Long Time Coming

Mississippi State bowl eligible for first time since 2000, but not assured of postseason

Nov. 23, 2007

By Adam Caparell

CSTV.com



ADAM CAPARELL

Adam is CSTV.com's football editor and national football writer.
E-mail here!

 

It's been a long four years in Starkville, but finally the fruits of Sylvester Croom's labor seem to be paying off.

 

After three years that saw the Bulldogs win a combined nine games, Croom has led Mississippi State to a 6-5 record meaning that for the first time since 2000 the Bulldogs are bowl eligible and thinking about the postseason.

 

The only problem is they may have picked a bad year to have a good season.

 


 

 

Heading into the weekend, a record 10 SEC teams are bowl eligible and Vanderbilt could become the 11th if it wins its game against Wake Forest Saturday. But since the conference has only eight bowl tie-ins that means the Bulldogs could be on the outside looking in at a postseason berth. Especially if they can't secure a crucial seventh victory.

 

"Our destiny is in our own hands. We can take care of it," Mississippi State Athletic Director Larry Templeton said. "I think if we have seven wins, with the success and what we've accomplished by beating two Top 25 teams during the year, I think there would be a great deal of interest in us. We just have to see it play out. But I feel good about where we are and the opportunities we'll have."

 

The Bulldogs clinched bowl eligibility with their upset win of Alabama three weeks ago, but then fell to Arkansas last week leaving them in a precarious position considering the SEC bowl picture is nothing short of a jumbled mess as they head into a season finale Egg Bowl matchup with Ole Miss.

 

There's potential that six teams could finish with a 7-5 record Saturday in the final weekend of the conference's regular season. And if Vanderbilt were to win there could be seven teams vying for the four bowl slots left open after LSU, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida have already clinched a bowl berth.

 

So that leaves Alabama, Auburn, Kentucky, South Carolina and Mississippi State - and of course, potentially Vandy - vying for the four remaining spots. Something has to give and chances are someone's heart will be broken. The Bulldogs just hope it's not theirs.

 

"We're fighting to ensure ourselves a bowl game," Croom said.

 

But chances are Mississippi State will be bowling for several reasons if it can win its seventh game Friday night. The Bulldogs are an attractive team because it's been seven years since they've been to a bowl game and Templeton believes that's going to carry a lot of weight with bowl selection committees. Also, the Bulldogs' fan base - which has traveled well to bowl games in the past - would likely flock to wherever the team ends up.

 

"I think our track record when we were going to bowl games and carrying 20,000 fans will speak for itself," Templeton said. "Fortunately for us, we're within driving distance of four of those five bowls we're talking to."

 

Templeton has had discussions with representatives from the Cotton Bowl on down to the Independence Bowl. The Bulldogs won't be heading to the Cotton Bowl - the loss to Arkansas assured that - but they're likely to land in either the Liberty, Music City or Independence, the sixth, seventh and eighth SEC selections, with the Independence likely having to choose one team or another.

 

"We've had conversation," Templeton said. "We understand the pecking order of the conference and how it works. We'll be within that system, but most of those bowls have been to see us. Those relationships go back a long way."

 

The other thing going for the Bulldogs is Croom. Widely regarded as one of the true gentlemen in the game, there's a significant amount of sentiment around the country that would love to see the first black coach in SEC history make it to a bowl game.

 

"I think all of those come into play. I'd be naive if I didn't think that," Templeton said. "What I have sensed happening is that everybody is pulling for this guy to be successful. Not because he's the black football coach. Because of the integrity and character of the man and the way he's gone about doing it."

 

Templeton and Croom have a lot of respect for each other, so much so that Templeton gave Croom a game ball following the win over Alabama.

 

"Larry's meant a great deal to me," Croom said. "The game ball was significant because of all we've been through the past four years."

 

Ever since Croom came to campus from the NFL's Green Bay Packers, Templeton has been a big supporter of the coach, helping secure facility improvements and finding ways to make sure Croom has the resources needed to recruit and rebuild the program.

 

"More than anything else he's allowed us to do things the way we talked about when we came in," Croom said.

 

 "When the criticism starts, some people aren't strong enough to withstand it, but I think he's shown a lot of character and strength on that end as far as being a man and being able to withstand the storm and give us the time and everything we've needed to get to this point."

 

Even though Croom has come under fire for his lack of wins his first three seasons, Templeton stuck by him through all the criticism. He knew the rebuilding process would take time and that's precisely what Templeton gave Croom. The coach has done nothing but preach patience while they've revamped the recruiting process and red-shirted almost everyone, preferring to develop the talent slowly. Now Mississippi State is seeing the results they've waited so anxiously, yet patiently, for.

 

"I'm happy for coach Croom and happy for these kids who have stayed the course and believed in the plan," Templeton said. "It's thrilling to seem them have some success with all the hard work they've put in, particularly all the hard work coach has put in rebuilding this football program. He didn't use any quick fixes. He fixed it, carrying us through the long haul and it's paying off."

 

But what if the Bulldogs don't make a bowl game, if no one decides they want them? It could very easily happen. But just how disappointed would Mississippi State be if its season were to end Friday? You might be surprised.

 

"It won't be any disappointment," Templeton said. "I think we have seen success and we have seen that we're close. I've always thought this rebuilding process would take five years. There will be a tremendous amount of excitement about next year's team because we have so many of these young kids coming back."

 

If nothing else for Templeton, it's nice to finally be talking about bowl games again. He's on the phone, shaking hands and working through all the possible scenarios.

 

"It's good to be in those conversations, I'll assure you," Templeton said.

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