Sylvester Croom isn't oblivious to the significance of his hiring at Mississippi State. After all, it was a historic move for the university to name the 49-year-old Bear Bryant prodigy the first black head football coach in the Southeastern Conference.
Yes, he's proud of that distinction. But at the same time, he knows all too well the bottom line isn't the color of his skin. It's wins and losses.
"When my contract is up, no one is going to care what color I am," said Croom, who replaced Jackie Sherrill after spending the past 17 years as an NFL assistant. "All they're going to care about is the number of wins. I'll guarantee you that."
There's no question he's facing a yeoman's task. The Bulldogs haven't been able to escape the cellar of the Western Division the past three seasons, posting a horrid 8–27 mark during that span, including just three wins in league play.
But Croom is quick to point out that he would not have taken the job if he didn't think he could win.
OffenseMississippi State was the least productive team in the SEC last year, averaging just 18.8 points and 320.7 yards of total offense a game.
For those statistics to improve, the offensive line must continue to develop and provide better protection, while it's imperative that first-year quarterback Omarr Conner keep his mistakes at a minimum.
In the spring, pass protection proved to be the O-line's nemesis. Conner, on the other hand, showed improvement adjusting to the new West Coast offense as the spring progressed. "You could tell he was getting more comfortable," Croom said. "He got a lot quicker with each practice, and his timing picked up."
The good news for Conner is that Jerious Norwood appears poised for a breakthrough season. The junior running back may be the best-kept secret in the SEC. His elusive style of running, coupled with his cat-like speed, should alleviate a lot of pressure off the passing game.
The receiving corps also will play a key role, especially if flanker Ray Ray Bivines recovers fully from a torn hamstring.
DefenseThere's no question the strength of Mississippi State's defense is up front, starting with senior tackle Ronald Fields. He emerged from spring as one of the more dominant players and answered the call for him to showcase leadership abilities. His coaches also say he's the type of player who can take over a game.
"I think everyone around this program has known that physically he could be a heck of a player in this league," first-year defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. "Ronald is one of those guys you can build a program around."
Of course, success will depend on more than just the play of Fields.
The linebacker trio of Clarence McDougal, Brad Horton and Marvin Byrdsong has shown the tenacity of being run-stoppers, but how the linebackers play the pass is going to be pivotal.
Defending the pass is also going to be key for the secondary, which gave up more than its share of bombs last season. But the experience of safety Darren Williams and cornerback Kevin Dockery should make for an improved product.
SpecialistsFor the past two seasons, Mississippi State never had to worry about field goals. Now that Brent Smith is no longer around, kicks might not be as automatic as they used to be. However, it is Keith Andrews' hope that coaches will have that type of confidence in him.
Confidence won't be lacking when it comes to punting thanks to senior Jared Cook. In 41 punts last year, he averaged 41.5 yards.
The return men, Fred Reid and Tee Milons, could make Saturday afternoons exciting for the Maroon-and-White faithful.
Final AnalysisBased on the slow progression of the offense in the spring, if the Bulldogs are to escape the West cellar, the defense will have to carry the team. Fields will have to live up to his newfound expectations, and the defense must find a way to limit big plays.
Still, the offense will have to shoulder a portion of the load. For that to happen, Conner must continue to improve at a rapid pace, while Norwood will have to overcome a shaky line to create opportunities for himself. Otherwise, another last-place finish is inevitable.