Otherwise, "This is as healthy as we've been all year," Croom said. That obviously doesn't include one-game starting QB Josh Riddell who was lost for the season by a knee ligament tear at South Carolina. But former starter QB Mike Henig is practicing full-strength again with minimal problems from the throwing hand broken at Auburn. In practices Henig is sharing the #2 spot with Chris Relf, a true freshman still in line to redshirt barring necessary activation. Zack Harrington would likely be the #3 man if the game were out of reach in either direction.
Meanwhile opponent Alabama is coping with a variety of injuries and suspensions on the offensive side, at running back and on the line. Croom isn't letting his players make much of this, though. "Nobody cares who's not there, it's the guys who show up. We've been without our quarterbacks all year long and nobody has rolled out any crying towels for us, I'm sure not going to roll out any for them. And I'm not sure they feel they need any."
Nor does Croom believe Alabama will be flat after their last-minute loss to Louisiana State. While Mississippi State has had some benefit of good scheduling this year, such as catching Auburn after a then-surprising loss or a Kentucky team missing three key skill players, that's not something to build any gameplan around. "The big factor is who goes out and hits the hardest and doesn't turn the football over," Croom said.
"All the other stuff, I don't put a lot into that. There's a lot of emotion and pride involved in this thing. They're going to bounce back and be ready to play, I'm sure they've put the loss behind them."
At the same time nothing but good should come from State's brief break going into this rivalry matchup. "Even if we hadn't been off I would probably still feel good about it. Because, hey, they're our neighbors across the street over there. 11:30 Saturday morning it will be time to play."
CONTACT SPORT: Given issues with injuries on either side of the ball the previous three years, it's somewhat surprising that Mississippi State has as much contact as in-season practices feature. Rarely if ever in full gear, save for the reserves/redshirts scrimmaging on Mondays. But still the Bulldogs don't shy away from hitting one another no matter how much or little padding they wear.
Croom seems surprised that this isn't the norm everywhere, too. "I was watching the games of the weekend and somebody said they didn't hit in practice during the season. I said whoa! That ain't going to happen around here, we're a physical football team. I don't know how you stay sharp and be a physical football team without doing that. I thought I was giving them a break by not putting on full pads, obviously I'm not in the 21st Century yet when it comes to football practice!"
The coach is exaggerating that case somewhat as there are plenty of non-pads days in the practice week, particularly after mid-October. Still DE Titus Brown says "I think all our practices are physical. We treat practices like games so we use that as preparation for Saturday. We try to make it as intense as possible so it will carry over to the game." And just to get back in the swing of things after a weekend break the Bulldogs went somewhat longer and hit a little harder, in just helmets and shoulder pads, than typical for the start of game-week.
"Monday is usually a light day but we kind of diverted the schedule so it was more intense than usual."
NO REGRETS: Speaking of the free weekend, Brown did indeed go home to Tuscaloosa but did not attend the LSU-Alabama game played in town. "I'd planned to go but didn't. I stayed home and watched. It was a very physical game and both parties got after it. With a game like that somebody has to lose and unfortunately Alabama lost to them."
That ‘unfortunately' comment might surprise fans who'd figure Brown would hold a grudge against the home-town team for not signing him. Maybe once upon a time, but now the senior is content with how his college career has played out at State. "If I could I wouldn't change a thing," he said. Of course it helps that Brown was able to score a win against Alabama last November, and do it at the stadium five minutes away from his home.
Here a year later, though, the senior and MSU captain puts the past in big-picture terms…just like this final rematch. "It was a big win and a turning point for this program. But we have to play them like any other week. That's last year, we're not concerned about last year."
BUSINESS MEN: Instead, State is entirely focused on this week's opponent over this month's opportunity…or at least they'd better be, according to SLB Gabe O'Neal. "You just can't lose focus. One play, this play. So we take one day, every day, every game the same. You can't look at who you're playing, bowl projections, none of that. You have to play your game and worry about not beating yourself."
It's easier said than done of course. Especially with the fuss and frenzy these players are suddenly dealing with.
"It's crazy, the fans and students," O'Neal said. "You see campers pulling in already, the game is sold-out, everything is falling in place for a great game." How great, Gabe? "It's probably going to be the most important game that I've ever played in since I've been here. I'm looking forward to it."
Thus the fine-line taken by State's staff ever since the fifth victory was secured and bowl-eligibility became a realistic goal for November. But still a goal, O'Neal notes. "It's nothing guaranteed. We can win, they can win so it's an even slate. Whoever comes out and performs the best."
When O'Neal and fellow seniors speak of this as the "most important game" of their college careers, it leads to an interesting question. Who is more at-risk of losing day-to-day focus, an old Dog who finally have the chance to earn a post-season berth or the pup who haven't endured long years of frustration? O'Neal is certain.
"A new kid. Because they haven't been through what we've been through. You finally get there and you have to stay focused. The younger guys come from high school and winning a lot of games, so they don't know how it feels to lose."
Happily, O'Neal and his handful of classmates—there are only a dozen seniors on the '07 roster—are at last enjoying the feeling of success. If, that is, they can get the job done this November. It's clear what O'Neal anticipates. "I'm just looking forward to going out with a bang."
IN THE HOUSE: As of Tuesday three bowls had requested credentials for a representative to attend this weekend's game: the Chik-fil-A, Independence, and Liberty.