The 2015 Cotton Bowl features a battle between two hard-nosed teams. Nick Saban and Mark Dantonio’s sides each play smash-mouth football, which could lead to a defensive struggle. Alabama may be the country’s most complete team and took home the SEC crown, while Michigan State proved its mettle by knocking off three top-15 teams and captured the Big Ten title. Here’s a look at three important matchups to watch in this game that will determine which team earns the right to compete for the national championship.
Alabama’s offensive line vs. Michigan State’s defensive line
Alabama running back Derrick Henry rushed for 1,986 yards and 23 touchdowns this season en route to winning the Heisman trophy. A big reason for that: the Crimson Tide’s incredibly large and talented offensive line, which received the inaugural Joe Moore award earlier this month recognizing the country’s best O-line. Alabama can lull teams to sleep with three or four-yard handoffs up the middle, and Henry usually is able to hit a hole and break one for a huge gain once the opposing defensive front is worn down. This will be one of the Tide’s toughest challenges yet, however, as Shilique Calhoun & Co. lead a Spartans defense ranked No. 9 nationally in total defense. Michigan State will need to neutralize Henry and force Alabama quarterback Jake Coker to make plays. If the Spartans can’t stop the run, Alabama will run its way to the College Football Playoff final.
Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook vs. Alabama’s secondary
Alabama will need to contain a better quarterback than any it has faced this season. Cook has been remarkably efficient, tossing 24 touchdowns to just five interceptions, sporting a 142.2 passer rating and throwing for nearly 3,000 yards. Alabama’s defensive backs are quick, aggressive and exceptional at breaking on routes. The Crimson Tide held opposing quarterbacks to the fifth-lowest passing efficiency this year and recorded 16 interceptions. Cook and the Michigan State offense are going to need to establish the run and use screens to help keep the Alabama secondary honest. The Bama defense can’t take any plays off because if Cook gets even a small window down the field, he’s going to hit his man.
Michigan State wide receiver Aaron Burbridge vs. Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones
Burbridge exploded onto the national scene in his senior season, recording 80 catches for 1,219 yards and seven touchdowns. He has an explosive first step, good hands and perhaps most importantly, the faith of Cook to throw the ball in Burbridge’s direction in 50–50 situations. Likely tasked with shutting him down will be fifth-year senior Jones, who—while notably effective on punt returns—has anchored a strong defense. Jones has registered one interception and seven pass breakups to go along with 29 tackles, but Burbridge may be his toughest assignment yet. If Burbridge can get a step on Jones, help over the top from the safeties might still be too late.