Program-changers: Dantonio faces old boss Saban in playoff
DALLAS (AP) Mark Dantonio glanced toward Nick Saban during the final news conference before their teams meet in the College Football Playoff and gave a little grin at his old boss.
''He's letting me answer all the questions, I guess. First, anyway,'' Dantonio said Wednesday. ''We'll probably get to kick off.''
The Michigan State coach didn't mind deferring to his counterpart from Alabama. If it wasn't for Saban, Dantonio and the Spartans might not be where they are today.
The third-ranked Spartans and No. 2 Crimson Tide will ring in the new year Thursday night in a game that will determine which team plays for the national championship.
''A lot of the things that we do are patterned after the things that I learned from him, whether it's technique in the secondary, in the back end a little bit, or defensively, or just the structure of the entire program, recruiting. A lot of different aspects,'' said Dantonio, who was defensive backs coach at Michigan State when Saban was head coach from 1995-99.
Saban was very early in his coaching career when Dantonio first caught his attention as a player at Zanesville High School in Ohio. Saban watched Dantonio's coaching career progress, always impressed. When Saban got the Michigan State job, he hired Dantonio away from Kansas.
The two parted ways when Saban went to LSU, where he won the first of his four national titles. Saban tried the NFL for a couple of seasons with the Miami Dolphins before returning to college in 2007.
Hiring Saban changed everything for the Crimson Tide, a traditional power that was flailing as it tried to recapture past glory. Saban and Alabama have set the standard since, going 98-18 with three national championships and four Southeastern Conference titles.
A couple months before Alabama landed Saban, Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis was searching for a new head coach, with the Spartans coming off three straight losing seasons and firmly relegated to the second division in the Big Ten.
Hollis had his eye on Dantonio, who was the Cincinnati coach at the time, and called Saban for a recommendation.
Saban gave Dantonio a ringing endorsement and with little fanfare Michigan State hired a program-changing head coach of its own.
''He's, obviously, blossomed into (doing) a fantastic job in terms of what he's done at Michigan State right now,'' Saban said. ''And I think the world should recognize what a great job he's done.''
It would be hard not to at this point.
Michigan State has won at least 11 games in five of the last six seasons. The Spartans have won two Big Ten titles, the Rose Bowl and the Cotton Bowl in the last three seasons.
Dantonio has clearly established himself as one of the best coaches in college football and turned Michigan State into an elite program. Since 2010, only Saban (70) and Florida State's Jimbo Fisher (68) have won more games than Dantonio (65).
The only thing missing is a national championship.
''This will be a great opportunity but a great challenge for us as a program,'' Dantonio said. ''And we're looking forward to our moment.''
Some things to know as Alabama faces the Big Ten champion in the College Football Playoff semifinals for the second straight season.
COOKING: Michigan State has won more games (34) with Connor Cook starting than any other quarterback in school history. The Spartans also had to win one of their biggest games of the season, at Ohio State, without Cook, who was out with a right shoulder injury.
Cook played the two games after Ohio State and said earlier this week that his shoulder is ''100 percent.'' It will need to be against the Crimson Tide defense, which ranks at or near the top of the nation in just about every significant statistical category, including sacks (46).
''They look like an NFL defense in size, speed, the hits that they put on their opponents,'' Cook said.
HEISMAN HENRY: Alabama Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry is closing in on the first 2,000-yard rushing season in SEC history with 1,986 yards going into the Cotton Bowl. Henry has also run for 23 touchdowns, matching an SEC record, and had 18 straight games scoring a touchdown.
Michigan State's run defense has been stingy, especially in big games against Ohio State and Iowa, but the 6-foot-3, 242-pound Henry is unlike any back the Spartans have faced.
''They're going to try to run it straight at us, and we're going to try to stop them. There's nothing too crazy about it,'' Michigan State linebacker Riley Bullough said.
Since 2000, 11 Heisman winners have reached the national title game.
LAST-SECOND SPARTANS: Michigan State had heart-pounding, last-play victories against Michigan and Ohio State and went down to the final minute to beat Iowa for the Big Ten title.
''I think that kind of competitive grit is something that you have to have a tremendous respect for,'' Saban said. ''And you've got to know what you're up against when you play against people like that.''
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP