Bulldogs face 'big time' stretch

[MSU-UGA PC main story]

By Gregg Ellis

Daily Journal

STARKVILLE – Some would call Mississippi State's schedule the next three weeks brutal.

Not Sylvester Croom.

Instead, the second-year coach refers to the slate of games as big time.

Beginning Saturday with No. 7 Georgia at Scott Field, MSU faces three straight teams currently ranked in the Top 10 of the Associated Press Poll.

After the Dawgs is a date with No. 3 LSU, while a visit to No. 5 Florida concludes the rigid run.

“I'm probably not very popular in the SEC offices,” Croom joked.

Then again, maybe he wasn't joking.

It's rare enough to play three teams ranked at any spot during the course of a season.

But three in the Top 10? And in a row?

It's a first in school history for MSU if the polls don't dramatically alter by the time the Bulldogs head to Gainesville.

“Well, that is just part of playing in the Southeastern Conference,” said Croom, whose team is 2-1 after knocking off Tulane 21-14 this past Saturday. “It's going to happen when you play in this league, and it's a great challenge for us.

“If you want to play big time college football, this is what you have to do, and we have that opportunity now. We have to focus on the first one right now and take them one at a time.”

Few prognosticators will give the Bulldogs any chance at pulling off an upset against any of these upper-echelon programs.

Croom and his players understand that.

But at the same time, they are quick to remind everyone what unfolded the last time a ranked team invaded Scott Field.

That would have been Florida last October.

The Gators were ranked No. 20 at the time and heavily favored. But when the final horn sounded, they exited the field with a humbling 38-31 loss.

Two days later, third-year coach Ron Zook was canned.

“It's three tough games on the schedule, but you have to play them,” senior running back Jerious Norwood said. “You have to stay focused the best you can.

“We beat one of the better teams in the country last year, and that did a lot for our confidence.”

Senior defensive end Willie Evans, who was tabbed the SEC's defensive player of the week on Monday after recording a career-best 10 tackles and four sacks against Tulane, defined the next three weeks as a challenging.

He also said he expects all three games to be physical.

“The training room better be ready,” he said with a smile.

A look back

Last season, the Bulldogs played three ranked teams, losing to Auburn and LSU before upsetting Florida. But not since 2001 have they played back-to-back ranked opponents. After losing to South Carolina 16-14 that year, MSU was blown out 52-0 at No. 2 Florida.

In 2000, State battled No. 3 Florida and No. 15 Auburn in consecutive weeks, winning both outings.

The Bulldogs have played three ranked opponents in as many weeks, but they weren't all ranked in the Top 10. The last time that happened was at the end of the 1999 campaign when they lost to No. 11 Alabama 19-8 and No. 22 Arkansas 14-9 before upending No. 23 Ole Miss, 23-20.

“I look at it as a great challenge, but more than anything, it is a great opportunity for us,” said Croom. “It will be great exposure for our program and will give our players a chance to showcase their skills and character.”

Saturday's 8:07 p.m. game with the Bulldogs will be televised by ESPN2. The LSU game will not be televised, while a decision regarding the Florida game will be made on Monday.

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