Alabama vs Michigan State-Cotton Bowl preview

Alabama vs Michigan State: DALLAS — As one Nick Saban assistant (Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart) prepares to leave the nest and take over his own program, another former Saban assistant will try to become the first branch off the Alabama coach’s tree to beat the trunk. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio worked for Saban in East Lansing from 1995-99, but even Saban has admitted that Dantonio has achieved more at the helm of the Spartans than Saban could have dreamed possible when he coached Michigan State.

Alabama vs Michigan State

While the two men have different ideas about how to run a program, their teams play almost like mirror images. They still run pro-style offenses. They still use fullbacks. They build their defenses from the inside out and dare opposing quarterbacks to challenge their cornerbacks in one-on-one coverage. But only one can advance. With a win, Alabama would play for the national title for the fourth time since 2009. Meanwhile, the Spartans will attempt to take yet another step toward the program’s first national title since 1952.

Points of Interest

1. Alabama’s defense ranks 13th in the nation in yards allowed per passing attempt (5.9), but the Crimson Tide have yet to face a quarterback as good as Michigan State senior Connor Cook. Cook’s accuracy has been an issue for most of his career, but his completion percentage on the season (56.9) is lower in part because he doesn’t get to pad his stats with short, easy throws that populate the playbooks of most college offenses. When Cook is on, he can fit passes into windows far narrower than the quarterbacks Alabama faced in the SEC. Smart compared Cook to Matt Ryan at Boston College, and if Cook is on target, he might be able to keep an Alabama safety from drifting into the box. Alabama’s front seven doesn’t need much extra help, but if Cook can’t stretch the field, Michigan State may find it impossible to move the ball. If he can, the Spartans should have an easier time running the ball as well. Cook said this week that the shoulder injury that kept him out against Ohio State on Nov. 21 and limited him against Penn State and Iowa has healed. “I’m feeling great,” Cook said Monday. “I practiced [Sunday] and the day before. Felt really good. The time off, going back home, doing some extra rehab stuff obviously helped out a lot. But shoulder is feeling good.”

2. Alabama rotates eight players among its three defensive line positions and three more at its rush linebacker position, meaning Michigan State’s offensive linemen will face a fresh “creature”—Florida coach Jim McElwain’s word for the Crimson Tide’s defensive linemen—on most snaps. Alabama defensive end A’Shawn Robinson (6’4,’’ 312 lbs) estimated this week that he plays between 30 and 40 snaps in most games. Robinson is a surefire first-round draft pick, but Smart is confident rotating Robinson and fellow end Jarran Reed off the field because there is virtually no dropoff between those two and Jonathan Allen (team-high 12.5 tackles for loss) and Dalvin Tomlinson. “It’s a dog-eat-dog world so in our mind, we’re trying to feast,” Robinson said Monday. “It’s like a pack of wolves out there on the hunt. We’re just trying to go out there and dominate and get after whoever is out there. Our mindset, we see blood and we try to get blood.”

3. The Michigan State defense will have to slow Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, but the Spartans stoned one excellent rushing attack late this season. Ohio State has averaged 5.7 yards a carry over 12 games in 2015 but gained only 2.9 yards a carry against Michigan State. Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin joked Sunday that the Tide will hand the ball more to Henry than Ohio State handed the ball to Ezekiel Elliott in that game (12 carries). Since Henry averaged 37.5 carries in Alabama’s final four SEC games, that’s a near-certainty. But if Michigan State is as stingy as it was against Ohio State or Iowa (2.2 yards a carry), it will force Alabama to try to win the game with quarterback Jake Coker’s arm. The Tide haven’t asked Coker to carry the offense in the fifth-year senior’s first season as a starter, but he might need to in the biggest game of his career. How he responds could decide whether the Tide or Spartans advance.

Burning question

Can Henry continue to carry such a heavy workload and still seemingly get stronger as the game progresses? He logged his largest carry totals in Alabama’s final two games and remained consistent in his ability to gain yards after first contact. On the season, Henry gained 69% of his yards after contact. Against Auburn (44 carries), he gained 68% of his 271 rushing yards after contact. Against Florida (46 carries), he gained 71 percent of his 189 rushing yards after contact.

X-factor

Michigan State receiver Aaron Burbridge has accounted for 21 gains of 20 yards or more, including five touchdowns. His explosiveness will be critical to the Spartans’ ability to put up points on Alabama’s defense

Statistically speaking

Alabama’s defense ranks second in the nation behind Clemson in percentage of three-and-out drives. The Tide have forced three-and-outs on 79 of 180 drives. Not surprisingly, opponents are averaging only 26:07 in time of possession against Alabama.

Final analysis

These two teams look fairly even, so a turnover or two could flip the result. Both teams could struggle early to gain yards on the ground, but don’t be shocked if each continues to pound the ball inside. Since the Tide shifted the emphasis of their offense to Henry following the loss to Ole Miss, Henry has found a way to break defenses. If Alabama’s defense can keep Cook in check, Henry may be able to break the dam late in the game.

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Alabama vs Michigan State Prediction, Cotton Bowl Preview

Alabama vs Michigan State: Michigan State (12-1) played Alabama (12-1) for the first and only time in the 2011 Capital One Bowl – it wasn’t pretty. The stakes are a wee bit higher now than they were in the Crimson Tide’s 49-7 win with both programs shooting for a spot in the national championship. Check out the Alabama vs. Michigan State prediction and preview for the 2015 Goodyear Cotton Bowl matchup.

Alabama vs Michigan State

Alabama vs. Michigan State Game Preview

Broadcast
Bowl Game: Goodyear Cotton Bowl
Date: Thursday, December 31
Game Time: 8:00 ET
Network: ESPN
Venue: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, TX

Follow and/or Contact @PeteFiutak

Why You Need To Care
With only some due respect to that other matchup in Miami Gardens, this is probably your 2015 national championship.

It’s not that Clemson isn’t very good, and it’s not that Oklahoma doesn’t have the talent, but this is the main event between two heavyweights who were supposed to be here from the start – or at least close. One treated its SEC championship win like a business trip, and the other has been knocking on the door of really, really big things for years, and now it’s finally inside.

The 2013 Spartans would’ve been in a four-team playoff, but instead they ended up with a big-step-forward Rose Bowl win that head coach Mark Dantonio said at the time was supposed to be a beginning, not a destination. Last year’s team – at least according to the final College Football Playoff rankings – would’ve made an eight-team playoff if one existed. But now, the program that stepped out of Michigan’s shadow, and proved it could more than handle itself against Ohio State, has its shot.

This Spartans don’t have the talent of the Crimson Tide, and they might not be as flashy as Clemson and Oklahoma, but this is a rock-solid, tremendously-coached, sound team that proved its mettle with a rock-solid, tremendously-coached, sound performance against both Ohio State and, for the most part, against Iowa. Now, this could be the most dangerous team for Alabama to deal with.

MSU has been there before in the big game and the big moment with two Big Ten championships in the last three seasons, a 2014 Rose Bowl, a 2015 Cotton Bowl, and wins over Michigan, Oregon, and Ohio State with each turning into a test of mental toughness. It’s used to being pushed around. It’s used to having to deal with adversity. It’s used to figuring out ways to win no matter what.

Alabama figured out how to win no matter what – just be better than everyone else.

Other than the three losses in that 2010 season that finished up with the angry and cathartic blowout over the Spartans, it’s taken something extraordinary – and sometimes at a historic, all-time level – to beat the Crimson Tide over the last eight seasons. The program has been so good, the coaching so superior, and the talent level so high that there’s absolutely no wiggle room for anything but a national championship at this point.

Before writing this, I was a guest on two different radio shows. Both hosts asked the same sort of question, to paraphrase: “If Alabama loses in the playoff for a second year in a row, does that mean Nick Saban and Alabama are slipping?”

But there is something to the pressure the program is facing. How do you possibly enjoy the ride when anything less than winning a national title is, for all intents and purposes, a failure? Forgetting that Bama was, probably, a kick-six and an Ezekiel Elliott home run away from gunning now for its fifth straight national title, you either win it all, our you don’t. For good and for bad, that’s Alabama football under Saban.

Why Michigan State Will Win

The Spartans do all the little things right.

It’s not going to beat itself with penalties, big turnovers – even though there was a whopper against Iowa – and, most importantly, it’s not going to stall. The offense is fantastic on third downs, and because of it, it’s outstanding at grinding out the clock and controlling the game.

No, the Michigan State offensive line isn’t going to lead the way on a 22-play drive that lasts over nine minutes against Alabama like it did with its epic game-winning march to beat the Hawkeyes, but QB Connor Cook knows how to keep the chains moving. Keep control of the clock, keep the Alabama grinding offense on the sidelines, keep the Spartan defense fresh, and the MSU offense might have the right formula.

Alabama wins on talent, but it also wins with the right formula of cranking out the running game and not screwing up offensively. The Tide lost the turnover margin just twice this year – the loss to Ole Miss and the close-call win over Arkansas. Michigan State is a +16 on the year losing the turnover battle just twice, beating Ohio State and Rutgers, anyway. If Bama is hoping for MSU to melt in the moment, it’s not going to happen.

Why Alabama Will Win

Derrick Henry might be coming into Arlington as the signature star, but with almost a month to prepare, this is a game for the Alabama passing game.

The Michigan State run defense has been fantastic – Air Force was the only team all year to run for more than 200 yards on the Spartans – and this coaching staff will figure out how to gang up on No. 2. However, the MSU secondary is vulnerable and can be picked apart if Jake Coker doesn’t have to press.

The Spartans allowed 200 yards or more in four of the last six games and eight times on the year, partly because no one could run the ball, but also because the pass defense was just that mediocre. The secondary often makes up for mistakes with picks, but considering the Alabama O line has allowed just 19 sacks on the season, and Coker has matured and found ways to make things happen both in and out of the pocket, this should be a balanced Crimson Tide attack.

Michigan State’s biggest problem might be on the other side. The offensive line has been solid at protecting Cook, but this year’s Alabama defense is at a whole other level in terms of its pass rush.

The Crimson Tide haven’t been bad in terms of getting to the quarterback, but they came up with just 22 sacks in 2013 and 31 last year. So far, this year’s defense has cranked up 46 sacks while doing an outstanding job of providing constant pressure. That means Cook has to get the ball out of his hands in a hurry on short to midrange throws, and while he can do that, there won’t be many yards after the catch. Alabama doesn’t miss tackles.

Player Who Matters
Connor Cook was hurting.

He got banged up against Maryland, missed the Ohio State game, came back for the Penn State win, and wasn’t right for the Big Ten championship. He ended up only completing 16-of-32 passes for 191 yards with no touchdowns and a pick, but he came up with two plays that’ll go down among the most important in MSU football history.

Down four late and facing a 3rd-and-8 at midfield, suddenly, the shoulder injury didn’t matter anymore.

He knew where he was going, firing a dart between two Hawkeyes to Aaron Burbridge for a 16-yard gain and the first down with the type of NFL-caliber throw that few college quarterbacks would even attempt, especially in that big a situation. It was the type of throw a veteran with Cook’s resume is used to making.

With less than two minutes to play, MSU had it 4th-and-2 from the Iowa five. Cook, who’s not exactly Keenan Reynolds when it comes to mobility, had the game in his hands running the option to keep the dream alive. That was his play, this was going to be his game to potentially win or lose, and injured wing and all, he barely got it.

Alabama faced Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly, Arkansas’ Brandon Allen and Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott this year, but Cook is probably the best quarterback the program has faced since Johnny Manziel. This has to be Cook’s game, and with time to heal, and with three years of big game preparation, he’s more than ready for a game like this.

But Derrick Henry is getting a month to rest up, too.

Alabama was starting to get a bit banged up and started to look a bit worn halfway through the season in a rough game against Tennessee, but it got two weeks off and then came the boom, taking the heart out of LSU to start a five game run of power offense and lots of thump. With everyone paying attention to Leonard Fournette, Henry dominated the Tigers with 210 yards and three scores on 38 carries, followed it up with 204 yards against Mississippi State, and ended the year with a brutally effective 90 carries for 460 yards and two scores against Auburn and Florida.

Michigan State – like LSU, Mississippi State, Auburn and Florida – will be ready to try stopping Henry. It might not matter.

What’s Going To Happen?
Michigan State isn’t going to be able to run the ball, Alabama isn’t going to be able to go on its typical grinding drives, and each team will have to deal with moments of massive frustration.

MSU is one of the few teams that can hold up on both sides against the toughness of the Crimson Tide lines, and it already proved this season it could handle itself just fine against the ultra-talented, beating Ohio State. Alabama is one of the few teams able to match coaching chops with the Spartans – Mark Dantonio and his staff won’t have any wrinkle that Saban and his group won’t have figured out.

The difference will be Alabama’s reliance on the running game, even when it’s not working.

Urban Meyer, as great as he is, forgot to give the ball to Ezekiel Elliott in the loss, just like he inexplicably quit giving it to Carlos Hyde in the 2013 Big Ten championship defeat. Henry will get stuff early and Michigan State will feed off of it, but as the game goes on, Henry will be more and more effective. However, Cook will be terrific.

Go back to Alabama’s 35-17 opener against Wisconsin. Badger quarterback Joel Stave was shockingly sharp, hitting his midrange throws and keeping the offense moving until Henry and the Tide offense took over in the second half. Expect the same sort of game, only with better quarterback play from the Spartans.

It’s going to be the last game of the 2015 calendar year. It’s going to be the last anything of the year before the ball drops.

It’ll be worth it.

Alabama vs. Michigan State Prediction
Final Score: Alabama 26, Michigan State 20, Line: Alabama -9.5, o/u: 48
Must See Rating: 5: Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens – 1: Property Brothers at Home on the Ranch …

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Alabama vs Michigan State 2015: Early Prediction, Betting Odds For College Football Playoff Semifinal

Alabama vs Michigan State:As they prepare to face No.3 Michigan State in the College Football Playoff Semifinal, No.2 Alabama is a significant favorite to reach the national championship game. While the Crimson Tide has a good chance to defeat the Spartans in the 2015 Cotton Bowl, the contest on New Year’s Eve could be closer than many expect.

Alabama vs Michigan State

Alabama vs Michigan State

In a game between two of the country’s best defenses, points will be at a premium. The over/under is 47, and it could be a struggle for either team to score more than 20 points. Alabama has surrendered more than 15 points just twice this season, and Michigan State has held their last four opponents to 16 points or fewer.

Both teams have one loss on the year. Alabama fell to Ole Miss in September, and they’ve been dominant ever since. Michigan State was barely edged by Nebraska in a 39-38 loss last month.

Las Vegas odds makers have Alabama favored by 9.5 points, according to vegasinsider.com. Only one of their victories was decided by less than 13 points.

Can Derrick Henry be Stopped?

The running back was officially named this season’s best college football player when he won the 2015 Heisman Trophy award, and he might be the most important player in the playoff game. If Henry plays like he has all season, there’s little chance that Alabama will lose.

Henry has been unstoppable, rushing for 1,986 yards and 23 touchdowns on 5.9 yards per carry. He’s gotten better as the season has moved along, rushing for at least 189 yards in five of Alabama’s final seven games. Jake Coker hasn’t put up big numbers in 2015, but it hasn’t mattered because Henry has been so good. The quarterback hasn’t thrown for more than 262 yards in any game, and Henry has rushed for more yards than Coker has thrown in four of Alabama’s last seven games.

Henry faces a tough test against Michigan State, who ranks seventh in rushing yards allowed per game. But he has excelled against top teams, putting up 147 yards on 11.3 yards per carry when facing Wisconsin’s No.4 run defense. The Spartans do have a top defensive line, and they were able to limit Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott to just 33 yards on 12 attempts, giving Michigan State some hope that they can somewhat contain Henry.

In the Trenches

The Spartans have a top defensive line, and it might only be topped by the defensive front of Alabama. The Crimson Tide are terrific in the trenches, and they are almost certain to wreak havoc on Michigan State.

“I’ve never seen one team as loaded from seniors to freshmen as this team is,” one NFL scout told FOX Sports regarding Alabama’s defensive line. “It’s amazing. They’re all huge and they all can move really well.”

Without a top running back like Henry, the Spartans might have little chance to find success on the ground on New Year’s Eve. Alabama has the sport’s best run defense, allowing 74 rushing yards per game on just 2.4 yards per carry. The team shut down Leonard Fournette to the tune of 31 yards on 19 carries, and L.J. Scott could have a similar day for the Spartans.

Alabama’s defensive line is terrific at affecting the passing game, as well. Leading the nation’s No.17 pass defense, the Crimson Tide rank first in the country with 46 sacks.

Cook Gives the Spartans a Chance

It’s not easy to throw the ball on Alabama, but it can be done. If any quarterback is going to give Alabama some trouble in the postseason, it might be Connor Cook.

Cook battled a shoulder injury last month and was forced to sit out the team’s game against Ohio State, but he’ll be healthy when Michigan State needs him most. The quarterback has thrown 24 touchdown passes and five interceptions this season, and he found success against the Spartans’ toughest competition. When facing Michigan’s No.3 ranked pass defense, Cook threw for 328 yards and wasn’t picked off all game. Penn State has the No. 10 pass defense in college football, but Cook still managed to complete 19 of 26 passes for three scores against the Nittany Lions.

When Alabama has struggled, it’s been because opposing defenses were able to move the ball through the air. Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly helped his team upset their SEC rivals by throwing for 341 yards and three touchdowns. Wide receiver Aaron Burbridge is the team’s top playmaker with 80 catches for 1,219 yards, and he’ll be key for Michigan State.

Prediction

With two of college football’s best defenses going head-to-head, the semifinal game should be a low-scoring affair. Henry gives Alabama a chance to have a few big plays, and Michigan State won’t be able to score enough to keep pace.

Alabama over Michigan State, 23-17

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