"The Culmination Of A Very Exciting Year"

They had two weeks of work on campus, and five more days of practices in Memphis. Now, it's time for Mississippi State to play the game. The AutoZone Liberty Bowl game, that is, tomorrow afternoon. The Bulldogs will have an afternoon walk-through at the Liberty Bowl, then go into the normal pre-game routine for this abnormal but welcome post-season situation.

Friday afternoon, prior to that final on-field, Coach Sylvester Croom met with media to talk about Mississippi State's week of practices, about the matchup with Central Florida, and the mindset of the program for both this game and even the coming spring session.

Croom: We're about to get down to game time. It's been a great week, speaking for myself and our coaches and our players we have really enjoyed this week. I was sitting here thinking it seems like it was just yesterday we were at the SEC meetings in Birmingham. It's been a long season but in lot of ways it's gone by fast. And it's been a very eventful year. Tomorrow is the culmination of a very exciting year for all of us. And we're glad to be here and have it come at this Liberty Bowl. W're looking forward to the game tomorrow.

A group of us went out St. Jude's today. That's an added benefit of the game for all of us, knowing that playing the game is going to benefit those kids and families that are out there. And it simply makes you realize how blessed you are, that nothing we go through no matter how difficult it is, no matter how tough it gets, when you've got your health and your family is well and you have friends…as important as we make these games it's not the most important thing in the world. But we're excited about being here and what playing tomorrow can benefit for the city of Memphis and St. Judes and for all across the world by what St. Judes does.

As far as our preparation for the game, I feel we'll be ready. I'm extremely pleased with way our practices have worked out. We've accomplished the goal of getting our younger players better, also getting the guys who are going to do the bulk of the playing ready. I think we developed some of our second-line guys and guys who in my mind were probably third-line guys, I feel a lot more confident about playing. A guy like Brandon Henderson who would probably be the odds-on favorite going into spring practice to be our number-one tight end. Just based on practices for this game I have confidence in playing Brandon tomorrow. In the past I wouldn't have said that.

That's the benefit of having bowl practices, not just the reward of being in a bowl game. It is a huge, huge advantage as far as preparation for the next season and being able to see guys like that.

I think we've gotten better, particularly offensively. I think our execution seems to be better than it was prior to the Ole Miss game, I expect us to play better. Of course we've been off for a while, like Central Florida has been. We've got to get back in flow of playing, no matter how much you practice it's not like a game. So I'm sure there will be a lot of extra enthusiasm which could translate into some errors, or a little timing might be off early in the game. Because I'm sure both teams excited about playing again. But once we get settled back in after a series or so I think everything will get back in the normal flow of the football game.

Q: Do you feel any time a SEC team plays a non-BCS team in a bowl, there is more motivation for the non-BCS team?

Croom: That's always. When we play non-conference games during the season, because our conference has the reputation—we think rightfully so—of being the toughest conference in the country, everybody is trying to make a reputation on us. And that's a challenge we like, we don't make any bones about it. We think we're a tough conference. That's not to say one team is particularly better than another team, but to play in our conference week-in and week-out against the level fo competition, we don't think any conference plays that type of competition. That's the way we feel and we're not ashamed of feeling that way.

Q: You've played great running backs like Steve Slaton and Darren McFadden, how does Kevin Smith compare?

Croom: Kevin Smith is one of the better backs we're played But we have played good running backs before. We do have a great deal of respect for him, a great deal of respect for the UCF running game, for their entire football team. But we have played once of the toughest schedules in the country. We're not intimidated or in fear of anybody because we have played the best. We played the best team in the country, they're in the BCS championship game, on opening day and we held our own. We don't fear anybody. We have great respect for anybody we play and we respect Kevin, and we respect the entire UCF football team. I have a great deal of respect for what George (O'Leary) has done with that program. But at this point in the game, with the schedule we've played, we're not afraid of anybody.

Q: A lot of players could have left in the last few seasons, what does it say about those who stayed?

Croom: It says that they're winners. It says they've got a lot of mental toughness, a lot of character about them. That they were able to set goals and had the strength of character to stick to it. And I think it's going to serve them well in their life outside football.

Q: How do you feel about being the underdog in this game?

Croom: Well, we're used to being the underdog. I guess that's still how it is in the rest of the country for whatever reason. Maybe because of our stats and we're not one of those high-scoring teams, that's not the way we play games, we still don't get the respect that our schedule and the fact we won seven games I think it deserves.

We're probably not as pretty as some other teams are. Pretty doesn't bother me, as long as after the game is over we're celebrating in our locker room that's all that's important to me. Style points don't mean anything to me, as long as at the end of the day we've got one more than they do and we've played as good as we can play that's all that's important to me.

Q: How much does getting back in post-season play mean to the program?

Croom: It means a great deal to us. We're very proud of a group of hard-working people. We're just common folk that work hard and want to be the best at what we do. A lot of people have worked awful hard to get us here, they've been very patient. It's been a seven-year drought, so the fact that we're here now has created a lot of enthusiasm in the Mississippi State family. The fact that we're here in the Liberty Bowl, that it's close by and in our state for all practical purposes, just everything has sort of come together for us. And hopefully we'll play as good as we can play and win the ball game and our people can really have a great celebration tomorrow.

Q: What will be like coaching against George O'Leary after coaching with him?

Croom: It's going to be a great challenge because he is one of the better coaches in the country, I have a great deal of respect for him. His philosophy, our thought processes on the way the game should be played and should be coached are very similar. I have some idea of what we're going to be up against, his team is well-coached in all three phases, they're a very disciplined, tough football team. And that's the way we like to play. So it's going to be a pretty even football game tomorrow.

We had good times. The great thing about it is the first two years there we were rebuilding a program San Diego under Bobby Ross, who I have a great deal of respect for. The first year we startedout 0-4 and we made the playoffs, we lost one more game the rest of the season and still I think are the only NFL team to do that. It was a great learning experience for all of us, we had outstanding coaches; Bill Arsnparger, Ralph Friedjen, John Fox, really a lot of good football minds on that staff. We were always competing against each other on and off the field, we played a lot of golf together, but we were always sharing ideas and learning from each other. So it was a good experience.

Q: How difficult was it to not stray from your plan the last three-four years?

Croom: Of course you're always going to get challenged on what you believe in. That's what I was taught very early at home by my Dad and later on from Coach Bryant, if you're in a leadership position you better know what it is that you truly believe in. Because there are a lot of people out there that are going to tell you it's not right. You are always going to be challenged in every aspect of what you are doing.

But I felt from my experiences as a player, as an assistant coach, as a coordinator, having been around some of the better minds in the game, having gone against some of the better minds in the game and having put together a plan that I felt I could live with, what I truly believed in as far as coaching college football players…once we set out on this mission there was no way I was going to change. My philosophy was simply this; if my plan doesn't work, then it doesn't work, I've had my opportunity to do it my way. If I get fired I can live with that because I got the chance to do it my way. I would rather do it that way and it not work than compromise and have it work, because I can live with myself. And I haven't had a problem sleeping over the last four years because I've had a chance to do it my way. I've had a lot of criticism, people didn't understand, I've been called stubborn and a lot of those things. But it's not that, it's just that I believe in doing things a certain way. If I can't do it this way then I really don't want to be in it.

Q: Is this going to be a more simple game plan for the bowl than you've had this year?

Croom: It's not going to be a lot different than what we've done any other time. The thing we've really tried to do, in all three phases, is just get better at what we do. At this point of the season you're not going to change the identity of what you are. George is not going to change, we're not going to change. There will be a few wrinkles, because we've had so much time off. You put things in as much as anything else to keep players from getting bored! I'm sure both sides will open up things more, there'll be some things that both of us probably do that we haven't done in the season. But the basic philosophy of who we are: running the football, being physical on offense, not turning the football over, playing sound gap-control and run defense, being sound in the kicking game, that's who we are, both teams. And that's probably what you'll see tomorrow.

Q: Do you have anything special to tell Wesley Carroll to do tomorrow?

Croom: Yeah, don't throw the ball to the other team! Just make sure you throw it to the guys in Maroon, and the one's that open. If we do that we'll be OK.

Q: Will Carroll continue to get better?

Croom: Yeah, Wes will get better. I think he's gotten better since the Ole Miss game with the rest. See, Wes had a shoulder operation after he signed with us. He really wasn't 100% when we came back to practice. His footwork has got to get a lot better in the off-season. His body is going to get more mature and get stronger. There's no question he will get better, but he will have competition next year. Mike Henig has thrown a lot better in the bowl preparation. Chris Relf continues to improve. Going into spring practice Wes will be our #1 quarterabck until somebody else shows they can put the ball in the end zone better than he does, and that's what he does best. But we will have quality depth there next year and good competition in the spring.

Chris has been our scout-team guy most of the year, he and Mike have split those duties in the bowl preparation.

(Note: after the press conference, Croom confirmed that junior Josh Riddell is still in the rehabilitation process from his October knee ligament tear and surgery, and it will be difficult for him to be able to participate in spring drills due to the early start of camp.)

Q: Who is the better golfer, you or Coach O'Leary?

Croom: Well, considering I haven't played in two years I think anybody else in this room is right now!

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