The lights come on this Thursday evening as Mississippi State kicks off the 2006 campaign by hosting South Carolina. The inter-Division matchup, which not only opens SEC season but the college football TV schedule, has a starting time of 7:02 set by ESPN. Under those bright network lights the Bulldogs will either show up or be shown up. The coach thinks he knows which it will be. "We have a very positive feeling going into this season," Croom said. Then, he added, "We've got some areas we won't find out about until we play somebody, then we'll get a better idea of where we are."
Opening a season with a conference contest is certainly the fastest method of learning all about a team. State has won 22 of the last 26 season-openers, including both of Croom's lidlifters. But the last time a Bulldog team won its SEC debut was in 1999…coincidentally, at South Carolina. And in the past two SEC openers, both against quality Auburn teams, State has been outscored 71-14.
State wasn't originally due to kick off 2006 with a league game, but the power of network TV re-arranged both MSU and USC schedules for a Thursday evening opener. Croom quipped that he'd really like to start a season with the Starkville YMCA team. Seriously, though, "Hey, whoever we play it doesn't bother me. We're in the best conference in the country and there are no easy games, so all I want to know is what time we play."
Yet as soon as this year's revised slate was announced Croom and staff were talking about preparing for South Carolina, and not just in general terms. In a sense State began practicing for this specific matchup back in March, and the Bulldogs have scouted and gameplanned ever since. It hasn't been an easy process because the Gamecocks lost lots of talent from their 2005 bowl team, and the replacements will be less-known quantities. Such as on the defense where standout backs are now in the NFL; or the offensive line that is short on experience. Then there were the published and internet reports of injuries from USC camp confusing the picture further.
"I'm not buying into that stuff and I'm telling our players not to," Croom said. Because, while he has never coached directly against Steve Spurrier, the Bulldog boss understands the inherent challenges in planning and playing one of his squads.
"I've watched him play a lot, the experience and imagination he brings to the game. He's very confident in what he's doing and that confidence he has in himself and his ability to teach carries over into his players. So you know they're going to play with poise and confidence. You're not going to catch them unprepared for anything." By the same token, the Bulldogs cannot afford to be too cautious or hesitant in attacking the Gamecocks, especially their offensive team.
"We're going to do whatever we need to do to win the game. Our defense has nine guys coming back and even though I feel confident about their ability I'm nervous because I know Steve well enough to know he's going to have some ways to do some things to maximize what strengths he has in that unit." The most notable of which is receiver Sidney Rice, who Croom wishes had moved on to the NFL already. "I don't know if you can limit that old boy's role. He's as good as I've seen. We've got to make sure the rest of them (SC receivers) don't get any."
Professionally speaking, Croom can empathize with Spurrier putting a relatively raw offensive line on the field this season. State had to do the same thing last season and the results were not pretty. "Really the offensive line tells you what kind of football team you're going to have," Croom said. "There has to be stability and continuity at all times, then those people have to be talented and tough guys that can work as a single unit." After a month of practices and three significant shuffles of first-team personnel, the coach now thinks Mississippi State has the makings of a stable unit up front.
"We've made a lot of improvement the last couple of weeks," Croom said. "We've not exactly where we want to be but when I look at it we're a lot better off than we were last year." With just two practice days left, the plan now is to leave Brian Anderson at left tackle and, probably, start Craig Jenkins at right tackle. The lingering uncertainty is due to what two other candidates have done lately in drills. "We've got four guys that if they play up to their ability we'll be OK," Croom said. "J.D. Hamilton in particular has made a lot of progress since the last scrimmage. Of course he was the one that did not go through spring practice but he's realized he has to upgrade himself real fast."
All the changes wouldn't have been possible if not for Anderson's flexibility. The senior spent spring and two weeks of August at right guard, then a week at right tackle, before ending up back where he played all last season. This has allowed the staff to let the other three tackles compete that much longer to the benefit of all.
"Brian is our ace in the hole, our stable guy. He can play all five positions on the line and not miss an assignment. You know what you're going to get out of Brian Anderson. The guy is a winner."
Croom already knows he has a winning defensive front, which could be the decisive factor in this game given USC's blocking questions. "The play of our defensive line is absolutely critical to any success we hope to have," Croom said. "It's the most experienced group on our team. Some of these guys have been playing since their freshman year and they've got a lot of snaps between them. They've been through this conference and played some of the best talent in the country."
Since walking off Scott Field with the Golden Egg last November, Mike Henig has been accepted as the starting quarterback for 2006. Nothing happened in April or August to change his status, and while Croom admits going into a season as #1 is different than taking over late in a year Henig ought to be up to the opportunity.
"Like everybody else, we won't know exactly what we've got until game time. But based on what I've seen of his progression the last couple of the years I feel very comfortable with him. I'm not concerned with his performance. He's practiced every day, thrown the ball well and particularly this week, he's making good decisions. I'm not the least bit worried about his arm. Like any quarterback he's going to have bad days throwing but as long as his feet and head are right I'm not worried."
At the same time Croom plans to give redshirt Tray Rutland his college debut this week if at all possible. "I've already discussed that with Mike and Tray. That could change according to game situations, but I want to get his feet wet for down the road. I want him to get some game experience because he doesn't have any."
Monday, Croom said the top four receivers will be Omarr Conner, Keon Humphries, Tony Burks, and Lance Long, but that it will not be by rotation so much as in various play-packages. This would include senior Will Prosser, by far the surest hands in a ‘possession' situation.
As of Monday morning there was no change to the injury status of LB Jamon Hughes or DB Demario Bobo, both slowed by hamstrings. The good news is that LB Gabe O'Neal, who only two practice days ago returned to active status and who still has yet to take August contact, is in the lineup.
"If the doctor tells me he can play, he'll start the game," Croom said. "How long he lasts depends on how well his injuruy holds up. He's played a lot of games and I think he just waits to the end of training camp to come back to practice, he's milking the injury! He's done it time and time again, some kind of way he shows up to play Saturday."
Croom is more frustrated with the unsettled status of transfers HB Christian Ducre and OT Mike Brown. Neither have had their appeals for immediate eligibility approved after two months of waiting, and State has a place on the roster for both if that word should arrive.
"I would like to know before gametime but progress comes slow sometimes," Croom said. "We could play either one of those guys because they've gotten a lot of work and know what to do in this gameplan. They would not be a critical part in what we plan to do. But if they are eligible I do intend to play them."
This week brings a rules change to the college game, with the play clock starting earlier to speed up action. State has practiced under the revised rule and Croom doesn't see a problem, least of all on offense. "We're a high tempo team anyway," he said.
"My concern is not so much when it's an obvious kicking situation because we can be ready to go. My only concern is if there's a sudden change on either side of the ball, like a turnover when somebody has come off the field and is getting some water or is slightly injured. That's where you really have to be alert and get guys out there. We don't want to waste a timeout because we may need those timeouts for challenges or at the end of the ball game."
By the end of this game coach, team, and fans alike will have seen what the 2006 Bulldogs look like. Croom still says the program is far from a finished product, but he also believes Thursday night's lights will reveal a much-improved ball team. "We've had a very good camp, our attitude is a lot better than it has been. We're still in the rebuilding process but we've come a long way in two years.
"At some point this season I think we can be a good football team."