No. 15 Alabama (9-3) vs. No. 7 Michigan St. (11-1)Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Reason to watch: Can Alabama end a disappointing season on an up note against a top 10 team? Can Michigan State cap a dream season by beating one of the SEC's most storied programs? Can Nick Saban deliver more disappointment to one of his ex-teams? Will Mark Dantonio call for another eye-popping fake punt/fake field goal/fake something? Will the fourth-place team in the SEC West show it is better than a Big Ten tri-champion, thereby flaming the bitter SEC/Big Ten message board wars even further? No, this isn't a BCS bowl -- but it isn't lacking compelling storylines, either.
Keep an eye on: Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower. The junior was a starter for the first four games of the national championship season before blowing out his knee against Arkansas. Hightower returned this season, but feels like he didn't regain his form until halfway through the year. He's back to playing at a high-level, which is critical for Alabama if it hopes to stifle the Michigan State ground attack. Edwin Baker ranks second in the Big Ten with 98.9 rush yards per game, and the Spartans have kept it on the ground 55 percent of the time this year. If Hightower and Co. disrupt the Michigan State ground game, Alabama can seize control.
Did you know: In 1995, then Michigan State coach Saban hired Dantonio to be the Spartans' defensive backs coach. The two worked together in East Lansing for five seasons before Saban left for LSU.
Final analysis: As far as motivation goes, Michigan State clearly has the edge. The Spartans rightfully feel snubbed after being the odd team out of the three-team Big Ten BCS hunt, and they have an opportunity to prove they belong against a roster dotted with future NFL players. Alabama, on the other hand, is coming off a devastating loss to Auburn in the Iron Bowl and a pedestrian 4-3 record in its last seven games. Michigan State's season has been one of fake field goals, fake punts, a hospitalized coach, second-half comebacks and an unexpected share of a league title. Alabama's has been marred by dropping from the top 10 and blowing a 24-0 lead to its archrival. Despite all that, it's hard to overlook the personnel edge Alabama holds. Michigan State makes it close, but Alabama pulls it out.
The pick: Alabama 27, Michigan State 24
SI.com NFL draft analyst Tony Pauline shares his thoughts on the top pro prospects in this matchup:
Alabama: DL Marcell Dareus* -- Despite an early season suspension and ankle injury, Dareus continued to dominate opponents as NFL scouts had predicted. He's explosive off the snap and shows both power and athleticism when making plays up the field or out to the sidelines. The real value is his ability to play multiple positions on the defensive line in a variety of defensive schemes. Dareus is expected to enter the draft and will be an early selection. Grade: First-round prospect.
Michigan State: LB Greg Jones -- Jones has been an impact player since his freshman year and is highly regarded in scouting circles. He's a tackling machine with terrific instincts and always puts himself in a position to make a play on the ball against the run or pass. Jones' size is a concern and may limit the schemes in which he can successfully line up in the NFL. Grade: Third-round prospect.
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