"There's no need for a great deal of discussion," Croom. "It's our cross-state rivalry, it's a battle for state supremacy. And, it is the most important game on our schedule because it is the next game, the only one we can do anything about."
This is also State's last chance to put one more ‘W' on the 2004 worksheet. The Bulldogs and Rebels enter the game with matching records of 3-7 overall and 2-5 SEC, so both wrap up the season Saturday. All at stake from a SEC standpoint is avoiding the Western Division cellar.
But Croom has both played and coached in a couple of the fiercest feuds at both the college and pro levels, specifically Alabama-Auburn and Green Bay-Chicago. So he has a better grasp that just about anyone else of what is at stake Saturday afternoon in Oxford, even if it is his first Egg Bowl.
"How big is it? Beating our in-state rival is big for everything. For 365 days we get bragging rights, when I walk around and our players and their parents go places we don't have to say anything. I don't want to listen for a whole year about this game. That's what rivalry games are all about. We have to live with this one for a year. I've been in those games, and it's a miserable year."
It is up to the Bulldogs to determine how pleasant, or not, the coming year is. Both clubs are coming off tough losses; Mississippi came up short at LSU 27-24, while State saw a 14-0 lead evaporate in a 24-21 home defeat by Arkansas. Croom expressed pride in how the Dogs played overall in their home finale, but disappointment in the outcome.
"In some areas we played well enough to win, but we did not make the plays. Arkansas made the plays when they had to, and we have to move on." Croom did not comment on the game's officiating as he had immediately afterwards, nor was anything said about an anticipated reprimand from the SEC office for the coach's remarks. Croom did speak with league commissioner Mike Slive on Monday, and said last night he will not make similar comments again.
While Croom hasn't done much research on Egg Bowl history, he has examined the '04 Rebels quite closely and says this will be another challenging matchup for Mississippi State on both sides of the ball.
"The offense is explosive," he said of a unit averaging 344 yards and 20 points a game. Those numbers rank in the bottom half of the league standings, but Mississippi tends to get both yardage and scores in bursts. The Rebels also rotate quarterbacks regularly, and while in recent games they have settled on basically two choices UM can still put any of three triggermen under center at any time. "That compounds some things for us defensively," Croom said, "three different styles creates problems as well."
Defensively, the coach sees something similar to Arkansas' approach. "They play an eight-man front scheme, they bring pressure a lot of different ways. They'll rush three, six, eight. They're very opportunistic and make a lot of things happen. LSU rushes for over 300 yards but the game goes right down to the end because the defense put points on the board."
In short, Croom says to ignore the statistics and beware a team that can make plays happen in unexpected ways. Oh, and forget the season record. "They've been up-and-down. But I expect to see the best out them and the best out of us. It should be a great ball game."
A great game between three-win teams? Of course, Croom says. Because this is a game that means something to everyone involved…or should. "If you have to explain the importance of the game (to players) they don't need to play," he said, speaking of how much losing the famous ‘Punt Bama Punt' game to Auburn three decades ago still rankles.
"What happens before Saturday has no bearing on this game. Absolutely none. You've got to assume they are going to be the best football team in America on Saturday, and for us to beat them we're going to have to play better than we have in any time this year, in every single area. That's the difference in rivalry games and all the others."
Croom added that he hopes, should State succeed Saturday, that the Dogs will win with class. The spectre of last Saturday's brawl between South Carolina and Clemson hangs over the conference and the entire sport at the moment. "I've already addressed that with our players, because I know in rival games those things can happen."
Croom said he will miss retiring USC Coach Lou Holtz. "He was the first coach that called me when I got this job," he revealed, "and I've always appreciated that. The game will be less without men like him." At the same time the SEC is getting one of its own back with Steve Spurrier taking over in Columbia, and Croom welcomes the return. "I think it's great for the conference. I'm glad he came back, and I'm glad he's on that side of the conference and we don't have to play him every year!"
But the first-year Bulldog boss is very aware he will be playing Mississippi every year, as well as competing with the rivals 365 days of each calendar for hearts, minds, and ticket sales all over his new home state. So while Saturday's Egg Bowl wraps up one season, it is just another step in Croom's long-term program.
"After Ole Miss, recruiting is the next game on the schedule," he said. "That starts Sunday morning."