Coming off their 16-13 win over Iowa to earn the Big Ten Championship, the Spartans travel to the Cotton Bowl to face the Alabama Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff at 8:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve.

Offense

Alabama ranks 1st in Rushing Defense (74 yards per game allowed, 6 rushing scores all year), 2nd in Total Defense (258.2 yards per game allowed), and 3rd in Scoring Defense by allowing just 14.4 points per game. They are outstanding at all 11 positions with a mix of depth and talent that make them arguably Nick Saban’s best unit to date. No team has scored more than 23 against Alabama since their turnover filled 43-37 loss to Ole Miss in mid-September. This may be the best Defense the Spartans have faced in a number of years.

The foundation of the Alabama Defense looks familiar because stopping the run is the foundation of building a great Defense. It was one of the very first things Mark Dantonio addressed after arriving to lead Michigan State. You will not see an elite Defense at the top levels of football without an outstanding ability to stop the run. All-American A’Shawn Robinson leads Alabama’s front four as an explosive and athletic Defensive Tackle. Behind him, all everything Linebacker Reggie Ragland leads a group that has tackled well enough to hold each opponent under 16 points since mid-October. Needless to say, the Spartan Offense will have to be at its best if they are to score enough points to win this week.

As great as the Alabama Defense has been in 2015, who knows exactly how they’ll show up in the Cotton Bowl? Longtime Defensive Coordinator Kirby Smart took the Head Coaching job at Georgia after the SEC title game and has been splitting time between his old job and his new job ever since. More often than not that scenario does not work out well for the old team in the equation. Whether it’s the Coach’s attention being divided, tension inside the locker room, or players simply tuning out a soon to be irrelevant voice, we’ve seen many uncharacteristic performances from units led by Coaches with at least one foot already out the door.

In either case, the Spartans need to come up with a much better game plan than they had against Iowa. If they stick with the basic game plan from the Iowa game, they should get blown out by Alabama. For some yet unknown reason, the Spartans ran a lot of slow developing plays that went east-west far too often, giving the downhill Hawkeye Defense time to get in position to make a bunch of plays. Thankfully before it was too late, Mark Dantonio stepped in to redirect the MSU Offense. MSU had the talent and size advantage to run over Iowa on the way to the Big Ten Championship during a drive that will never be forgotten. That approach, however, will not work against Alabama. They have far too many thoroughbreds on the roster.

If you want to make it easy on the Alabama Defense, line up and run the ball straight at them. They will stop you early and often. Want to make it easier? Run a bunch of Wide Receiver sweeps and other slow developing plays that have a lot of east-west action built into them. That’ll get you into 3rd and long in a heartbeat. Though the Spartans need to run the ball effectively against Alabama, they cannot come out run-first-stubborn or stick to trying to pound it between the tackles. Alabama will eat that mess up because they match up too well with even a 100% healthy MSU Offensive Line. MSU will need to mix it up.

The Spartans went 58:00 without running the Option against Iowa, which was a mistake. Whether Cook or another Spartan lines up under center, MSU should run the option early and often. Option plays were the difference for MSU at Ohio State, and got them the 4th Down conversion against Iowa to keep that final drive going. The Option makes it difficult for any Defense, even one as good as Alabama’s, to shut down the run. The Spartans have more than enough capable players to run a handful of Option plays from the first drive of the night through the finish. If they run the Option on a consistent enough basis it will not only open up the rest of the running game, it will put Connor Cook in a better position to distribute the ball around the field.

If the Spartans come out looking to take what little the Tide Defense gives them, they will pass on as many as half of their 1st Downs. We may also see a number of MSU drives at an accelerated tempo because it still presents a real challenge for that Defense. Don’t expect Alabama to give MSU much of an opening, but the Spartans should look to take whatever that Defense does present them. If the Spartan Offense does that they will have a shot to put enough points on the board to beat Alabama. Expecting the Tide to wear down physically late in the game, however, would be an enormous mistake. They are on another level than Iowa.

Cook already leads the discussion of the best Spartan Quarterbacks of all-time. That’s how good he’s been since coming in late to lead the MSU comeback win over TCU game three seasons ago. Presuming his shoulder is once again 100%, he can once again be the difference for MSU. If he’s put behind the chains by poor play calling, he will probably be stressed too thin for the Spartans to pull off their second Cotton Bowl trophy in a row. But if the Spartans do a good job putting their Offense in a consistent position succeed, Cook might write another chapter in the record books by lifting Michigan State to play for its first National Championship in nearly 50 years.

Defense

Since losing at Nebraska to begin November play, the 2015 Spartan Dawgs have found their way again. None of the final four MSU opponents scored more than 16 points. Two of them were Top 5 teams that were held to 14 and 13 points respectively. As the Spartan D got better up front they also got sharper in mid-section, healthier and more experienced on the back end. With that they came together and played much tighter as a unit through the season’s biggest games.

The Cotton Bowl brings the return of RJ Williamson to the back line. The 5th year Senior Safety was hurt in a win over Purdue during an injury filled stretch when a number of starters were lost. MSU can really use that veteran boost because of the enormous physical test that Alabama presents. They are built on power.

Alabama’s Offense averages 34.1 points per game coming into the Playoff on the backs of the 27th ranked Rushing Offense (208.2 yards per game) and 73rd ranked Passing Offense (214.3 yards per game) in the country. Without question, the 48th ranked Total Offense is built on their ability to run the football consistently while limiting turnovers (28th in Turnover Margin). That combination has been a nearly perfect complement the top notch Crimson Tide Defense. Yet, Alabama hasn’t been in a tight game since the week before Halloween when Tennessee pressed them to the final minute, in Tuscaloosa. Derrick Henry had just 143 yards rushing that day.

The Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry has 1,986 yards and 23 Touchdowns rushing on 339 carries so far. That’s a hefty 5.9 yards per carry average for the Junior. If you see Henry in person it’s easy to confuse him with a Linebacker because he’s 6’3 and weighs about 240. As a point of comparison, the Spartans do not have a Linebacker in the two-deep that weighs that much. Therefore, MSU may need more than one player to bring Henry down and will need another outstanding performance by the interior of their Defensive Line. MSU hopes to slow down # 2 in crimson and white before he gets his legs going.

The Spartans have future NFL players in their Defensive Line rotation. Malik McDowell looks like a 1st Round Draft Pick already, Lawrence Thomas should be playing on Sundays for years to come, and Shilique Calhoun will get an opportunity on the outside as well. Those are the easy names to come up with and Alabama is no doubt aware of them, but the Spartans may have as many as four more future NFL linemen on their current roster. That entire playing group needs to bring their best to keep the Tide from running down the Cotton Bowl trophy. If Henry gets running, it changes the entire complexion of the Alabama Offense.

Jake Coker is the graduate transfer Quarterback from Florida State that took hold of the Alabama job earlier this fall after the loss to Ole Miss. Coker has been criticized at times while throwing 17 Touchdowns to 8 Interceptions, taking 18 Sacks, and accumulating a Rating of 139.4. By comparison, Connor Cook has thrown for 7 more scores, 4 less picks, and has a rating of 142.2. Since Alabama has averaged about 48 more yards rushing per game, Cook has had more regular pressure on his shoulders to carry the load. He has had to keep MSU in games, bring them back in some, and flat out win the Spartans the kind of games that Coker has not faced.

If the Spartans can slow Henry down and keep tackling well through the 4th Quarter, much more of the Alabama’s success will ride on Coker’s arm. If MSU can win up front and force Alabama elsewhere to move the ball, Lane Kiffin (Alabama Offensive Coordinator and Quarterbacks Coach) will end up in a real chess match with Mike Tressel and Harlon Barnett. The Spartans also know that they must get home when they have a chance to hit Coker. Whether it’s Calhoun off the edge or blitzers from all over the place, MSU cannot miss him and allow for loose plays to develop.

Like pretty much all the biggest games in football, this one starts up front. Whoever wins those battles will by far be in the best position to win the Cotton Bowl. If the Spartan Defensive Line can’t hold their own against Alabama Thursday night, MSU is in trouble. If the Spartans can win up front, they will still need a high level of execution from their group of tacklers. They have no doubt “gone live” during enough practices since Iowa to come in to Dallas sharp. Yet, just because Alabama is a run-first Offense, that doesn’t mean they are without playmakers on the edges. They are essentially a straight ahead, old school, Big Ten type of challenge.

At the start of 2015 many wondered how the new era Spartan Dawgs would fair. Injuries began in fall camp and continued taking starters out of the lineup through the middle part of the season, costing this unit a chance to forge its identity. That wouldn’t arrive until adversity slapped them in the face on a long plane ride back from Lincoln, Nebraska. Since then this group has started to snarl a bit up front again. Rushing yards have been harder and harder to come by against them, the Linebacker corps has gotten stronger and deeper, and the back end has settled down to plug some of the holes that had cost them big plays. Alabama provides this unit their biggest stage yet to cement their identity while reaching higher, again, against the top program in the country these days.

Special Teams

Neither team has been consistently good in Special Teams this year, but obviously the Spartans have arrived to the College Football Playoff largely on the back of two all-time Special Teams highlights. The Shoeless Watts-Jackson miracle at Michigan was the spark that began the MSU run to the Playoff. Michael Geiger’s windmill celebration after he “nailed it” at Ohio State legitimized the possibility of a Playoff bid, and the Offense’s final drive against Iowa clinched their golden ticket. Needless to say, Special Teams could play a determinative role in deciding which team ends their season at the Cotton Bowl.

Alabama Special Teams are coordinated by a familiar name and face to Spartan Nation, Bobby Williams. The coach that had the program (and “woodshed”) implode under his watch has long since recovered, but has struggled to lead Crimson Tide’s Special Teams during 2015. They’ve missed kicks, given up big returns, and have otherwise struggled too much for Nick Saban’s liking. “Big mistakes and mental breakdowns that really created momentum in the game(s) for the other team,” Saban said about those struggles last week.

The funny thing about Bowl season is that you don’t see the same teams that you saw to end the regular season. The Spartan and Tide teams that won their conference championship games and ran the table through late November should be no exception. Trying to figure out which team will show up ripe and which one rusty is a total guessing game across the over sized Bowl Game spreadsheet. Some Bowls turn into unexpected shootouts, others are marked by whacky Special Teams plays that would have never happened if teams were in the flow of the regular season.

If you’re projecting a kicking advantage for MSU because of the Cotton Bowl last year, consider that Michael Geiger did not attempt a 3-pointer against Baylor. He made 6 extra points and should be familiar with Cowboys Stadium, but Alabama opened 2015 on the same field against Wisconsin. Alabama Place Kicker Adam Griffith was 0 for 2 that night. Geiger has a history of big game kicks, and should still be confident off the Ohio State winner and couple of long ones he made against Iowa.

Griffith’s struggles may at first appear similar to Geiger’s in 2015, but his issues seemed more mental than physical. Geiger’s issues appeared to be based on poor alignment before the kick, and recovering after a significant hip procedure in January. Griffith became streaky and subject to intense focus around the middle of 2015 when Bobby Williams’ unit was really wobbling and alternative Place Kickers were at least being considered.

If the Cotton Bowl is as competitive as predicted to be, Special Teams could be the true X-factor. Neither MSU nor Alabama had the consistency they hoped for from Special Teams during the regular season, but the extended period of Bowl practice has provided each the opportunity to clean it up for the Playoff. This Cotton Bowl may not be won by either Special Teams unit but both squads should be completely aware of the possibility that the game could be lost on such a play. In fact, both teams are may be over due for something like that to have happened already this season.

Overall

The last time Michigan State and Alabama met it was supposed to be the matchup of the entire Bowl season. Instead it turned into an Alabama blowout before Halftime and the Spartans were left scrambling to get out of the Citrus Bowl without having a third Quarterback knocked out of the game. Spartan Football was humbled that day, but also left with a clear example of what they needed to do as a program to measure up with Alabama down the road.

With their paths set to cross again in the College Football Playoff both programs have made serious strides since the end of that 2010 season. Though 2010 may have been Nick Saban’s most talented Crimson Tide squad, his 2011 and 2012 teams won a BCS Championship. In 2014 the Tide appeared in the inaugural Playoff, but overlooked Ohio State and their third string Quarterback (Cardale Jones) big time. Alabama ended up getting stunned by the Buckeyes and finished the season ranked 4th in the country.

In 2011 the Spartans lost the Big Ten Championship after an extremely controversial running into the Punter flag, but ended up beating the Georgia Bulldogs in the Outback Bowl in double overtime to finish with a Top 10 final ranking. 2012 was a difficult year for MSU after coming up on the wrong side many iffy whistles and close games, but Cook stepped into the Bowl game against TCU to rally MSU to a second straight Bowl win. In 2013 the Spartans put together one of the most dominant seasons in Big Ten history and finished with a Rose Bowl title and # 3 final ranking. In 2014 MSU couldn’t quite win the Big Ten to get into the inaugural playoff, but pulled off an improbable comeback in a true “road” Bowl game against Baylor, finishing the season ranked 5th in the country, right behind Alabama. It is therefore no surprise at all that these two teams line up as the # 2 and # 3 seeds in the 2015 College Football Playoff.

Nick Saban’s footprint is all over Mark Dantonio’s Spartan Football program, and Michigan State Football is clearly a part of the fabric of Alabama Football under Nick Saban. There won’t be many surprises between the two this week. It will come down to which team executes best and which coaching staff adjusts best during the game. That formula does not guarantee the second Cotton Bowl in 2015 will be any less exciting than the first one.

If MSU comes out run-first-stubborn they will hit a Crimson Tide brick wall and the Spartans hopes for moving the ball will be completely on the shoulders of Connor Cook. That would not be good for either. If Derrick Henry comes out running through would be Spartan tacklers, Alabama will control the game and the Spartans will have to hope for something magical to keep that train from getting too far out in front. But if the Spartans can force Jake Coker to beat them and get pressure to him, turnovers could be the deciding factor. The battle up front will dictate which scenario plays out.

Unlike the crushing squeeze Alabama put on Michigan State up front in the Citrus Bowl four years ago, the Spartans should be able to compete with the Crimson Tide on both sides of the ball this week. What’s not clear yet is whether the Tide respects the Spartans ability to compete at the line of scrimmage. They didn’t respect Ohio State’s ability up front last year and it cost them in a 42-35 loss that saw them outrushed by 111 yards. Alabama looked past Ohio State, but has vowed since the Cotton Bowl announcement that they would not do that again. We’ll have to wait and see.

Many programs have “personal” games on their annual schedules. For Alabama there’s always the Iron Bowl, and from time to time other games that reach that level like Tennessee and LSU have over the years. For MSU there is the sibling rivalry with Michigan and the national rivalry with Notre Dame. When it comes to Bowl Games we usually don’t get matchups that feel “personal,” but for all the reasons stated above and for so many not fit to print, this game is most definitely personal between Alabama and Michigan State. There’s no opponent MSU would rather face in the College Football Playoff than the Alabama Crimson Tide. They couldn’t matchup with Saban’s bunch in Orlando five seasons ago, but this time around MSU believes they can go toe to toe. That may provide them the edge needed in case they somehow haven’t caught any of the wide ranging media disrespect over the past few weeks.

Who would’ve thought such a great era of Spartan Football was starting as Connor Cook came in late during the TCU Bowl Game? The Spartans are 36-4 in their last 40 games, now firmly established as one of the elite programs in College Football again. If they can return to the Cotton Bowl this week with the same mentality that’s elevated the program to this level, they will once again be in position to “Reach Higher.” Two Cotton Bowl victories in one calendar year is well within the Spartans’ reach.

@JPSpartan

  1. A. T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)
  1. Did Nick Saban ever say anything like, “at Michigan State, we were never number one. That was always Michigan. It was always U-M this or that,” after leaving the Spartans for LSU? A writer from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel published that quote not long after Saban left in 1999. It has since been rehashed over the years in some shape or form on a regular basis though it is not very clear whether that was ever actually said. Is there any audio of that quote? Did anyone else actually get that quote too? Where and when did he get it? These are all answers people want to know. As many of you know, I asked Saban directly (in person) about this issue at the College Football Playoff Coaches Press Conference earlier this month. When asked whether he said anything like that or felt that way at the time he left MSU, Saban said “first of all, I don’t recall ever making a statement like that,” before going on to praise Mark Dantonio and Michigan State. Hopefully we can clear this issue up once and for all this week.
  2. At the end of SEC Media Days in 2014, Nick Saban was asked about a rumor that Texas had offered him their job for $ 100 million or so. Rather than dismissing it quickly, Saban’s long response veered off into a commentary about his career as a whole, which may have included an admission that he should’ve never left MSU. “If I had to do it over, I’d have just tried to stay in one place and establish a great program, not have all these goals and aspirations of things that eventually, you know, you weren’t happy doing,” Saban explained. That statement came out of nowhere, at the very end of the press conference, but had obviously been on Saban’s mind for some time. Maybe someone can ask him about that quote next time.
  3. Tyler O’Connor graduated earlier this month and will be free to explore his options as a 5th year-graduate transfer after the Spartans’ season is complete. Oregon already secured their next QB earlier this month, but schools like Georgia and Texas A&M are in need and could be interested in speaking with O’Connor should he wish to chat. It’s nothing to worry about as the Spartans prepare for Alabama, but something to keep in mind down the road. O’Connor has positioned himself to choose whatever path he desires.
  4. Four teams is the best number of teams for the College Football Playoff. Unless you’re willing to take away a regular season game or two, get used to the number four. It could’ve easily been an 8 team field if the four super conferences we expected to form would have been in place by now. With the way ESPN’s business model is going these days, maybe an entire new system is just around the corner.