Speaking of uncertainty, there's a measure of that in planning for who will carry the football for Kentucky. Both halfbacks, Rafael Little and Tony Dixon are listed as injured on the depth chart. Little is almost certainly not in the plans for another week with a thigh contusion. Dixon has a variety of ailments but has carried the ball 30 times over the last two weeks.
"They've got some guys questionable for this weekend," Croom said, adding though "We have to prepare as if all of them are going to be well."
WHO IS TWO? Mississippi State's ongoing question involves both who and how to prepare the backup quarterback should starter Wesley Carroll go out. Veteran Michael Henig has been cleared for play since early October, but that surgically-repaired broken right hand continues to cause the junior pain in the knuckles. Henig practiced very little the last two weeks as a result. Tuesday he arrived an hour after practice began, having been in the training room; and with a temporary cast almost to the elbow as a protective measure.
"It's day-to-day," said Croom. "Right now he just doesn't feel the ball as well as he needs to be able to throw with any degree of efficiency." Henig's hand complicates the situation in both preparing and, if necessary, deciding who would replace Carroll. For now, fellow true-frosh Chris Relf is the #2 man…and at the same time a redshirting rookie.
"We have to get Relf ready to play," Croom said. "The decision to be made is at the site of the game whether I pull the trigger or not. It's something I think about a lot the night before every game, all week long. We get him ready to play because at this point if Mike is not ready Chris gives us the next-best chance to win.
"We're also working Zack Harrington as well as the third guy, which could change. He could go to second guy depending on game situation. My goal is not to waste Relf. At the same time I'm going to do whatever it takes to win every game we go out there."
To the extent, he added, that if he believed using another true freshman quarterback would get State a step closer to the six-win benchmark, he would make that call. "If I felt there was any chance I'd do it. But once I do that, we're going to play him the rest of the year in a rotational basis. As much as I want to save him for the future, we've fought too hard that if there's a chance of us becoming bowl-eligible I'm going to do whatever it takes to get us to that point. And Chris understands that."
What Relf doesn't know as well as Carroll, much less Henig or even Harrington, is the playbook. Relf does have advantages in size, strength, speed, and most obviously arm over Carroll; who is clearly much more advanced in how State wants to run this offense. It isn't Relf's fault, Croom said, noting the kid is still relatively new to quarterback period. "He played single-wing his junior year and really started throwing his senior year. And he played wide receiver as a sophomore, where Wes has played quarterback his entire career." So State's staff has to practice the quarterbacks and prepare the offense allowing for these disparities.
"We have two gameplans, one for him and one for Wes. If Wes went down we immediately pull out Chris' gameplan and go right on and call the play. We're not going to ask him to do something he can't do."
LONG GOALS, IMMEDIATE FOCUS: Croom said that playing again on SEC-regional TV is a "positive motivation" for the Bulldogs. "But the biggest motivation is that we're 4-4 with the chance to become bowl-eligible." Which the coach called both a challenge and opportunity. "We've got to find a way to get it done. I challenged our seniors yesterday that they've got a chance to do something very few classes have done here in a while, that's to play in a bowl game if we get this done."
State's staff is stressing bowl-potential more than ever this week, with Croom even saying the game is of "paramount" importance in the process. Yet to achieve a long-term goal means staying in a short-term focus. "The only way to do it is take it one day at a time, stay in the moment, then get to Kentucky and get it done."
Ironically, a year ago when Kentucky came to Starkville the Wildcats were 3-4 and battling for bowl eligibility. They won the game, a 34-31 shootout, and went on to the Music City Bowl. Here in 2008 the Wildcats are already bowl-eligible, while State is at something of a crossroads in that regard. "The key is we've got to get it done," Croom said. "If we play like we're capable of and make the mistakes we made last week, we've got a chance to do that."
Or, if State could do something this time as well as they did a year ago against UK: throw and catch the football. An again-healthy Mike Henig threw for a career-best 384 yards with three touchdown tosses. It was the sort of production State and Croom was counting on all through 2007, which hasn't happened for obvious re-injury reasons.
"Mike is not the same at this point, even the early part of the season, that he was the last part of last year against Kentucky and Alabama," Croom said. "If we had that Mike Henig right now we'd be a pretty good football team because he was throwing the ball extremely well. I had to do a double-take watching the (2006 game) film, we just can't throw the ball like that right now.
"With this running game, with the way our defense is playing, with the receivers we have right now, if he was throwing the football at the level he threw at this point last year, our passing attack would be pretty dog-gone good."
As it is State relies on HB Anthony Dixon and the ground game to move the ball, with Carroll mixing in throws as needed. It's been enough to get these Dogs to the verge of bowl eligibility; whether it is enough to seal the deal is another matter. Still, "To be 4-4 with a third quarterback who's a freshman, if you'd told me that in the summer I'd have said I'll take that right now," Croom said.
*Game captains for this weekend are TE Dezmond Sherrod offense, SLB Gabe O'Neal defense, and TE Jason Husband for special teams.