"The intensity level, the emotions are so high, that what has happened before, who is having what season really doesn't make any difference." And that includes attitude both on and off the playing field, Croom noted. "I hate to use the word ‘hate' but (for) some people it's about that intense!"
Setting aside, if possible, the rivalry implications, this would have been an intense week already for the Bulldogs. Hopes of securing a seventh win, and effectively insuring a bowl berth, were dashed Saturday afternoon when Arkansas stormed back from an early State score to take a 45-31 win in Little Rock. Now the Dogs have to get lucky #7 against a foe which too-often over the years has gotten better bounces. And while the Rebels have no hope of post-season play, the chance to deny State a holiday trip is that much more motivation in their locker room.
Croom is trying to balance the entire mental approach all week, much as he has since the win at Kentucky put the Bulldogs into the post-season picture. How much to stress the goal of bowling, against the necessity for in-state success? It sounds as if the coach is coming down on the latter, and annual, side of the line.
"This one is tremendous," he said of the Egg Bowl. "It's our rivalry game, it's bragging rights for 365 days. That's more important than anything else. Of course the chance to get seven wins and insure ourselves a bowl bid is a factor, but really it's Ole Miss and nothing else matters beyond that."
Preparing for this opponent would be a challenge even without rivalry implications and bowl amplifications. And Croom is serious about ignoring the Rebel's record as Ole Miss has given SEC heavyweights fits on both sides of the ball. Florida, Alabama, Auburn, and LSU all had to win the fourth quarters to escape with victories.
"I think they're playing very hard," Croom said. "They've been through some struggles but the team is still playing hard. They had every opportunity to win the LSU game, they played at their highest level of the season against the best team in the country." Besides the effort, State's coach is impressed with the improved athletic ability of the roster in general and the defense in particular. "Their team speed is a lot better than last year."
Offensively, during this shortened work-week the Bulldogs are having to practice for two entirely different attacks. Croom expects to see both Seth Adams and Brent Schaeffer playing under-center Friday as the game develops. "The problem with that is you're facing two different offenses," Croom said. "Every offense is dictated by what the quarterback can do, they're going to play to each one's strength.
"There's gong to be more things when Brent is in there to get him on the edge and run the football and break down the defense. Where with Seth in there it's a more disciplined attack, more like a point guard dealing the ball to other people."
By the same token, though, the Rebels are having to invest more of their own planning for a Bulldog attack that has suddenly shown more versatility. After falling behind by more than two touchdowns, State moved out of its standard two-back scheme for single- or no-back sets that meant more throwing than running. In the process freshman quarterback Wesley Carroll wrote his name in the record book for yards, touchdowns, and attempts.
That does not mean State's offensive staff intends to get away from their foundational strength of ground-pounding with halfback Anthony Dixon, who has re-written some records himself this year and should hit the 1,000-yard mark Friday. Asked if they would mix things up more, though, Croom wasn't telling. "We'll do whatever we have to, to give ourselves the best chance of winning the ball game."
But as to the newfound passing prowess, Croom was clear. It is not that State is averse to throwing the ball around; that was shown last season when a healthy veteran quarterback was available. In the '07 case it has been a matter of Carroll's first-year maturation, to the point he can recognize and execute in the sorts of situations Arkansas offered.
"A lot of this is dealing with a freshman quarterback who is a work in progress. We continue to expand the package as he continues to develop. You can't do any more than your quarterback is capable of doing at a given time. No question Wes showed the other day he can do some things in the passing game, but at the same time we have to realize we ended up with four interceptions." Though, Croom added, one came on a last-chance desperation throw and another was an amazing fluke-catch by a linebacker lying on the turf.
Review showed only one of the turnovers, the first one, came from a bad Carroll decision. But it was his only wrong choice, too, which showed the difference Carroll has made on offense. Croom still believes that when the ball goes into the air it can either be good, as in big completions to Jamayel Smith and Tony Burks, or bad, i.e. the four picks. "But no question Wes' capability to do more things has improved as the season has gone on."
And so has Mississippi State's season, and post-season, position. It's still a matter of taking care of business to lock up the latter scenario. The Bulldogs are eligible for a bowl, yet just one of several six-win SEC squads still jostling for position in a packed national picture. That will be in the back of all Bulldog minds this week. In the front?
"If we beat Ole Miss it's a good year, if we don't it's not a good year in my mind, it's that simple," Croom said. "Nothing else matters except what happens Friday morning."
NOTE: The Mississippi State Ticket Office still has a limited number of $40 tickets for the Egg Bowl. The office (662-325-2600) is open the usual hours Monday and Tuesday, and 9:00-to-3:00 Wednesday.