Michigan State has had four seasons to ruminate over the 2011 Capital One Bowl. The Spartans carried an 11-1 record and co-ownership of the Big Ten title to sunny Orlando, Fla., where they looked to cap a notable season with a win over then-defending national champion Alabama.
The Crimson Tide, however, had other ideas in mind.
Former Tide running back Mark Ingram scored on his team’s first offensive possession, the first of four touchdowns in as many drives, as Alabama jumped all over Michigan State and led 28-0 at halftime. The final two quarters brought more of the same with the Crimson Tide coasting to an easy 49-7 win the first meeting ever between the two teams.
On Thursday, Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio and the No. 3-ranked Spartans will get another crack at Alabama head coach Nick Saban and the No. 2-ranked Crimson Tide when they meet in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic for the College Football Playoff semifinal. Dantonio coached under Saban when the latter was the Spartans’ head coach in the 1990s.
Both teams last played on Dec. 5 when Michigan State defeated Iowa 16-13 in the Big Ten Championship Game, and Alabama defeated Florida 29-15 in the SEC Championship Game.
After last year’s Cotton Bowl where the Spartans erased a 20-point, fourth-quarter deficit to defeat Baylor 42-41, the Spartans have reason to be optimistic about their chances against ‘Bama.
Five Reasons Why Alabama Will Win the Cotton Bowl
1. MSU quarterback Connor Cook vs. Alabama’s Secondary
Entering the 2015 season, NFL scouts gushed profusely about three-year starter Cook. According to many mock projections, the 6-foot-4 gunslinger is still slated to go in the first round. But a shoulder injury and questionable decision-making at times has caused a slight dip in his draft stock. Make no mistake, Cook is still one of the country’s most skilled passers, but he alone won’t be able to defeat Alabama. Cook will have to throw early and often, and against an opportunistic defense like the Crimson Tide, there will be no shortage of chances for turnovers. Perhaps Nick Saban’s most significant acquisition last offseason was the addition of secondary coach Mel Tucker, whose previous stops include serving as the Chicago Bears’ defensive coordinator. Tucker inherited a maligned defensive unit that ranked 11th in the SEC in passing defense in 2014, allowing 223.7 yards per game. This season, the Crimson Tide enter this game fifth in the in the SEC in passing defense (184.2) and lead the conference with 16 interceptions.
2. Alabama Running Back Derrick Henry vs. MSU’s Shilique Calhoun and the Spartan Defensive Line
In 13 games this season, opposing defenses knew they were in for a large helping of Henry. And 13 times this season, teams, for the most part, still could not find ways to contain him, as he’s rushed for 1,986 yards and 23 touchdowns. Players from both schools enjoyed some tongue-in-cheek banter earlier this week about Michigan State’s ability to slow the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and current SEC single-season rushing record holder. Spartan defenders have every reason to believe that they will succeed in doing so, as Michigan State boasts one of the Big Ten’s stingiest defenses against the run. It currently allows 113.1 yards per game, which ranks second in the conference and seventh nationally, and has allowed just two teams to run for more than100 yards this season. Calhoun, a first-team All-Big Ten selection, and talented linebacker Riley Bullough, who leads the Spartans in tackles, will present a challenge for Alabama’s offensive line, but it’s nothing the Tide haven’t seen before. In fact, against the eight teams on ‘Bama’s schedule ranked among the country’s top 50 against the run, Henry has rushed for 1,155 yards and 15 TDs. He has also eclipsed the 200-yard mark four times this year. Opposing teams have logged countless hours of film study looking for ways to scheme for him, but those efforts have mostly been to no avail. MSU’s defensive line and linebacker corps will be among the best the Tide have faced this year, but Henry and Alabama’s offensive line are well equipped to handle the task.
3. Alabama’s Front Seven vs. Michigan State’s Running Backs
At the end of the season, Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will head to Athens to replace former Georgia head coach Mark Richt, who is Miami’s new leading man. Smart is credited with consistently assembling good defenses that have paved the way for ‘Bama’s recent dominance of college football. This year has been no different. Alabama currently ranks second in the nation in total defense, holding offenses to 258.2 yards per game. With Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook still nursing an ailing shoulder; the Spartans must establish a ground game to keep the offense balanced. The Spartans have used a stable of running backs this season with LJ Scott (691 yards, 11 TDs), Gerald Holmes (534, 8 TDs) and Madre London (489, 3 TDs) leading the way. All three will need to contribute in a big way if the Spartans are going to be successful on the ground against a Tide rush defense that is tops in FBS against the run, holding teams to just 74 yards on the ground per game. Alabama’s defensive line and linebacker corps is peppered with NFL-caliber players like A’Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen and Reggie Ragland. Behind those three, the Crimson Tide have only allowed two 100-yard rushing performances this year and have limited opposing backs to just six rushing touchdowns. The Spartans will have to get production from their running game if they are to win.
4. More Ways to Score
In its Big Ten Championship Game victory earlier this month, Michigan State mustered nine points in three quarters. Despite the low-scoring output, the Spartans were able to win their third conference title since 2010. They’re going to have to do more than that if they are to beat Alabama. College football fans undoubtedly know about Crimson Tide playmakers Derrick Henry and wide receiver Calvin Ridley, but Nick Saban has found another way for his team to score points this year: punt returner/cornerback Cyrus Jones. If the Michigan State offense struggles to move the ball and finds itself with continuous three-and-outs, Jones could end up with yet another touchdown on the stat sheet before the end of the night. He currently ranks second in the nation in punt return yards with 438, and while his 12.2-yard per return average doesn’t exactly jump out at you, his three punt return touchdowns— tops in the nation — most certainly do.
5. Nick Saban
While no coach in the state of Alabama will ever dethrone Paul Bear Bryant from the pantheon of Crimson Tide coaches, Nick Saban will likely join his side by the time he decides to leave Alabama. In nine seasons in Tuscaloosa, he’s won 98 games. Simply put, he arguably remains the game’s preeminent coach. Saban, who went 34-24-1 in five years at Michigan State, doesn’t lose often. And he most certainly doesn’t lose games when he’s given more than a week to prepare for his next opponent. Mark Dantonio, during his tenure in East Lansing, has done more than enough to warrant mentioning his name in conversations regarding the country’s finest head coaches. And he’s managed to successfully navigate a Big Ten conference that has only become significantly stronger with the addition of Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, Penn State’s James Franklin and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh. Under Dantonio’s guidance, the Spartans boast a four-game bowl winning streak. But his football acumen will be tested when he goes against his mentor and four-time national championship winner Saban in AT&T Stadium on New Year’s Eve.
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A Washington, D.C.-based sports writer, Hayes is a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and he also has been an invited guest on “The Paul Finebaum Show.” Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.