Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa prior to the 2007 season, inheriting a football team that looked like many others – at least many, other teams that were the level of Alabama, which was an Independence Bowl level squad. It didn’t take long for Saban to change the way not only played, but also looked.
Recruiting and weight room work changed Alabama to the extent that frequently before a game, the eye test would give a clue as to the likely outcome. One such case was in Orlando on Jan. 2, 2011, when a disappointing Crimson Tide team that had lost three regular season games in the 2010 season took on Michigan State, which was 11-1, in the Capital One Bowl. Much as this year, a focus of coverage was Nick Saban’s former time at Michigan State, five years as a defensive coordinator, then five years as head coach; and the fact that Saban had hired Mark Dantonio as a Michigan State assistant.
Dantonio, now as then, is head coach of the Spartans.
Unlike the end of the 2010 season, Alabama and Michigan State are not playing for a Mickey Mouse bowl championship. At 7 p.m. CST Thursday, the Crimson Tide and Spartans will kick off in the College Football Playoff semifinals in the Cotton Bowl at the Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. ESPN will televise the game, whose winner heads to the national championship game.
Alabama’s 2010 team had many of the stars who had been a part of the Tide’s 2009 national championship team, including Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, wide receiver Julio Jones, quarterback Greg McElroy, and linebacker Courtney Upshaw. Bama had been expected to challenge for a repeat BCS title.
In Orlando, Alabama played to those expectations. The Crimson Tide rolled to a 49-7 win, Bama had a 546-171 advantage in total yards, including holding the Spartans to only 48 yards rushing.
That prompted a question answered with a question: How did that Alabama team lose three games? How did that Michigan State team win 11?
In the final pre-game press conference in Dallas Wednesday, Dantonio and Saban were asked about that game.
Dantonio said that was the year that Michigan State started “really moving in the right direction. Obviously, we had some room to grow after that football game.”
The Spartans have grown, in many ways. For one thing, Michigan State has been one of the nation’s top teams, double digit wins in five of the past six seasons. For another, the Spartans seem to be built like Bama – defensive linemen in the 300-pound range, linebackers around 230, an offensive line averaging well over 300.
Dantonio said, “I try to measure our progress by who we play against and how we come out at the end -- try and define our football team at the end of the season, not at the beginning.
“So we're going to see how far we've grown. But there was no question at that point in time that all of a sudden we got hit with a little bit of an avalanche. Our guys played hard, but we need to be better.”
Saban said that his 2010 team underachieved during the regular season. In Orlando against Michigan State, though, he said, “They seemed to realize that, and wanted to prove something. Then we played in the bowl game and probably played more the way they were capable of playing.”
And then Saban put that lone previous meeting between Alabama and Michigan State into perspective:
“But from my standpoint,” he said, “what happened in that game will have nothing to do with this game because none of the participants are the same except maybe the coaches. But to me, Michigan State has really, really grown as a program in a lot of ways. Quality of players. You can see that the system is embedded. The character, the competitive character they play with is something that's very obvious when you watch them play.
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“And I think those characteristics are what makes a team, a really, really good team and puts you in the position that they're in.”