It’s come down to this. The matchups are set, now it’s time to find out who’s the best of the best. On New Year’s Eve the nation will be one step closer to crowning a national champion when Alabama and Michigan State square off in the Cotton Bowl. Easily one of the most anticipated games the College Football Playoff has to offer, it pits the Big Ten against the SEC in a contest that is sure to be remembered. Here’s what you need to know:
Storylines Heading Into the Game
Derrick Henry Carrying the Tide Offense: Derrick Henry became the second player in Alabama history to win the Heisman, and deservedly so after literally carrying the team’s offense the whole season. Henry averaged the second most amount of carries in the nation (26.08), while picking up almost six yards each carry. Don’t expect to see a change in the gameplan; Henry got the Tide this far and he’s going to factor into this game as well, even with the Spartans keying in on him.
Is the Big Ten on Par with the SEC?: Two years ago, fans were laughing at the Big Ten, saying it didn’t have a snowball’s chance at competing for a national championship. Last year proved the Big Ten was back and in a big way. Not only did Ohio State win the national championship, but the conference beat two of the SEC giants (Alabama and Auburn). If Michigan State can send the Crimson Tide packing with a loss in its second straight Playoff appearance, it certainly makes the Big Ten’s argument a lot stronger.
Alabama Trying to Avoid Postseason Disappointment for Third Straight Season: The postseason has not been kind to Alabama the past two seasons, and the Tide are hoping to reverse that trend against the Spartans. Let’s just say that Nick Saban is probably happy that his team isn’t playing in the Sugar Bowl this season. Having lost to Oklahoma and Ohio State in consecutive seasons has left a sour taste in the mouth of ‘Bama fans. It’s certainly not what Nick Saban is used to after winning back-to-back national titles.
90 – In the past two games he’s played, Derrick Henry has carried the ball 90 times. That’s something to take note of considering that he carried the ball a total of 97 times in the four games prior to that. Will Henry get the 45 carries he’s been averaging through that span? If Henry is getting good yardage, and doing a good job of getting into the second level, then expect Lane Kiffin to keep feeding him the ball.
111 – The combined amount of rushing yards that Michigan State gave up to Ezekiel Elliott (Ohio State) and Jordan Howard (Indiana), two of the top three rushers in the Big Ten. They may not be Derrick Henry, but they’re two of the best running backs that the Big Ten has to offer. Michigan State doesn’t care who they play, they’re ready for the challenge.
38.98% – Against Top 25 teams this season, Michigan State has converted just 38.98% of third down opportunities. It’s sort of ironic, given that the Spartans are ranked fourth in the nation in third down conversion rate (50.53%). Michigan State is going up against one of the best defenses in the country, and the Tide are great at making third down stops (27.92% opponent conversion rate). This is an area the Spartans have to do well in if they’re going to play for a national championship.
Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State – Cook has had a relatively quiet year for the Spartans after being hyped up to have a big 2015. However, there was a four game stretch where he threw for 1,428 yards and 11 touchdowns, looking like the highly touted NFL prospect he was believed to be. When Cook is on he’s hard to beat. If his shoulder is healthy, he’ll be able to make NFL-caliber throws all over the field. The key for Cook in this game is to make quick decisions and get the ball out early. He’ll have to be on his toes with the way this Alabama front seven can get into the backfield.
Jake Coker, QB, Alabama – All Jake Coker has had to do up until this point in the season is protect the ball and make throws when needed. And to his credit, Coker hasn’t done a bad job of being a game manager for the Tide offense while Henry tears apart the ground game. But Coker will have to be a little more than a game manager in this game since the Spartans are one of the top teams at defending against the run (113.08 opponent rush yards per game).
He’ll need to take advantage of a vulnerable Spartans pass defense that ranks 96th in the country in giving up pass plays of 15+ yards (72). If Coker can hit medium range passes like that throughout the game, then it will make it that much easier for Henry to be successful.
Why Michigan State Will Win
Michigan State is a solid all-around team that makes you beat them. The Spartans are +16 in turnover margin on the year, and they don’t commit penalties that would drag them down. Mark Dantonio is one of the best coaches in the game, and he’s going to have his team ready to win this football game. If Cook can make quick decisions with the ball and be successful on third down, the Michigan State offense should score enough points that will cover its defense.
On the defensive side, it’s stopping Derrick Henry at the point of attack. When Henry gets to the second level, it’s too late. The Spartans need to meet him at the line of scrimmage head on if they’re going to limit the damage he does. Arkansas did a good job of this, holding Henry to 95 yards on 27 carries. Limiting Henry coupled with getting pressure on Jake Coker is the key to beating Alabama, and the Spartans have the defense that can do just that.
Why Alabama Will Win
Alabama will win this game because it won’t make the same mistake that Urban Meyer made against the Spartans. The Tide will continue to give the ball to Henry even when he gets stuffed by this Michigan State defense. Henry is the workhorse that won’t quit, averaging 6.13 yards per carry in the fourth quarter. He gets stronger as the game goes on, and the team feeds off of his energy. If Henry can get it going and Coker can hit a couple of big passes early on, this game could really play up to the 10 point spread that Alabama is favored by.
The Crimson Tide defense is going to show up and do what it has done all season: wreak havoc. Wracking up 46 sacks this season, the Tide are going to force Connor Cook to make throws before he’s ready. What that will do is create a chance for the secondary to make interceptions or at least bat the ball down. Michigan State has yet to face a defense as strong as this one, and this game might not be pretty for them.
This game is going to be a grinder. It’s hard to imagine one team really running away with this one, unless it’s Alabama late in the game. Both teams are going to have success, but both teams are also going to get stuffed. Henry and Cook are going to have good games because this is the kind of environment that each thrive in. It’s really going to come down to which team makes the least amount of mistakes and who can take advantage of their opponents miscues. Michigan State has had a great season up to this point, but Alabama’s defense will just be too strong to overcome in the end.
Final Score: Alabama 27 – Michigan State 20