiting review I read. And if the remaining True Believers in recruiting analysis are willing to accept one word of advice about how much that means, I simply say: Arkansas.
Where was I...ah, yes. The state of State as Croom sees it. He says he understood coming in what it was going to take to do the job here, though I wonder if he completely comprehended the depths of the situation. I do know he accepts what we all should now see as a daunting challenge. "And that still doesn't make it easy," he stresses, "I don't like losing. But I'm going to be very patient."
How patient the fan base is or can be is another matter. Given the price of tickets these days I in no way urge automatic and endless endurance from Bulldog backers. Y'all have a right to expect some sort of return on that kind of investment. But I also plead for a deeper understanding of what it is going to take to build a consistent contender here.
And I absolutely mean both words. Consistent. Contender. It is tempting, oh is it ever, to urge that the new coaching staff bend on their core principles just a bit this first year. Y'know, to maybe put a W or two on the record and get folk encouraged about seeming progress. Set aside the gameplan just for a couple of months, do things that don't exactly fit into the schemes you want to make ritual for State offenses and defenses, cut the kids some slack on and off the field just so they can have a little adolescent fun.
Right. And find that in the spring of 2005 the program is not a bit better off than in 2004, or '03, or '02, or...we get the idea. Or maybe we don't. Doesn't matter, because Croom is not going to change a permanent plan for temporary circumstances.
"A great part of what we are doing this year is building a foundation of what we want to be and how we want to do things," Croom said last week. Question: how many of us, construction engineers aside, have ever seen a pretty foundation? The whole point is not to see the foundation, but what is built upon one. Unless one still likes old 1930s style homes built on brick pilings like my Murray grandparent's house. I personally had to knock those stacks apart as a summer project decades ago, and the remains now make a nice walkway around a deck in Jones County.
About the time I was hammering mortar off those bricks Croom was a rookie college assistant coach, and even after his pro career he knows the expectations that come with a SEC program changing coaches. "That we're going to be a great program overnight," he said. "I'd like for it to be that way, it would be a whole lot more fun. But the reality is that we are a work in progress.
"We have a plan, we will not deviate from that plan regardless of what some think and their recommendations may be. I will listen but it won't change anything. I understand fans, that it is their right to feel that way as fans and as supporters of the program. But I have been entrusted with leading this program to where we want to go."
So there we have it. 51-0, 101-0, Croom is of no mind to deviate this early in what he sees as a very long process. And in case one wonders, no, he is not setting out a timetable for success. Whether the Bulldogs win or lose at Nashville this week will not change that plan. Which is, to instill "discipline, hard work, attention to detail, not beating ourselves, and continuing to invest in ourselves on and off the field," Croom said. "If we continue to do that we will be a good program. We're not just trying to win games this year, we are tring to build a program that will last over time."
Whatever one thinks of that attitude and that plan, or of the immediate results, we do have to agree on one fact: that Croom has made his mind completely clear to everyone interested in knowing how Mississippi State football is going to be run.
David Murray is the editor of Dawgs' Bite magazine and the featured writer for the Dawgs Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website. You can contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.