Game: This is not only the Cotton Bowl but also a playoff semifinal matching up the #3 seeded Michigan State Spartans against the #2 seeded Alabama Crimson Tide. Alabama won the only prior meeting vs. Michigan State, 49-7 in the 2010 Capital One Bowl played on 1-1-11 in Orlando, FL. This is MSUâ€™s first playoff while Bama dropped its playoff game last year (Sugar Bowl) as the #1 seed against #4 seeded Ohio State, 42-35 (heavy favorites). Nick Saban is 5-3 in bowls at Alabama, 9-8 overall and this marks his first game against one of his former schools (HC at LSU also). Mark Dantonio has Michigan State bowling for a 9th straight season and is 6-4 overall in bowls. MSU beat Baylor 42-41 in last years Cotton Bowl in a meeting between Top 10 rank squads. Alabama secured its spot here after defeating Florida in the SEC Championship game 29-15, their 10th straight win since the Ole Miss loss. Michigan State got here thanks to a 17-14 win at Ohio State (with a backup QB) and a 22 play/82 yard TD drive (9:04 TOP) with just 27 seconds left in a 16-13 victory over Iowa in the Big Ten Championship.
Offense: Overall Alabama is not going to scare you offensively (ranked #48). Coming into the season the biggest question marks on the team were at QB and the OL. The Crimson Tide averages 423 ypg and 34 ppg. They run the ball 59% of the time and pass it 41%. Their OC is former Tennessee/USC/Oakland Raiders (youngest NFL HC in the modern era) HC Lane Kiffin (also QB coach). Overall the Alabama offensive philosophy is to run the ball heavy while setting up an opportunistic passing game but if they are getting 4-5 yards every carry they will not fix what is not broken.
QBâ€™s: Like mentioned above a lot of uncertainty heading into 2015 with the Alabama signal callers. Jake Coker started the first 2 but only passed for 214 ypg (2-1 ratio). Cooper Bateman got the nod in week 3 vs. Ole Miss but after 11-14 for just 87 yards and a pick was replaced by Coker and he has been the starter since (12 overall starts, 13 games played). Coker has passed for multiple TDâ€™s just 5 times, while only passing for over 220 yards twice. In fact its interesting to note that in the 2 games he surpassed the 220 passing mark his ratio was a dismal 2-3 being sacked 7 times (41% of sacks allowed on the season) and the ground game only had 134 and 117 yards for the games (lowest and 2nd lowest rushing outputs on the season; Arkansas and Tennessee).
RBâ€™s: This is the heart-and-soul of the Alabama offense and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry leads them. Henry has rushed for 1,986 yards (5.9 ypc) while finding the endzone 23 times. He has 9 games that have eclipsed the 100+ yard barrier while rushing for 200+ on 4 occasions. Henry broke Herschel Walkers SEC record for most rushing yards in a season. Kenyan Drake has played in 11 games and is the second leading rusher but with just 72 attempts and 347 yards (4.8 ypc). Henry has accounted for 82% of the Crimson Tideâ€™s rushing TDâ€™s and 73% of their rushing yards.
WR/TEâ€™s: This is a young and for the most part an unproven group. Their top 2 players are Fr WR Calvin Ridley and So WR ArDarius Stewart. Those two have accounted for 54% of the entire Alabama passing yards. TE OJ Howard has just 30 receptions for 335 yards (11.2 ypc) and has not found the endzone in 2015. Ridley is a star in the making (#1 option with 75-893-11.9-5) while the only veteran presence is WR Richard Mullaney who has 34 grabs for 308 yards (9.1 ypc) with 5 TDâ€™s. Needless to say this unit has not been asked to do much so far with the dominant ground attack.
OL: In my opinion this was a huge concern (along with the QB position) heading into this season but they have passed the test especially after the Ole Miss loss. They have missed just 1 start (Charleston Southern) and have been intact for 64 of the possible 65 starts. The OL is led by AA C Ryan Kelly (6â€™5â€ 297) and 1st Team All-SEC LT Cam Robinson (6â€™6â€ 326). Across the front they average 6â€™5â€ 312 lbs with three upperclassmen starters (whole right side of OL). The unit has allowed 18 sacks on the year but just 2 in the last 4 games. It is said a lot in college football but this is a very underrated group that just wears you down especially late in games.
Defense: The Crimson Tide fields the NCAAâ€™s #2 Total Defensive unit (#1 Boston College). They are however #1 in the FBS allowing 155 ypg less then their foes average and held 8 schools to either their fewest or 2nd fewest yards in 2015. Kirby Smart has been the DC since 2008 (at Bama since â€™07) and has accepted the head coaching job at Georgia but will continue to lead the Crimson Tide defense in the playoffs. Alabama is great at making teams one-dimensional leading the nation allowing just 74 rushing ypg (2.4), #1 also with 46 sacks. In their loss to Ole Miss they did allow 92 rushing yards but also a season high 341 passing yards. Simply Alabama wants to stop the run and force 3rd down and long obvious passes.
DL: Alabama mainly uses a 3-4 set but will walk a LB up often. They average 6â€™4â€ 313 upfront and are led by AA DEâ€™s Aâ€™Shawn Robinson & Jonathan Allen. Allen leads the team with 10 sacks. In 11 of Alabamaâ€™s 13 games they have at least 2+ sacks including 3+ in 8. Michigan State averages 161 rushing ypg (4.0) while Alabama has held every opponent under that with the lone exception being Georgia, 193 yards (5.1 ypc).
LBâ€™s: 1st Team AA Reggie Ragland heads up a very talented unit. He is the leading tackler with 90 (#2 has 60), has 2.5 sacks, 4 TFL and has broken up 6 passes and forced 2 fumbles. Tim Williams has just 18 tackles but is a 3rd down specialist with 10 sacks. Since Alabamaâ€™s loss to Ole Miss they have allowed just 12 ppg and 238 ypg in their current 10-game winning streak.
DBâ€™s: This unit reminds me of the WR/TEâ€™s. I think they are talented but untested for most of the 2015 season. As a unit they are allowing 184 ypg (49%) with a 13-16 ratio. AA SS Eddie Jackson (5 interceptions) is the leader of the secondary. The 3 pass attacks that had success vs. the Tide this season were Ole Miss (341 yards), Texas A&M (284 yards) and Mississippi State (304 yards) but I also want to mention the 3 schools rushed for a TOTAL of 213 yards (2.2 ypc). That was also against the #10, #16 and #40 ranked pass offenses; Michigan State comes in at #52 (236 ypg, 56%, 26-6 ratio). Not a lot has been said one way or the other about this unit but I feel they will be put through their biggest test of the season against Connor Cook and the Spartans.
Special Teams: Alabama does have a very talented Special Teams unit that like most teams of this caliber is overshadowed by either a potent offense or a dominant defense. RBâ€™s Kenyan Drake and Damien Harris are the main kick returnees combining for 23 returns (21.0 average). CB Cyrus Jones leads the nation with 3 punt return TDâ€™s and on 36 returns is averaging 12.2 ypr. K Adam Griffith (started season 0-4, fans called for his job but responded well) overall is 21-29 on field goals showing a strong leg going 6-9 from 40+ including 2-2 from 50+ with a long kick of 55 yards. Outstanding P JK Scott is averaging 44.2 per punt (36.3 net) landing 18 inside the 20 and has 17 punts of 50+ yards. The Crimson Tide are solid in kick return defense (#17 NCAA) allowing just 18.6 yards per return but rank #100 on punt return defense allowing 11.0 yards per return.
Overview: Stopping Alabama means slowing down the Heisman Winner Derrick Henry but that is easier said then done. Henryâ€™s lowest outing on the season against a Power-5 program was 95 yards against Arkansas, every other game he has topped at least 120+ yards. Establish the run early, eventually wearing teams down especially late in games is the key to success for Alabama. The passing game really hasnâ€™t had to burden a lot of the load this season so far. Making QB Coker throw more if you shut down the rushing attack could bode well for the Spartans. That is a very high possibility given the fact Michigan State is allowing just 113 rush ypg (3.6) and 6 opponents failed to top the century mark. On the flipside establishing any rushing game against the Crimson Tide is difficult. Alabama has the #1 rush defense in the country allowing just 74 ypg (2.4 ypc) and their pass efficiency defense is ranked #4. Michigan State doesnâ€™t have that clear-cut rusher like in the past few years so attacking this Alabama defense might be in the hands of QB Connor Cook. If you going to win then put the ball in your best playmakers hands and that in my opinion is the Cook-WR Aaron Burbridge connection. In the end for Michigan State to win I feel they will have to create a turnover or two and I am going to use the numbers 2, 100 and 300. If Michigan State has +2 or more turnovers, holds Henry to 100 yards or less and Connor Cook passes for 300+ yards there is great chance Michigan State plays for the National Championship.