The Summer State Of State Statements

The College World Series is over, and preseason football is still five weeks off. Thus this relatively calm point of the calendar is a prime time to take stock of the Mississippi State of things, with a review of what the spotlight (re: ticket-selling) Bulldog sports did in the year-past and what might be in store for the season-ahead. This three-day series begins with a look at football.

We've all heard of the game inside the game. Well, the real story of Bulldog football this past year was the season inside the season. Except that Coach Sylvester Croom's first "season" really ran from December 2003-through-April 2005, and what happened on the playing field last fall was actually the less important aspect. This might not sound quite fair to folk who shelled out for '04 tickets and endured the fourth-straight losing campaign in Starkville.

Yet even the most frustrated fans surely now must recognize that what Croom's 2004 team did, or did not, in terms of scores and record was just one stage in an extended process. A longer, tougher, and more painful process than all involved hoped, of course. But when the inevitable, initial glow that comes in any coaching transition faded, not only could we see the enormity of this task Croom has taken on but the necessity as well.

The on-field outcomes were clear enough with a 3-8 record and 2-6 SEC finish. An optimistic view points at one more win than the year before, a ‘doubling' of SEC success, and the headline-stealing (and coach-firing) upset of Florida. And the Gators were State's first bowl-bound SEC victim since 2000. So there was legitimate progress.

Just not enough to snap a string of losing seasons. And the lows were pretty darn deep, with Maine 2004 replacing Troy State 2001 on a longtimer's dark-days list. Losses to UAB and Vanderbilt weren't as devastating as once would have been the case, but did no good for State's psyche either. Meanwhile routs by Auburn and LSU rudely reminded how the overall talent/experience/depth differentials stacked up in the SEC West.

The calm center through all the storm has been Croom himself. That poised demeanor throughout his first schedule required serious daily effort and was even misunderstood by frantic fans—a few of whom foolishly still want to believe the first-year coach didn't know "how important" the Egg Bowl was. Or, that he essentially wrote-off the '04 season while re-building for the future. Such passions might have been understandable under frustrating circumstances but are badly misinformed, as anyone allowed to observe practices and workouts could confirm. That is where Croom shows just how much he cares.

It's enough so to demand things be done in what he sees as the ‘right way' no matter a cost which not only is increasingly apparent but just plain increasing. The prime parallel storyline to the first 19 months has been the exodus from State's locker room of a lot of well-known names. A quick comparison of June rosters from 2004 to 2005 shows 19 scholarship underclassmen who left the program, the reasons ranging from playing time, academics, post-college career goals, or just not fitting in with the new way of doing things at State. Three others gave up football for health reasons.

Regardless of motivation that is not a total to take lightly, essentially removing an entire class from the roster. It needs noting that not all departures were inherited athletes as a couple of Croom signees have also left lockers available for other folk Croom has recruited in his first two signing seasons. And recruiting is the real game-inside-the-game at State now, as the coaching staff believes the first corner has been turned. That is, the players who have earned the privilege of calling themselves Bulldogs here in 2005 have bought into Croom's philosophy; not just in X-and-O terms but in overall attitude.

It's easier to see now that all through year-one a new coach decided Mississippi State didn't need merely a routine rebuild but a drastic start-over, if—in his mind—something successful over a longer haul could be assembled. The price has been high and every staff member agrees the job could have gone much more quickly had several gifted, high-profile veterans bought into the new man's new plans. They did not, and as Croom is not adapting philosophy anytime soon the roster can't afford dead weight no matter how talented.

All this would imply that a return to competitiveness is very much a work-in-progress, and that much of the purported progress remains subjective here in year-two. Certainly expectations for 2005 in all but the most maroon-tinted outlooks are modest, and Croom will openly express his gratitude for a long-term contract as giving him time to get the job done. At the same time, his second Bulldog squad has some intriguing aspects. A matured quarterback comfortable in the pro-style offense is one big reason; a Heisman-nominated running back another. If Omarr Conner and Jerious Norwood stay healthy State has big-play potential, though Conner could certainly use instant help on deep routes from new receivers. Of course all will be moot without major and immediate progress up front.

Just a little better blocking and protection, though, and the Bulldog offense has real potential. The defense definitely should be better and deeper, able to keep State in most games. Put up one more touchdown per-game this fall and a team consensus-tabbed to occupy the West cellar again might just upset the SEC order some. Now, not even the most rabid Dog fan stunned by summer heat is talking titles at this stage; for that matter there is a refreshing sense of realism out in Bulldog Country about the '05 scoreboard. Most seem to agree that four wins is acceptable progress, five reason for celebration, and six victories would merit not only a bowl bid for State but a career contract for Croom.

Yet the most encouraging development is that State folk can see the outlines of what Croom wants to get done, and how. His first set of recruiting classes does have a sprinkling of ratings ‘stars' but the coach is obviously far more focused on the actual persons and their playing potential within his systems. That doesn't mean State scorns kids on blue-chip lists at all; Croom has often said he would love to put 11 all-stars on the field for every snap as it would make coaching a whole lot easier.

The coach is a realist and understands Mississippi State is not likely to ever be three-deep in all-everything recruits across the proverbial board like a Tennessee or LSU can be. If, for no other reason, than there will never be sufficient available and eligible bodies within MSU's core recruiting territory, especially on the lines. Croom still talks about the late minutes of the blowout at Baton Rouge last fall, when he realized the third-string Tiger tackle dominating State's starter was merely a freshman. The baseline fact is that State cannot hope to match the rosters of perennial powers 85 for 85, or probably even the best 60 players for 60.

But, say, the top 40 to 50? That can be done with an extended run of good recruiting years, even in a relatively restricted region (particularly for linemen) like this where out-of-state rivals feel free to raid annually. Croom didn't have a lot of time to put his 2004 signing class together, but the '05 group showed how far afield this staff is willing to travel to sign talent. Literally, from coast-to-coast with incoming frosh from Florida and California. Early commitments for 2006 signing show Croom & Co. are making more inroads in Texas, while continuing to work over Alabama as if there were no state border at all and maintain contacts in metro Atlanta.

Equally important to where State is recruiting is the kind of kid Croom is courting. Character is a sorely misused word in college ball but it really does matter to Croom. This doesn't mean the coach will hand a scholarship over just because someone is a solid citizen; he must have obvious potential to play. The point is that in Croom's eye the two attributes matter equally, neither has priority over the other. Naturally SEC cynics continue to question if a winning program can be built under those selective conditions and indeed only time will tell if this plan is workable. Points are not awarded for good intentions and noble ideals in this league.

All that we can confidently know for now is that this is Croom's strategy for State, and that he is willing to be judged by the ultimate results. One other idea has also gained credence in the fan base, too. That is, with NCAA-mandated changes in both initial and sustained eligibility, and as low as the program has fallen in recent years behind a roster riddled with questionable character and characters, why not take an extended run at building a program essentially from-scratch, and the supposed ‘right' way? If it should work out, success will be all the sweeter and presumably more lasting.

And, Croom would then have to force himself to stay calm and in-charge by avoiding smiling too much on sidelines. He would probably enjoy exercising that sort of self-control more. He certainly is relieved that this summer the focus is off his history-making hiring and entirely turned to the bottom line of getting a tough job done for State.

The coach would also welcome a competitive season against his 2005 schedule. The SEC lineup, with Georgia replacing Vanderbilt, is tougher on-balance. Murray State might not be as dangerous as Maine was, but Houston is a maturing foe taking the place of a graduation-hit Alabama-Birmingham. Needless to say Florida will be looking for revenge at home, and while Auburn will have some drop-off both LSU and a healthier Alabama ought to be stronger overall. Arkansas won't have one single playmaker to rely on yet some think the Hogs might be more consistent on the whole now. Mississippi has a new staff and no way to judge how well things will mesh in their own year-one. Croom has honestly said that his 2005 team could be clearly improved and it not show on the SEC record.

Looking ahead to future schedules, Tulane stays on the non-conference lineup for 2006 and perhaps longer. This fall completes the two-year deal with Houston, which will be replaced again by UAB in both 2006 and '07. Mississippi State has signed a two-year set with West Virginia for 2006-07; with the NCAA approving a 12th game starting next fall the schools are re-thinking where the two games will be played in which year.

And as of now Memphis is tentatively listed as a 2006 opponent, returning to the schedule after a two-year absence. But this was set before the 12-game season was approved and it is more likely MSU will want to book a I-AA program for a seventh home game, so the renewal of the Bulldog-Tiger series might take a bit longer. The expanded schedule has also thrown a lot of preliminary work on future slates out the proverbial window for everybody.

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