Not that Croom cares if TV cameras are present for either game. Nor is State's coach of any mind to let his team play ‘spoiler' to an Arkansas club still battling for bowl eligibility. "No, to me it's the chance for us to win another SEC game, against a very good opponent. I look at it as winning for our enjoyment, not at making other people miserable. Just winning, that's the bottom line."
Mississippi State has renewed hopes capping Croom's first season in Starkville with another win, or two, added to the bottom line. October victories over Florida and Kentucky, and a well-fought loss at Alabama, have given the Bulldogs a healthy dose of fresh self-respect; and an open date has helped get the roster back to health, period.
"We tried to get some guys well," Croom said, "and everybody should be ready to go this week." That includes a number of players who were either limited or held entirely out of last week's four practice days, such as back Jerious Norwood (sore knee), guard Brian Anderson (ankle, leg bruise), guard Johnny Wadley (sore knee), receiver McKinley Scott (hamstring), defensive tackle Ron Fields (neck stinger), tackle Corey Clark (leg), and others. Croom wanted to watch them all at Monday afternoon's practice before commenting specifically on who will or won't play against Arkansas.
Still the coach sees a reasonably (for November) healthy lineup after the second open date. He also expects to field the same offensive and defensive units that were assembled during the first break, and instantly produced a pair of SEC victories on the home field. "There were not any serious personnel changes this week, it was a matter of getting well, working on fundamentals, correcting errors. Health was more an issue. And just to get some rest going into these last two weeks."
The Bulldogs need to be rested and ready for the first of the two weekends. The Razorbacks have been up-and-down all season but come to Starkville clearly back on an up-tick after whipping Mississippi 35-3. If not for a last-minute interception Arkansas would now be bowl-eligible. That's a piece of business the Razorbacks intend to take care of at MSU's expense.
"We saw what they did to Ole Miss last week," Croom said. What MSU's defensive staff has been been watching most today is how quarterback Matt Jones shredded the Rebels, both with his arm and his fast footwork. State has played a couple of option offenses this year, but no triggerman like the UA senior. "He's one of those rare guys that can run the option and throw the ball downfield. I don't know if you can shut the guy down, you just hope you can minimize his effect. Then you've got a chance.
"No question, they'll be highly motivated. And I expect us to be highly motivated. We're going to have to play our best game to beat them."
Their best won't be enough to entirely overcome the first half of the season and send Mississippi State to a bowl game this winter. But the Bulldogs have clearly recovered from a 1-5 start, and the program is that much closer to getting on the right track.
"We're improved," Croom said. "Things don't happen in a program overnight. A program that's been losing for basically four years, we didn't get in this shape overnight. And you're not going to get better overnight. It takes a lot of learning and understanding the system, how we're going to do things. And then finding the guys that believe in what you're trying to do as well.
"But we've kept at it, showed some perseverance, and we've finally started to see some results."
Now the Bulldogs have opportunities in these final weekends to show further progress and go into the postseason with a genuine sense of accomplishment. Not to mention emotional momentum for what everyone expects will be a very intense spring season. Croom said there should be plenty of motivation on MSU's sideline now.
"This is our last home game. It's been a long season. Even though the record is not where we want it to be, we've accomplished some things. People remember what you did in November. We talk about finishing games and practices, we want to finish the season strong. That's very important for us."