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Coaches say UK-Mississippi State outcome will decide seasons

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - There were no platitudes or coaches'
cliches this week from Mississippi State's Sylvester Croom or Rich
Brooks of Kentucky.
At this point in the season, there is no time for mixed messages
as the Southeastern Conference teams prepare to play Saturday in
Starkville.
"For both of us this will probably be the defining moment of
our seasons based on the outcome," Croom said. "If either of us
has any chance remaining to get into a bowl game, this is an
important game."
And this from Brooks: "Obviously this is as big a game for us
as it is for Mississippi State. Both of us are coming off of bowl
wins a year ago and we want to get back to postseason play. So as
the season goes into later stages, each win is critically important
and each loss takes you further away from your goal."
The bowl picture becomes dire for Saturday's loser. Mississippi
State (3-5, 1-3 SEC) must win three of its last four games to gain
six wins and bowl eligibility. That stretch includes No. 2 Alabama.
Kentucky (5-3, 1-3) only needs one win to reach the minimum, but
has three tough games against Georgia, Vanderbilt and Tennessee to
end the season.
The SEC has nine bowl tie-ins, but with a month to go none of
the 12 teams has been eliminated.
After a season marked by a lack of focus and a search for
leadership, Mississippi State's players say the message is finally
sinking in. The Bulldogs are dangerously close to tossing away all
the promise and good feelings they gained last year when they went
8-5 and won the Liberty Bowl.
There's only one way to regain the magic.
"We're just looking at it like a playoff to get into a big
bowl," said Bulldogs middle linebacker Dominic Douglas.
"It's a must. This is my senior year and I just want to end my
senior year with a bang. Going to a bowl game would be it. Every
senior on the team is looking forward to it, knowing that it can be
done."
After starting 1-4, the Bulldogs finally seem to be finding
their way. They've won two of their last three and had their best
offensive game in a 31-22 win over Middle Tennessee State.
Kentucky has been on an opposite track. The Wildcats started the
season a fast 4-0, but have lost three of their last four. After
close losses to Alabama and South Carolina, Kentucky scored a
come-from-behind win over Arkansas and Brooks thought the team was
on the right track.
"Then up jumped the devil last week and we got just blown
out," Brooks said of the 63-5 loss to Florida.
Since then much of the team's time with the media has been
consumed with talk of that beating.
"Every loss is hard to get over, but it is how we lost that is
harder to get over," defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin said. "A lot
of us were embarrassed because people know who you are around here
and I don't want to face the fans that we let down."
Saturday's winner likely will be the team that can manage just a
little bit of offense in the face of two stiff defenses. The
Bulldogs are averaging 11 points per game in SEC play. The Wildcats
aren't much better at 14 a game.
Croom has been searching his roster for a little speed to
bolster his sluggish offense. Brooks, meanwhile, went so far as to
replace quarterback Mike Hartline with freshman speedster Randall
Cobb this week.
Brooks hopes Cobb can make up for a lack of experience with a
few blazing runs through the Mississippi State defense.
"I wish I had about five of him," Brooks said. "He's really
done a remarkable job for a true freshman handling everything we've
thrown at him and asked of him. He's mature beyond his years."

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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