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Alabama vs. Michigan State: Cotton Bowl preview

No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Michigan State square off in one of the College Football Playoff semifinals.

DALLAS — As one Nick Saban assistant (Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart) prepares to leave the nest and take over his own program, another former Saban assistant will try to become the first branch off the Alabama coach’s tree to beat the trunk. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio worked for Saban in East Lansing from 1995-99, but even Saban has admitted that Dantonio has achieved more at the helm of the Spartans than Saban could have dreamed possible when he coached Michigan State. 

While the two men have different ideas about how to run a program, their teams play almost like mirror images. They still run pro-style offenses. They still use fullbacks. They build their defenses from the inside out and dare opposing quarterbacks to challenge their cornerbacks in one-on-one coverage. But only one can advance. With a win, Alabama would play for the national title for the fourth time since 2009. Meanwhile, the Spartans will attempt to take yet another step toward the program’s first national title since 1952.

Points of Interest

1. Alabama’s defense ranks 13th in the nation in yards allowed per passing attempt (5.9), but the Crimson Tide have yet to face a quarterback as good as Michigan State senior Connor Cook. Cook’s accuracy has been an issue for most of his career, but his completion percentage on the season (56.9) is lower in part because he doesn’t get to pad his stats with short, easy throws that populate the playbooks of most college offenses. When Cook is on, he can fit passes into windows far narrower than the quarterbacks Alabama faced in the SEC. Smart compared Cook to Matt Ryan at Boston College, and if Cook is on target, he might be able to keep an Alabama safety from drifting into the box.

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Alabama’s front seven doesn’t need much extra help, but if Cook can’t stretch the field, Michigan State may find it impossible to move the ball. If he can, the Spartans should have an easier time running the ball as well. Cook said this week that the shoulder injury that kept him out against Ohio State on Nov. 21 and limited him against Penn State and Iowa has healed. “I'm feeling great,” Cook said Monday. “I practiced [Sunday] and the day before. Felt really good. The time off, going back home, doing some extra rehab stuff obviously helped out a lot. But shoulder is feeling good.”

2. Alabama rotates eight players among its three defensive line positions and three more at its rush linebacker position, meaning Michigan State’s offensive linemen will face a fresh “creature”—Florida coach Jim McElwain’s word for the Crimson Tide’s defensive linemen—on most snaps. Alabama defensive end A’Shawn Robinson (6’4,’’ 312 lbs) estimated this week that he plays between 30 and 40 snaps in most games. Robinson is a surefire first-round draft pick, but Smart is confident rotating Robinson and fellow end Jarran Reed off the field because there is virtually no dropoff between those two and Jonathan Allen (team-high 12.5 tackles for loss) and Dalvin Tomlinson. "It's a dog-eat-dog world so in our mind, we're trying to feast," Robinson said Monday. "It's like a pack of wolves out there on the hunt. We're just trying to go out there and dominate and get after whoever is out there. Our mindset, we see blood and we try to get blood.”

3. The Michigan State defense will have to slow Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, but the Spartans stoned one excellent rushing attack late this season. Ohio State has averaged 5.7 yards a carry over 12 games in 2015 but gained only 2.9 yards a carry against Michigan State. Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin joked Sunday that the Tide will hand the ball more to Henry than Ohio State handed the ball to Ezekiel Elliott in that game (12 carries). Since Henry averaged 37.5 carries in Alabama’s final four SEC games, that’s a near-certainty.

But if Michigan State is as stingy as it was against Ohio State or Iowa (2.2 yards a carry), it will force Alabama to try to win the game with quarterback Jake Coker’s arm. The Tide haven’t asked Coker to carry the offense in the fifth-year senior’s first season as a starter, but he might need to in the biggest game of his career. How he responds could decide whether the Tide or Spartans advance.

Burning question

Can Henry continue to carry such a heavy workload and still seemingly get stronger as the game progresses? He logged his largest carry totals in Alabama’s final two games and remained consistent in his ability to gain yards after first contact. On the season, Henry gained 69% of his yards after contact. Against Auburn (44 carries), he gained 68% of his 271 rushing yards after contact. Against Florida (46 carries), he gained 71 percent of his 189 rushing yards after contact.


Michigan State receiver Aaron Burbridge has accounted for 21 gains of 20 yards or more, including five touchdowns. His explosiveness will be critical to the Spartans’ ability to put up points on Alabama’s defense.

Statistically speaking

​Alabama’s defense ranks second in the nation behind Clemson in percentage of three-and-out drives. The Tide have forced three-and-outs on 79 of 180 drives. Not surprisingly, opponents are averaging only 26:07 in time of possession against Alabama.

Final analysis

These two teams look fairly even, so a turnover or two could flip the result. Both teams could struggle early to gain yards on the ground, but don’t be shocked if each continues to pound the ball inside. Since the Tide shifted the emphasis of their offense to Henry following the loss to Ole Miss, Henry has found a way to break defenses. If Alabama’s defense can keep Cook in check, Henry may be able to break the dam late in the game.

The pick

Alabama 19, Michigan State 16