JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -They suffered through 37 sometimes embarrassing losses at Mississippi State and four losing streaks of four games or more. They watched as NCAA sanctions and defections ravaged the program. They endured sharp criticism from fans and foes - though mostly from fans.
Members of the group defensive end Avery Hannibal calls ``the last of the Sherrill boys'' believe it's all been worth it, though. The nine fifth-year seniors who were in former coach Jackie Sherrill's last recruiting class have led the Bulldogs to four wins in a season for the first time since 2000.
They even received Top 25 votes this week.
``For these guys it's a ray of sunshine,'' Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom said. ``They've never been in this position before. They've never been in the position before where at the halfway point during the season they have a realistic goal of having a chance to become bowl eligible. And that's a strong motivation for those guys.''
The Bulldogs (4-2, 1-2 SEC) begin their search for the two wins they need to go to a bowl for the first time since the 2000 Independence Bowl with No. 25 Tennessee (3-2, 1-1) on Saturday in Starkville.
It's the first of three straight games against ranked opponents for the Bulldogs. But after all the years of losing, Mississippi State's most senior players feel they can find those two wins over the final six games.
``We do feel confident,'' center Royce Blackledge said. ``We feel like we've got a better football team than we've had since coach Croom's been here. We've definitely got some tough opponents in the next six-game stretch, but we feel like if we bring our best out and don't make mistakes and execute what we've been taught, we'll win some football games.''
The other Mississippi State players from Sherrill's last class are defensive back Demario Bobo, tight ends Eric Butler, Dezmond Sherrod and Jason Husband, wide receivers Lance Long and Tyler Threadgill and running back Justin Williams
That kind of confidence has been rare in Starkville. A year after the fifth-year seniors joined the team in 2003, the university admitted to secondary recruiting violations and the NCAA placed the team on probation for four years.
Not only did the school lose millions in bowl revenue, but its scholarships and on-campus recruiting visits were cut. That put Croom and the Bulldogs at a disadvantage and they remained at the bottom of the conference standings for three years.
The loss of talent led to some embarrassing moments - a 2004 loss to I-AA opponent Maine, a seven-game losing streak in 2005 and last year's home loss to Tulane among them. The Bulldogs had lost 11 of 13 games at home through the season-opening 45-0 loss to No. 1 LSU.
For Blackledge, the bottom came last season when the Bulldogs lost four games by three points.
``When you don't win but three football games in a season and you have that many close ballgames, it's hard to overcome that,'' Blackledge said. ``But we put that behind us and this is a new year.''
And so it has been. Excluding the turnover-fueled loss to LSU, Mississippi State has overcome challenges it could not conquer in the past and hasn't made the costly mistakes that doomed previous seasons.
The Bulldogs have built a modest two-game home win streak this season and an upset of Auburn on the road has helped Mississippi State remain confident despite again enduring a three-player injury shuffle at quarterback that scuttled last season.
``Attitude. That's what's different,'' said Hannibal, a defensive end. ``People out here want to win. They're trying to win. They want to do better. They want to help each other out.''

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