In some respects, the Cotton Bowl seems like the best place for the 2015 Alabama football team to be playing in the College Football Playoff semifinal game against Michigan State.
True, Alabama’s legacy was forged by its early success in the Granddaddy of Bowl Games, the Rose Bowl. Bama has won national championships in Pasadena and in the glitz of the Orange Bowl in Miami and, particularly, in the special 24/7 revelry of New Orleans and the Sugar Bowl.
Dallas and the Cotton Bowl seem more about business, and all signs point to this being a business trip for Coach Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide.
The business, of course, is playing well enough to defeat Big 10 champion Michigan State and move on to the national championship game on Jan. 11 in Phoenix against either Clemson or Oklahoma.
Part of being at a bowl site for about a week before the game is played is that reporters spend much of their time talking to other reporters about what to expect in the game. Here are some of our thoughts, which include not agreeing with what some others expect.
To spare any suspense, we expect Alabama to defeat Michigan State. It is based partly on the eye test, Bama players just looking bigger and stronger and, yes, tougher. Also, one can’t ignore that Nick Saban is coaching Bama.
Alabama being the one team in the four-team playoff that was in the inaugural CFP last year may be a bit of an advantage in preparation, particularly mental preparation.
We don’t believe there is any advantage in a couple of other aspects. Alabama has played in the Jerrydome, the Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington where today’s game kicks off at 7 p.m. CST, including in this year’s season-opening game, a 35-17 win over Wisconsin. Alabama and Saban have played one previous game against Michigan State and Coach Mark Dantonio, the Capital One Bowl in Orlando five years ago when the Tide took a 49-7 win.
Now, if Michigan State thinks those things matter, then perhaps they do.
So what are we looking for?
Almost every analysis under the heading of “Why Michigan State Might Win,” begins with “Stop Derrick Henry.” Well, yeah. But that means stopping a 6-3, 242-pound tailback who is recognized as the best player in college football this year – winner of the Heisman Trophy, the Maxwell Award, and the Walter Camp Player of the year, all signifying such. The plan of stopping Henry has generally been futile. He has 339 carries for 1,986 yards, 5.9 yards per carry, and 23 touchdowns, all against teams who set out to stop Derrick Henry.
The Henry history in his lone year as Alabama’s starter is that he often has a slow start, several runs for little or no yardage. But eventually, he finds a way, and has bruised some very good defensive teams.
Now, Michigan State is good on run defense. The Spartans were second in the Big Ten, allowing just 113.1 yards per game. Tops in the Big Ten in rushing defense is Wisconsisn, which allowed only 98.2 yards per game. The Badgers, by the way, gave up 238 rushing yards to Alabama, including Henry carrying 13 times for 147 yards and three touchdowns.
Another Cotton Bowl subject has been whether Alabama can stop Michigan State quarterback Conner Cook, and along with that his outstanding receiver, Aaron Burbridge. If Cook goes crazy good, this is a legitimate concern. It may be important that Alabama’s defense is particularly tight in the early going, not letting Cook start with confidence and momentum. In 12 games this year, Cook has completed 210 of 369 passes (56.9 per cent) for 243.4 yards per game and 24 touchdowns with only 5 interceptions. Bama’s pass defense benefits from a fine pass rush, a national leading 46 sacks, but MSU has been sacked only 17 times. Still, the Tide defense is above average, allowing 184.2 yards per game. And that’s with teams usually being behind and throwing a lot of passes, one reason the Tide has 16 interceptions.
Hardly mentioned? Our gut-feeling for Most Valuable Player, Tide quarterback Jacob Coker. The fifth-year senior, former scrub at Florida State, has become more and more efficient this year and goes into this game with a 12-0 record as a starter (he didn’t start in the Tide’s loss to Ole Miss) and has completed 222-338 for 2,489 yards and 17 touchdowns with 8 interceptions.
Michigan State’s defense has been compared to Arkansas’s. Against the Razorbacks this year, Coker was 24-33 for 262 yards with 2 TDs.
The X-factor? The same one that almost everyone has looked for the past couple of years, tight end O.J. Howard. Will this – finally – be the game in which Alabama takes advantage of his special skill set, the speed to outrun linebackers and the size to out-duel defensive backs? Or could it be Kenyan Drake, another versatile player, effective as a runner or receiver?
Coaches almost always think that the turnover battle and special teams are keys to victory. Alabama’s special teams are adequate, and since that Ole Miss loss the Tide has righted that takeaway-turnover ship. To be sure, if Alabama goes minus 5 in turnovers against Michigan State, it would be very, very difficult to escape loss.
Finally, I think about how Michigan State got here. The Spartans lost to a very weak Nebraska team that finished the season with a bowl win, but with a losing record. Michigan State won over Michigan with a play that will be replayed for an eternity, the muffed punt snap the Spartans returned for a winning touchdown on the last play of the game. The Michigan State tailgunner (or whatever that was) kicking a game-winning field goal on the last play of the game to beat Ohio State. (We are aware Cook was injured and out of that game.) The Spartans 22-play drive to defeat Iowa is something that will not happen many times. And close calls against the likes of Purdue and Rutgers.
And now it’s time to load up my computer bag with (naturally) computer, along with binoculars, voice recorder, various record books on Alabama, Michigan State, and the Cotton Bowl, and head to Arlington. After all, it's business for us, too.
We continue to be confident that Alabama wins the game comfortably.
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And just as advance warning, we don’t care who wins the preliminary game in South Florida – Clemson, the team we are picking, or Oklahoma.