Big-time, and a bigger challenge for Mississippi State that begins this Saturday night when #7-ranked (AP) Georgia comes to Scott Field. The battle of Bulldog teams will be shown nationally on ESPN, and because it is in the late timeslot kickoff is loosely set between 8:07 or 8:12 depending on the early game's finish.
This is the first meeting of the SEC's two Bulldog teams since 1997, under the league's Divisional rotation. State will visit Athens in 2006, then not see the ‘other' Dogs again until 2010. Given Mississippi State's struggles in the infrequent series they might not mind that the canine cousins rarely meet. State trails 14-5 overall and has not won since 1974, with Georgia owning a seven-win streak.
This is Croom's first chance to field a team of his own against Georgia, but as an old SEC hand from his playing and college assistant days he knows what Georgia football stands for. "Talent. Tradition. Expectations." In short, all the things he hopes to instill at Mississippi State eventually. For now? "Our kids are exited about paying them. We're going to find out how we stack up Saturday, we know it will be an uphill battle but we look forward to the challenge."
State's Bulldogs have already had a few September challenges and the 2-1 record is exactly what 99% of observers would have forecast. At the same time the second victory, 21-14 over Tulane this past Saturday, did not play out entirely as expected other than which team earned the W. On a neutral field, with a small crowd, and in a travel plan adapted to the unusual circumstances, the Bulldogs struggled through a scoreless first half before jumping to a 14-0 lead in the third quarter and seemingly taking control.
"We thought it was on ice," Croom said. "Then in a split-second we're back in a nailbiter and it went down to the last play." It was a fluke turnover on a reception and tackle that let Tulane tie the score up, forcing State to play to win again. An impressive touchdown run by halfback Jerious Norwood, and two defensive stands, let the Dogs leave Shreveport successful…and relieved at their first non-homefield victory since October of 2002. "The thing I'm excited about is I know it's the first time some of our juniors have had a good plane ride home since they've been at Mississippi State," Croom said.
"Tulane is over and I'm glad, it was a difficult week with all the changes in our routine and the emotions of the game. It put our kids in a tough situation, the mental aspect was very difficult for our players and they handled it well. I thought we showed a lot of character at the end of the game. We're improved as far as being able to finish things off and win on the road."
Now State is back home for a couple of weeks and in generally good health after three games, with one painful exception. Senior Derek Ambrose, a New Orleans native who lost his home in the hurricane, tore his ACL on the opening kickoff against the hometown team. "He tried to get up and finish the play," noted the coach, who added it is a "long shot" that Ambrose could play again in college.
"That's a big loss to us because he was very good special teams player and our second halfback. We were hampered because we only had three backs (at Shreveport), that left Jonathan Lowe as our primary backup. We haven't gotten Brandon Thornton a lot of work. That position is a major concern right now." Fortunately Norwood, who bruised his left shoulder at Auburn the week before, got through Tulane with no damage. He also scored his first rushing touchdown of the senior season, in the 12th quarter, and caught the first touchdown pass of his college career. Lowe and Thornton start this week as the top backups with Demarcus Johnson, who did not go to Tulane with a minor injury, getting back into practices this week.
Speaking of practices, Croom said State will be in the usual game-week routine at least as far as preparing for Georgia. "Next week I don't know," he said, "you talk about a three-game stretch…" It's doubtful any club in the country has to take on a tougher stretch than State is about to kick off, and few teams face the prospect of playing three top-ten-ranked opponents consecutively. Why, at #7 Georgia is the lowest-rated foe of the trio this week; LSU checks in at #3 and Florida is #5. But that's the slate State has drawn here in 2005, courtesy of the SEC's scheduling.
"When I looked at the schedule I knew this was going to be a tough stretch," Croom said. Yet the second-year head coach is also leery about making radical adjustments to practice policies no matter who they have to prepare for, both this week and the upcoming dates. "We've got a lot of work to do, and we're playing so many young players that we can't pull off our routine now. If we were a veteran team we could." At the same time the coaching staff will have to guard against taking things too easy on this particular roster, at this stage in the building process. There will be some practice contact despite the risk of weekday injuries, just not a lot of hitting.
"We haven't been in full pads since the season started," Croom pointed out. "We'll stay in shoulder pads and shorts and work to improve on the fundamentals."
Even if the upcoming stretch were against unranked conference competition, it would still be a challenge for this Mississippi State team. Asked how he sees the situation a month into his second season Croom remains candid. "That hill has turned into a mountain since I've been here and we've got a long way to go. But as long as we're moving forward.
"Some days it's inches and some days it's yards, but our player are moving forward. We've a better team than we were last year, we've still got to improve our talent level in certain areas. But the biggest difference is getting a foundation laid as far as our identity. Our players have bought into that, they've started to believe they can win." Scoring a victory over a Tulane type of team, away from home, was one of those yard-markers the coach is satisfied to see. Battling Georgia on even terms would be more like a full 100-yard leap forward.
While Mississippi State teams don't meet Georgia very often, plenty of MSU Bulldogs know as much about the other Dogs as anyone. On this 2005 roster there are 16 State players signed out of the state of Georgia, seven of them in the most recent recruiting class alone. That's not just coincidence, says Croom, who first recruited Georgia when he was an assistant at Alabama. "That was my area, I've been all over the state from Atlanta to Savannah." Now his staff works the Peach State regularly, most of all the western portions and metro Atlanta. It's a productive hunting ground for State recruiters.
"We're only four, four-and-a-half hours from the Atlanta area so it's good for us because players have easy access and we've got direct flights from Atlanta. We will continue to recruit heavily in Georgia. Plus they've got so many players Georgia and Georgia Tech can't get them all, so they might as well let us have some!"
In fact, UG literally let Croom have one player. Freshman linebacker Jamar Chaney inked with his homestate school in February, but was not allowed to enroll under the university's requirements. State had recruited Chaney all along and in summer found him available again, as well as highly recommended by UG coach Mark Richt. Croom said once he spoke with his counterpart, and Chaney's prep coach, he had no reservations about giving the prep star an available scholarship.
"I trust Mark a great deal, not just as a football coach, as a man. When he recommends somebody I take him at his word." Croom added that State did nothing out of the ordinary in re-recruiting Chaney, and the rookie has fit right in and earned playing time all three games. He even took over for Anthony Littlejohn at outside LB when the starter was hurt on the first play from scrimmage against Tulane and played the rest of the game. "He's handled the situation with a lot of class and mental toughness," Croom said.
All the MSU Bulldogs have a tough situation to handle this weekend, and the next, and the next. Yes, facing three top-ten teams in a row is rare, Croom said, but the bottom line is that playing in this conference means extended and grueling stretches any year. It just so happens that the next three Saturdays feature foes with single digits in front of their names. The coach agrees Mississippi State might not have everything necessary in terms of talent, depth, and experience to dive into this stretch with confidence. But the Bulldogs still intend to show up for each game and play their best, and learn first-hand what the big-time really means.
"Right now we're not thrilled because we're not at that level talent-wise," Croom said. "But one day we will be and I'm looking forward to playing those teams then."