In fact, the former Crimson Tide center can draw some clear—and for his current club, uncomfortable—comparisons to elite Alabama teams of the past. Such as, his own 1973 team that won a national crown. Lots has changed in the 35 years since, of course, but Croom appreciates the fundamental common fact. "First of all, they're not beating themselves. That's the most notable thing."
Just the opposite, in fact, as Alabama converted two LSU turnovers—one directly—into the decisive touchdowns that kept the Tide on their title track. Giving the football away is a sure route to defeat in this matchup, Croom notes…not that the Alabama defense necessarily needs turnovers to win a game of course. The unit is capable of controlling play straight-up, starting with the sort of run-stuffing that dictates how opponents have to attack. And with the return to health of man-mountain nose tackle Terrence Cody running the ball is problematic at best.
Croom calls Cody a good three-gap player, and it's not too far-fetched to think the coach means this big kid fills three whole gaps. "He's a run-stopper but he moves quick enough to get some pressure. He's an unusual athlete for a man that size. He eats up a lot of space inside. And a lot of blocks." So the Bulldog offense will have to plan on putting the ball in the air…but carefully, with Rashad Johnson prowling the secondary. "You better not overthrow the football and there better not be any tips back there, because he's going to come up with it," Croom said. "The quarterbacks have got to have god ball location or throw it away, and the receivers have got to catch it or it goes to the ground."
For their part the Bulldog defense is up against a complete package, starting with Alabama's league-leading ground game. Backs get the stats but the blocking gets Croom's credit, especially on their strongest side. "They're all good but those two guys (the center and left tackle) are special. They ran almost 30 times to the left against LSU, and I think four times to the right." The backs themselves don't do much left or right but charge straight downhill.
"That keeps the other team's offense off the field and wears down the defense." And, keeps coverage honest for quarterback John Parker Wilson to take his time and pick his targets. "He's not making mistakes," Croom said. "He's a senior and there's a big difference in that senior year. He's had the strength and character to overcome it all and he's a key part to their success this year." So is the addition of touted rookie receiver Julio Jones who has more than lived up to billing. State's staff scouted him as a high school sophomore and aren't surprised how Jones has thrived. "If the ball is in his area he gets it or nobody gets it," Croom said. "He's learned to use his size and strength subtly already."
"And their kicking game gets them in good field position and bails them out of trouble. So they're a solid football team top to bottom, and very talented on top of that."
Of course Alabama had lots of talent the past couple of seasons, too. Yet in both 2006 at Tuscaloosa, and last November here at home, Mississippi State found ways to win. Especially on defense, because each year the pivotal play was provided by a Bulldog picking off a Wilson pass and returning it for a touchdown. In 2007, it was a 100-plus-yard return by cornerback Anthony Johnson just before halftime that turned back Tide momentum. Another pick early in the second half, by safety Derek Pegues, set up the go-ahead and only offensive touchdown of the Dog's day.
Such events can't be game-planned of course. But Croom and staff have gone over the '07 tape thoroughly to judge Alabama schemes. And this past weekend's LSU game tape has been evaluated practically from the instant overtime ended. "We're trying to find any kind of edge we can," Croom said. For that matter the Bulldogs used last week's open date to get a preparation edge on this matchup. During those three practice days the emphasis was on first- and second-down situations, meaning this Monday's work can immediately turn to "an early start on our base gameplan and third down and strike packages," Croom said.
A free week has helped take care of some physical issues with the squad. Gimpy Dogs such as OG Mike Gates, TE Nelson Hurst, TE Brandon Henderson, S Pegues, and WLB Karlin Brown were expected to be ready for Monday work. "We're as healthy as we can be," Croom said. "Got to see how it goes the rest of the week."
And, the rest of the season. Mississippi State has no margin left in terms of breaking even for 2008 or in bowl eligibility. And coming off a disheartening 14-13 loss to Kentucky a natural degree of frustration is to be expected. Especially coming off a 2007 season where, such as in that win over Alabama, so much went right—or was somehow made right—by an opportunistic bunch of Bulldogs. Expectations for better things in '08 were expressed by players and coach alike, especially with proclaimed gains in general athleticism across the roster.
Instead the campaign got off-track from opening night and this squad has struggled to right the route since. Croom insists that in terms of general talent the program is in better condition than just a year ago. "I think we've made significant improvement from where we were, in all areas," he said this morning. As far as (the difference in results) from last year, I'm frustrated because some things haven't happened as we planned.
"But I am pleased with our kids, they're playing extremely hard and are fighting all the way to the end. So there's definitely been a change in attitude." And, he repeated, a change in overall ability. "We've got a lot of young talent that we've redshirted, so our talent level is improved even though we're holding them out this year. With the two recruiting classes we've had, and what we think we'll have this year, we feel the program is in good shape." And speaking of recruiting, without using any names of course, Croom believes that will play out well over the winter. Only one prospect originally declared for State has backed away over the course of the season, and not from actual scoreboard results as perception in style.
"So our guys are holding," Croom said. "They're pretty much all here on our campus for our games. It's a strong group and there are other guys we're looking at and would like to have. If we can land those guys it will give us three good years back-to-back and give us some quality depth and a chance to build for the future."
It's the present that demands this week's immediate attention, as Mississippi State lines up against the top-rated club in the country. Interestingly, Croom has some experience in such a matchup, though from the other side of the equation. He was coaching for his alma mater back in 1980 when #1 Alabama came to Jackson, Miss., to play some unranked Bulldogs. That 6-3 loss still stings, even if Croom now works for that day's victor. "It cost us a national championship," he noted.