JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -For Mississippi State players, it's time to win one for Sylvester Croom.
With a once-promising season in disarray, the Bulldogs need an improbable upset of top-ranked Alabama for a lot of reasons - to give themselves a long-shot chance at a second straight bowl, to calm down increasingly angry fans and for pride.
``They're the No. 1 team in the nation,'' senior linebacker Dominic Douglas said. ``It don't get no better than this. Just for the team and for coach Croom especially. He's on the hot seat. I know it's frustrating for him, but it's also frustrating for the team to see our coach getting heat like that. We support him. We support everything the coaches do.''
The Bulldogs emerged from NCAA probation last year with the kind of season fans had been craving since 2000. They went 8-5, showed grit in the face of very long odds and won the Liberty Bowl.
ch in the season opener sent fans to the message boards en masse.
A 3-2 loss to Auburn only heightened the pique and a 34-3 loss at Tennessee, a team already out of bowl contention and searching for a new coach, was more fodder for fans fed up with losing.
With the Bulldogs stuck at 3-6, new athletic director Greg Byrne said he hears both sides of the debate over Croom's future.
``A lot of fans have been very frustrated and many fans have also been supportive,'' Byrne told The Associated Press. ``And I think one thing everybody has in common is we all want Mississippi State to strive for excellence, and that is our goal as a department.''
Croom took over a program that was on probation and managed to improve the team's talent level despite sanctions and the Southeastern Conference's smallest budget. And by all accounts, this year's recruiting class will be a doozy and includes a quarterback the team has desperately needed.
By all counts, Croom's made progress in his five seasons.
``The one thing I am pleased with is our kids are playing extremely hard and they are fighting all the way to the end, so that's definitely a change in attitude and the way we go about doing things.
``And that's the key part of moving the program forward. We've got a lot of kids, young talent, that we redshirted, so our talent level has improved even though a lot of those kids we're holding out this year. The two recruiting classes we had and the one we have, I know the program's in good shape,'' Croom said.
He also just signed a contract extension, which would mean a prohibitive buyout if he were let go.
Coaches can't bank on incremental progress or a history of success to save their jobs any more, however. Just up the road in Oxford, Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron was fired last November after three seasons. Phillip Fulmer was canned midseason despite turning the Volunteers into a force over the past 17 seasons. And Ron Prince was let go at Kansas State after just 2 1/2 years.
Patience is no longer a virtue in college athletics. But Byrne is choosing to ignore the vocal minority who want change in Starkville immediately.
``My only quote during the season - and this is for all of our sports - is we're going to sit down at the end of the year and discuss what is going well and what do we need to do to get better and what those steps are to make us better,'' Byrne said. ``During the season we're going to do everything we can to support our student-athletes and our coaches.''
They can help themselves by winning Saturday night at Alabama. Sure, the Crimson Tide is a 20 1/2-point favorite, but an upset isn't such a far-fetched idea. Seems Croom is kryptonite to his alma mater. He's won two straight in the series and could become the first coach to win three of his first five games against Alabama.
Last year's 17-12 win over then-No. 21 Alabama was a signature win for the Bulldogs. They had a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown and wore down the Tide with a punishing running game and an unbreakable defense.
Mississippi State players are approaching this week with the kind of confidence a losing team doesn't usually show. Though the Bulldogs went home during the open weekend, most tuned in to last Saturday's Bama-LSU game and openly rooted for the Tide. Text messages and phone calls went back and forth across the South with each momentum shift.
``We were hoping that Alabama won against LSU last weekend because we wanted to face the No. 1 team in the nation on ESPN,'' defensive end Tim Bailey said. ``The whole nation will be watching. This is the same team we played last year. I feel like if we play like we did last year, if we catch that fire and enthusiasm we had last year, we have a good chance of winning.''

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