EAST LANSING, Mich.—Connor Cook walked into the Michigan State media center at 8:22 a.m. on Wednesday, seven minutes past his appointed arrival time. He was not otherwise behind schedule. The Spartans senior quarterback wore a loose green warm-up top, not a medical harness. When he took off his jacket, he required no assistance. When he reached for the bottled water set on his table, he didn't grimace. The most consequential shoulder in the College Football Playoff was in full working order, or at least well on its way there. Given that the burden of beating Alabama has settled on it, this was fairly important.
"These last two days of practice, I've felt really good," Cook declared at his team's on-campus Cotton Bowl media day. "The best I've felt since the injury. We're just going from there."
None of the other quarterbacks in this year's playoff can match the exquisite big-game credentials Cook has piled up in his career to date: Two Big Ten championship game wins, plus Rose and Cotton Bowl victories, among 34 overall triumphs as a starter. His team is well aware of this track record. It is very reassuring with another klieg-lit contest—that Dec. 31 semifinal with the Crimson Tide and their stifling defense—coming soon. It's also of no use if Cook can't throw the ball with the velocity and precision that Michigan State has become accustomed to, which is why the optimistic appraisals of his sprained right shoulder were so vital.
To hear more meaningful testimony about a joint, you'd have to hold congressional hearings on recreational drug use. "It looks to me like his shoulder is at full strength, if I was just judging by how he was throwing," Spartans senior tight end Paul Lang said. "You can just tell with the timing of everything, if he's putting everything into the ball like he should. So far, in preparation, I feel like he's had great zip on the ball."
Adjust your prognosis for Michigan State accordingly, and decide what you will about Cook's chances of putting another high-profile pelt on his wall. At the moment, such a result would double as a retort to the fussing over his attitude and leadership that have oddly dogged him all year. It started with the examinations into why Cook wasn't named a team captain. It continued through the pearl-clutching over his blow-by of Archie Griffin following the Big Ten title game on Dec. 5, as the former Heisman Trophy winner presented Cook with the game's MVP trophy and Cook seemed generally oblivious to Griffin's presence. Never mind that Griffin hoisted his second Heisman nearly two decades before Cook was even born and that the dais was overcrowded and emotional after the Spartans' 16–13 win over Iowa; this, apparently, amounted to sneering disregard for all that was good and holy about college football.
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Cook nevertheless apologized, and quickly. Somehow, in the final stages of his Michigan State career, pointing to winning percentage no longer sufficed against the persnickety inspection of Cook's personality. Find a way to beat Alabama, however, and the criticism will be the only thing that's sorry. "People are going to say what they're going to say on Twitter, and it's nothing I can control," Cook said. "I'm not going to let it get to me. I talked to Archie Griffin. He was cool with it, he knew I didn't mean anything by it, and that's all that matters. Anyone else [that] is going to say anything, I really don't care."
Let's be clear: It would be nearly impossible to locate a more infinitely self-assured individual in college athletics than Cook. If this quality is at times bracing, at least it's authentic. Setting aside the usual bromides that athletes toss out for public consumption, there is little contrived about how Michigan State's quarterback operates. You know exactly where he's coming from and what to expect, and placed in the context of that 34–4 career record, this seems more commendable than lamentable.
Yes, it's a little odd that a fifth-year quarterback isn't a captain. Cook passed for 2,921 yards with 24 touchdowns this fall, and Michigan State went 12–1 and reached the playoff despite this insidious horror.
"This team is built on all sorts of leaders," senior offensive tackle Jack Conklin said. "It's not the fact that Connor is not a captain-worthy guy. It's that we have so many."
Whether that's the truth or a polite cover story, the point is this: It doesn't matter. In fact, Cook's confidence is precisely what Michigan State needs for the next two weeks. His team is well aware of his track record in signature games, and Cook's expectation of success on these days can be infectious. "He's comfortable, and we get comfortable, too, as an offense, when he takes control of a huddle and leads," junior receiver R.J. Shelton said. "We believe in him as he believes in us."
So, it isn't that a healthy Cook is a confident Cook; were the 6' 4", 220-pounder placed on medical bed rest, he would remain reasonably sure he could fire a third-and-eight dart to move the sticks. It's more that full health permits Cook to put his abundant self-assurance to use. Fitting balls into narrow gaps in a hurry and stretching the field with accuracy will be imperative against an Alabama defense ranked fourth nationally in pass efficiency defense. And Cook can manage all that when he is in top form. As Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio put it: "He throws guys open."
"He's got a very good sense of timing," co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. "He throws the ball downfield more than quarterbacks we've had in the past. The only way be successful there is to anticipate windows, and he's been very good with that. His accuracy this year stood out for me. There's been games where he's put the ball on the money time after time after time."
He'll try to do so even when hindered physically, but the results are somewhat less spectacular; witness the 16-for-32, 191-yard, one-interception effort against Iowa in the Big Ten championship game, after which Cook conceded he was not yet 100% from the shoulder sprain he suffered in a 24–7 win over Maryland on Nov. 14. It proved enough to eke by the Hawkeyes, but Michigan State is not keen to try for a reprise.
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If the shoulder is no longer an issue, then the uncharacteristic overthrows that raised eyebrows on Dec. 2 in Indianapolis may hit their target on New Year's Eve in Dallas. And that is absolutely necessary to keep the Crimson Tide defense honest. As Warner noted, an inability to tax any secondary "makes for a long day," and no one wants to enhance the degree of difficulty against Alabama. If the Spartans' practice reports are to be trusted, Cook should be fit enough that every throw isn't as much of a toss-up. "You can tell with deep balls—it's right to where it was Week 1 or before he got hurt," Shelton said.
This is the time of year that Cook has been right more often than not, in every sense. He knows it, and he is following a flat line to the Cotton Bowl and a moment that can redefine his career again. On Wednesday, he addressed the Griffin situation plainly and emphatically. He talked about how he isn't limited in practice and is therefore confident that he will be fully equipped for Dec. 31. He talked about how he didn't know what a Cover-2 or a Cover-4 was when he arrived at Michigan State and how he has learned to trust the pocket more as a passer in the past two seasons. Perhaps most importantly, he talked about Bubbles, the cat that belongs to Spartans senior center Jack Allen. "That's his tender side," Cook said. Straightforward answers all morning, for whatever came next.
Cook was also asked at one point if he was comfortable with the idea that the fate of the season rests on him. It was as if someone asked if he was O.K. with the earth orbiting the sun.
"Yeah, I'm comfortable with it," Cook said, with no small dollop of incredulity. "I mean, it's no different than any other game. You go out there, you have to execute the run game, you have to execute the pass game. There's pressure in every single game. I'm not looking at this game differently."
The approach, every bit of it, every inflection to it, has served Cook well so far. Another win or two, and surely he'll have no more explaining to do.