JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Sylvester Croom is widely regarded as the man who pushed the first domino in the chain of events last year that led to the firing of Alabama coach Mike Shula.
Yet, the Mississippi State coach takes no pleasure in that kind of talk as the anniversary of the Bulldogs' watershed 24-16 victory in Tuscaloosa approaches.
``I think some of that tells you where our program still is, the fact that they would fire the coach just because Mississippi State won the ball game,'' Croom said. ``That still says that we don't get a lot of respect. To that program that was the bottom, the worst of the worst when Mississippi State can beat you at home.''
Perhaps more than anyone, Croom knows what kind of pain his Bulldogs (5-4, 2-3 Southeastern Conference) inflicted on the 21st-ranked Crimson Tide (6-3, 4-2) faithful last year. Raised in Tuscaloosa, Croom played and coached for Bear Bryant.
He interviewed for the Alabama job after Mike Price was fired amid scandal before he ever coached a game in 2003. However, Alabama hired Shula, a former Tide quarterback and the son of NFL coaching icon Don Shula.
Croom was hired at Mississippi State a year later, becoming the SEC's first black head football coach. He fought through an inherited NCAA probation with the first real hint of a turnaround coming in Tuscaloosa last year.
After the loss, Crimson Tide fans began to wonder aloud if athletic director Mal Moore hadn't chosen the wrong former player, and the team's 6-6 regular-season finish and bowl loss only made the din louder.
Despite his team's winning record this season, Croom still feels the role of underdog weighing heavy on his shoulders as the Crimson Tide comes to Starkville.
He said the Bulldogs are getting respect ``slowly but surely, but you know we've got to win some big games. I mean we've got to do something real special for us to genuinely get respect.''
And here he is, standing at another crossroads in his career with his alma mater figuring prominently in his quest for that respect.
Beat 'Bama on Saturday and he'll have more proof the Bulldogs are ready to win consistently. Mississippi State needs to win one of its three remaining games to clinch bowl eligibility.
Its win total is the best since 2000 and the Bulldogs have done it with a brutal schedule that includes a current four-game stretch against ranked opponents. They are coming off a bye week that was preceded by a 31-14 upset of then-No. 14 Kentucky in Lexington.
Beat the Tide and the Bulldogs will be 2-2 during that stretch. Alabama players say Mississippi State's progress is hard to ignore.
``We can't take this game lightly,'' safety Rashad Johnson said. ``It's not just a win we can mark up on our schedule anymore.''
Tide players learned last year that Croom and the Bulldogs feed off their underdog status.
``They always get up for big teams,'' said Alabama running back Terry Grant, a Lumberton, Miss., native. ``They're just ready to play. They don't want anybody to be over them like they're on another level of school, like this is Alabama, this is Mississippi State. They get up for those kind of things.''
New Alabama coach Nick Saban, the former Michigan State and LSU coach who left the Miami Dolphins for Tuscaloosa after repeatedly denying interest in the job, mostly sidestepped questions about last year's upset this week.
``It's my thing that you look forward, you don't look back,'' Saban said. ``History doesn't have any relevance in terms of what you do and you don't do. Now is what counts.''
And the present looks bright with Saban at the helm of one of the nation's more storied programs. Not everyone at Alabama buys into the Croom theory of Shula's demise. But whatever the reason, most agree the eventual hiring of Saban was a coup.
The Tide is ranked, is second in the SEC West and its three losses came by a total of 17 points to teams that were either ranked or had been ranked this season. Alabama is anything but mediocre and a much different team than the one that fell to Mississippi State last year.
``I wouldn't say (it was the) lowest point, but it hurt,'' linebacker Darren Mustin said. ``It was a tough thing, but we can't live on that. ... The only thing we can do this week is win. That'll heal a lot.''
---
AP sports writer John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Ala., contributed to this report.

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