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Cotton Bowl Preview and Prediction: Alabama vs. Michigan State

Derrick Henry

Derrick Henry

A heavyweight, physical battle is set to unfold in Arlington, Texas on Dec. 31, as Alabama and Michigan State meet in a playoff semifinal in the Cotton Bowl for a trip to the College Football National Championship. 60 minutes and a victory is all that separates the Spartans and Crimson Tide from a chance at the national title in Glendale, Ariz. on Jan. 11.

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There are a lot of similarities in the path to the Cotton Bowl and the overall style of play between Alabama and Michigan State. The Crimson Tide had to overcome an early loss to Ole Miss in 2015, while the Spartans rebounded from a controversial defeat at Nebraska on Nov. 7 to win the Big Ten title over Iowa on Dec. 5. Both offenses are capable of spreading the field with their passing attack, but the basic approach for Michigan State and Alabama consists of leaning heavily on defense and running the ball. Additionally, there’s also the Nick Saban connection between these two programs. Saban worked as Michigan State’s head coach from 1995-99 and left East Lansing for LSU prior to the Citrus Bowl in 1999.

The disrespect card is used by many teams in bowl season, and there will be a chip on Michigan State’s shoulders on Thursday night. Even though both teams are 12-1 and claimed a title in two of the best conferences this season, Alabama is a double-digit favorite. The Spartans thrived as the underdog this year in a road trip to Ohio State, and coach Mark Dantonio can use the spread and lack of faith in Michigan State by experts as a way to motivate his team.

Alabama and Michigan State have only one previous meeting on the gridiron. The Crimson Tide defeated the Spartans 49-7 in the 2011 Capital One Bowl. These two teams were scheduled to play in 2016 and 2017 during the regular season, but the series was canceled in 2013 by Alabama due to the uncertainty of how many league games the SEC would play in future years.

Cotton Bowl: Michigan State vs. Alabama

Arlington, Texas

Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 31 at 8 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: Alabama -10

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Three Things to Watch

1. Battle in the Trenches

Some of the nation’s best offensive and defensive linemen will be on the field in Thursday night’s game. Michigan State’s offensive line was picked in the preseason as one of the best in the nation. The Spartans were forced to shuffle this unit due to injuries to left tackle Jack Conklin, right tackle Kodi Kieler and center Jack Allen. Despite the injuries, Michigan State’s offensive line allowed only 17 sacks. On the other side of the ball, the Spartans boast a ferocious pass rush behind end Shilique Calhoun, and tackle Malik McDowell emerged as a star in the second half of the season. While Michigan State’s defensive line is one of the best in college football, Alabama’s should rank No. 1 on any list. The Crimson Tide limited opponents to just 74 rushing yards per game and registered 46 sacks. The strength of the defensive front rests with lineman A’Shawn Robinson, and there’s talent at the end spots coming in the form of Jonathan Allen (10 sacks) and Jarran Reed. On the offensive side of the ball, Alabama’s line had its share of ups and downs early but finished the year playing at a high level. Sophomore tackle Cam Robinson and senior Ryan Kelly are the headliners up front for coach Nick Saban. The battle between Michigan State’s offensive line versus Alabama’s defensive front should be an epic matchup between two of the nation’s best units. Can the Spartans protect quarterback Connor Cook and open up rushing lanes for running back LJ Scott? And when Michigan State is on defense, can the nation’s ninth-ranked run defense find a way to slow down Alabama running back Derrick Henry? Expect the battle in the trenches to have a huge role in the outcome of Thursday night’s game.

Related: College Football's 2015 All-America Team

2. Michigan State QB Connor Cook

Even though Michigan State’s offensive line is one of the best in the nation, it seems unlikely the Spartans can simply line up and run the ball on Alabama’s front seven. Only one team (Georgia) managed more than 140 rushing yards against the Crimson Tide in 2015. Michigan State has three capable options at running back, starting with talented freshman LJ Scott (691 yards), but yardage could be tough to find. With tough sledding expected on the ground, the Spartans need a big performance from quarterback Connor Cook. The senior suffered a shoulder injury against Maryland and missed the following week’s matchup against Ohio State. The extra time to prepare should help Cook’s shoulder return to full strength. Avoiding long-yardage situations and getting rid of the ball quickly to avoid the pass rush are two critical areas to watch on Thursday night. Will the Spartans throw on early downs to stay out of third-and-long situations? Alabama’s secondary is loaded with promising talent, but good quarterbacks had success against this unit. Michigan State’s hopes of winning could come down to how well Cook plays, as the senior quarterback is the x-factor in the Cotton Bowl.

Related: Predictions for Every College Football 2015-16 Bowl Game

3. Alabama’s Passing Attack

Alabama should review Ohio State’s gameplan for its November matchup against Michigan State and quickly realize what not to do against this defense. The Spartans are stout in the trenches, limiting opponents to just 113.1 rushing yards per game. However, while it’s no secret the Crimson Tide’s offense flows through Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry at running back, the junior has to get his share of touches, even if yardage and big-play opportunities are tough to come by in the first half. Could Alabama use a throw to run approach similar to the one Michigan State is expected to use? Quarterback Jake Coker played better over the second half of the season and tossed only one interception in his last five games. In addition to Coker’s improvement, Alabama’s passing attack received a boost from the emergence of freshman receiver Calvin Ridley (75 catches). Even though the Crimson Tide needs production from Henry, coordinator Lane Kiffin needs to spread the field and allow Coker to take advantage of opportunities in Michigan State’s secondary. The Spartans “No Fly Zone” wasn’t as dominant in 2015 as it was in previous seasons, giving up 19 plays of 30 yards or more and ranking 69th in pass efficiency defense. However, this unit will have reinforcements for the Cotton Bowl, as starting safety RJ Williamson is back after missing the last eight games due to injury. Henry will get his opportunities, but Kiffin would be wise to allow Coker to spread the field, hitting on easy throws to keep Alabama out of third-and-long situations. And it wouldn't be a surprise to see Coker and Ridley attempt to connect on a few deep shots in the first half. The Crimson Tide cannot afford to follow the same blueprint Ohio State used against Michigan State and fail to test the Spartans’ secondary downfield or feed Henry 25-30 times on Thursday night.

Final Analysis

The first thing that stands out in the Michigan State-Alabama matchup is the similarities between these two teams. Both programs want to establish the run, win the battle at the line of scrimmage and lean on their defense. Expect the Spartans to load the box and stop running back Derrick Henry, forcing quarterback Jake Coker to win this game with his arm. When Michigan State has the ball, Alabama wants to force the Spartans to take to the air in third-and-long situations and not control the battle at the line of scrimmage. The Crimson Tide has an edge in overall talent, but the Spartans can use the underdog and no respect angle as motivation. Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook makes several clutch throws to star receiver Aaron Burbridge to keep the Spartans in it, but Alabama has too much talent and its defense eventually puts the clamps on the Spartans in the second half to clinch a spot in the national championship.

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Prediction: Alabama 27, Michigan State 20