clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Processing the Numbers, Football Edition |
The Big Cotton Bowl Preview

New, 60 comments

It all comes down to this guy.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Football Power Index (FPI) Ratings are courtesy of ESPN
All other statistics are courtesy of Football Outsiders, home of the F/+ Combined Ratings for college football.
The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) was created by Brian Fremeau; check out his website BCFToys for other goodies.
The S&P+ rating was created by Bill Connelly; check out his college football analytics blog, Football Study Hall.
Hat tips to Addicted to Quack's kalon and FO's 7th Day Adventure column for the inspiration.

So, what’s next?

It’s the one you’ve all been waiting for, of course. Next up, the Alabama Crimson Tide head to Dallas to take on the Michigan State Spartans in the Cotton Bowl. The playoff semifinal will be on Thursday, December 31st at 7:00 PM CST / 8:00 PM EST, and will be televised on ESPN and WatchESPN.com.

The Résumé — Alabama

#2 - Alabama Crimson Tide
Team F/+ S&P+ FEI FPI OS&P+ DS&P+
OLE MISS 43.1% (7) 19.8 (7) 0.188 (8) 22.1 (5) 40.6 (11) 20.8 (23)
LSU 35.1% (11) 17.1 (10) 0.147 (18) 19.0 (13) 38.9 (16) 21.9 (27)
ARKANSAS 34.1% (15) 14.9 (16) 0.160 (14) 16.2 (16) 43.5 (2) 28.6 (71)
THE VILES 30.3% (19) 11.8 (24) 0.164 (12) 19.1 (11) 33.1 (40) 21.3 (25)
FLORIDA 30.0% (20) 14.6 (17) 0.127 (29) 14.6 (24) 29.4 (61) 14.8 (5)
MISS. STATE 28.6% (23) 13.2 (21) 0.128 (26) 15.1 (22) 37.6 (24) 24.4 (41)
WISCONSIN 20.0% (33) 11.1 (28) 0.074 (40) 13.4 (26) 26.2 (86) 15.1 (7)
GEORGIA 19.0% (36) 9.6 (37) 0.082 (37) 15.6 (19) 28.3 (73) 18.7 (11)
TEXAS A&M 18.4% (37) 7.3 (44) 0.103 (31) 14.7 (23) 29.7 (58) 22.4 (30)
API 11.3% (49) 6.2 (51) 0.049 (50) 11.3 (32) 31.6 (47) 25.4 (50)
MTSU -8.0% (81) -2.2 (81) -0.033 (77) 1.3 (78) 28.2 (74) 30.4 (82)
UL-MONROE -47.2% (120) -20.5 (122) -0.195 (112) -17.4 (118) 14.3 (125) 34.7 (105)
AVERAGE 17.9% 8.6 0.083 12.1 31.8 23.2

(Bold) numbers indicate national ranking.

Observations
  • Average F/+ Opponent: Nebraska (F/+ #38)
  • Average S&P+ Opponent: Pittsburgh (S&P+ #40)
  • Average FEI Opponent: Georgia (FEI #37)
  • Average FPI Opponent: Western Kentucky (FPI #31)
  • Average Offense: Washington (OS&P+ #46)
  • Average Defense: Notre Dame (DS&P+ #33)
  • Best Win: LSU (F/+ #11)
  • Wins Against F/+ Top-25: 5 (LSU, Arkansas, The Viles, Florida, Mississippi State)

That’s, uh, quite a schedule. Of the Tide’s 12 FBS opponents, a whopping 10 show up in the top-50 of the F/+ rankings, with six in the top-25. Five of those six were wins, of course, with the lone blemish coming at the hands of their highest-rated opponent in F/+ #7 Ole Miss, a contest which appears increasingly fluky in hindsight. The Tide rate out quite highly in the various strength of schedule metrics out there, placing 2nd in FPI’s Strength of Record metric,[1] 7th in S&P+ SOS, and 27th in FEI SOS. The average F/+ opponent is equivalent to F/+ #38 Nebraska, which is the best mark of the four playoff participants.

1 | Effectively tied at 98.8 with #1 Clemson, however.

The Tide also faced the toughest defensive schedule of the four participants, with the average opponent having a DS&P+ rating equivalent to #33 Notre Dame. Clemson and Michigan State had a better win, but the Tide ended up with the most wins against the F/+ top-25, undoubtedly a product of playing almost as many of those teams as the rest of the field combined. FPI was particularly high on the Tide’s schedule; the only reason they finished behind Clemson in the Strength of Record ratings was the fact the Tigers were undefeated.

Similarity — Michigan State
  • Rushing Offense: Wisconsin (Rush OS&P+ #80), but not really
  • Passing Offense: Georgia (Pass OS&P+ #29)
  • Rushing Defense: Georgia (Rush DS&P+ #23)
  • Passing Defense: Wisconsin (Pass DS&P+ #9)

Unsurprisingly, given that Michigan State is occasionally referred to as “Alabama North,” the Tide’s most-similar opponents to their next one are the two teams from their schedule that were most like the Tide themselves — Wisconsin and Georgia. The rushing offense ranking is astonishingly low,[2] and that’s actually a bit of a tenuous comparison. Most of these are off by a spot or so from Michigan State’s rankings, but we’ll see momentarily that the Spartans are one of the least-efficient rushing teams in the major conferences. Alabama won those two games with an average scoring margin of 23 points and an average yards-per-play margin of 2.4 yards, which is the mathy equivalent of “made their asses quit.”

2 | Yes, I verified that is the correct ranking for Wisconsin — they greatly missed Corey Clement this year.

The Résumé — Michigan State

#3 - Michigan State Spartans
Team F/+ S&P+ FEI FPI OS&P+ DS&P+
OHIO STATE 52.1% (4) 23.8 (4) 0.227 (7) 24.1 (3) 39.4 (14) 15.6 (8)
MICHIGAN 37.3% (10) 20.7 (6) 0.138 (23) 15.7 (18) 33.7 (34) 13.0 (2)
IOWA 26.1% (25) 9.9 (34) 0.147 (19) 13.3 (27) 31.3 (48) 21.4 (26)
OREGON 25.8% (26) 10.5 (31) 0.135 (24) 14.4 (25) 41.9 (8) 31.4 (88)
NEBRASKA 17.9% (38) 7.4 (43) 0.096 (33) 8.7 (45) 33.7 (36) 26.3 (55)
PENN STATE 13.9% (46) 10.8 (29) 0.027 (60) 6.8 (51) 30.3 (56) 19.5 (16)
WESTERN MICH. 12.0% (48) 6.0 (54) 0.057 (48) 4.8 (60) 37.1 (25) 31.1 (85)
AIR FORCE 8.2% (58) 7.1 (46) 0.013 (64) 1.7 (75) 34.6 (30) 27.5 (63)
INDIANA 6.1% (62) 3.7 (62) 0.029 (58) 1.8 (74) 38.5 (20) 34.8 (106)
CENTRAL MICH. 1.2% (68) 0.4 (75) 0.022 (61) -1.5 (85) 27.4 (80) 27.1 (59)
MARYLAND -3.6% (74) 2.8 (65) -0.050 (85) -1.2 (84) 27.6 (78) 24.8 (43)
PURDUE -14.2% (89) -2.9 (85) -0.083 (93) -3.9 (87) 26.6 (84) 29.5 (76)
AVERAGE 15.2% 8.4 0.063 7.1 33.5 25.2

(Bold) numbers indicate national ranking.

Observations
  • Average F/+ Opponent: Louisville (F/+ #43)
  • Average S&P+ Opponent: Pittsburgh (S&P+ #40)
  • Average FEI Opponent: Arizona State (FEI #45)
  • Average FPI Opponent: Texas (FPI #50)
  • Average Offense: Arizona (OS&P+ #37)
  • Average Defense: Georgia Southern (DS&P+ #47)
  • Best Win: Ohio State (F/+ #4)
  • Wins Against F/+ Top-25: 3 (Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa)

As the Tide’s win over FCS Charleston Southern was not included in the table, per convention Michigan State’s worst win was removed to compensate, which is why F/+ #101 Rutgers is nowhere to be found. With that adjustment, the Spartans enter the postseason with the second-toughest schedule of the field per F/+, with an average opponent equivalent to F/+ #43 Louisville. While not having as many top-tier opponents as the Tide,[3] they made it up at the bottom of the schedule, where there are no FCS squads to be found. Once Rutgers is removed, their weakest opponent was Purdue, who still finished comfortably inside the top-100. They also had a pretty stout offensive slate, with an average opponent equivalent to OS&P+ #37 Arizona, the second-best mark in the playoff field.

3 | Just three in the F/+ top-25 and six in the top-50.

Their lone loss was perhaps flukier than the Tide’s, with Nebraska winning on a late and very questionable touchdown where a Huskers receiver caught the ball in the field of play after previously going out of bounds. They hold the unique distinction of winning two non-overtime games in which they never led during regulation, as both the Michigan and Ohio State games were won on exciting last-second plays. The Spartans had by far the most harrowing path to the playoff, with seven of their 13 games decided by eight points or less, the highest mark in the field.

Similarity — Alabama
  • Rushing Offense: Maryland (Rush OS&P+ #12)
  • Passing Offense: Ohio State (Pass OS&P+ #26)
  • Rushing Defense: Ohio State (Rush DS&P+ #17), but not really
  • Passing Defense: Ohio State (Pass DS&P+ #4), but not really

The Tide’s closest comparison amongst Michigan State’s schedule is unsurprisingly the Buckeyes, as Alabama is basically Ohio State with a slightly poorer run game and a significantly better defense. The Spartans won that game through suffocating defense, limiting the Buckeyes to just 45 offensive plays and 132 total yards. Maryland managed just 107 rushing yards at 2.9 yards per carry against the Spartans.

The Goods

Overall Quality
ALABAMA MICHIGAN STATE THE EDGE
F/+ 64.5% (1) F/+ 44.8% (6) ALABAMA
FPI 25.5 (2) FPI 18.0 (14) ALABAMA
FEI 0.285 (1) FEI 0.234 (5) PUSH
S&P+ 28.7 (1) S&P+ 17.7 (9) PUSH
Home Spread -10 ALABAMA

The Matchup on Offense
ALABAMA MICHIGAN STATE THE EDGE
OFEI 0.49 (29) DFEI 0.66 (15) MICHIGAN STATE
OS&P+ 36.3 (27) DS&P+ 18.8 (13) MICHIGAN STATE
Rush OS&P+ 118.7 (13) Rush DS&P+ 116.3 (21) PUSH
Pass OS&P+ 117.5 (28) Pass DS&P+ 126.6 (10) MICHIGAN STATE
SD OS&P+ 115.3 (21) SD DS&P+ 126.1 (4) MICHIGAN STATE
PD OS&P+ 116.3 (36) PD DS&P+ 107.1 (50) ALABAMA
OALY 114.7 (13) DALY 116.1 (14) PUSH
OASR 129.2 (36) DASR 133.1 (22) MICHIGAN STATE

The Matchup on Defense
ALABAMA MICHIGAN STATE THE EDGE
DFEI 1.07 (2) OFEI 0.61 (23) ALABAMA
DS&P+ 7.6 (1) OS&P+ 36.5 (26) ALABAMA
Rush DS&P+ 157.3 (1) Rush OS&P+ 94.6 (98) ALABAMA
Pass DS&P+ 155.7 (1) Pass OS&P+ 115.8 (30) ALABAMA
SD DS&P+ 153.0 (1) SD OS&P+ 94.0 (99) ALABAMA
PD DS&P+ 154.1 (3) PD OS&P+ 128.7 (12) PUSH
DALY 128.3 (3) OALY 104.3 (50) ALABAMA
DASR 191.3 (2) OASR 146.7 (29) ALABAMA

The Matchup on Special Teams
ALABAMA MICHIGAN STATE THE EDGE
FVE 0.12 (16) FVE 0.09 (21) PUSH
STE -0.02 (83) STE -0.06 (108) ALABAMA
FGE -0.03 (79) FGE -0.19 (99) ALABAMA
KE -0.14 (6) KRE 0.07 (33) ALABAMA
PE 0.2 (118) PRE 0.0 (68) MICHIGAN STATE
PRE 0.17 (14) PE 0.15 (108) ALABAMA
KRE -0.18 (125) KE 0.13 (109) MICHIGAN STATE

(Bold) numbers indicate national ranking.
Statistics current as of December 28th, 2015.

Wondering what all these terms are?

Overall Quality

F/+: The F/+ combined ratings combine FEI and S&P+ into one metric that serves as Football Outsiders' official rankings for college football. For a more detailed discussion of F/+, check out this section of the PTN Football Primer.

FPI: The Football Power Index, an overall team quality metric produced by ESPN. Presented as a scoring margin, FPI weights factors such as offensive, defensive, and special teams efficiencies, as well as turnovers and big plays, and also includes opponent adjustments.

FEI: The Fremeau Efficiency Index, an overall team quality metric that is drive-based and opponent-adjusted. For a more detailed discussion of FEI, check out this section of the PTN Football Primer.

S&P+: Another overall quality metric constructed primarily from a play-by-play perspective, the S&P+ rating underwent big changes prior to the 2015 season. Check out the primer article for more details.

Offensive Metrics

Off. F/+: The offensive component of F/+.

OFEI: The offensive component of FEI.

OS&P+: The offensive component of S&P+.

Rush OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on rushing plays for the offense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at running the ball.

Pass OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing plays for the offense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at throwing the ball.

PD: Passing Downs, defined as later downs with medium yardage or more to go (3rd, 4th downs in excess of 5 yards to go), as well as 2nd down with more than 8 yards to go.

SD: Standard Downs, defined as all downs that are not Passing Downs.

SD OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on standard downs for the offense — a good measure of a team's offensive effectiveness on earlier downs and short yardage.

PD OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing downs for the offense — a good measure of a team's offensive effectiveness on later downs and long yardage.

Defensive Metrics

Def. F/+: The defensive component of F/+.

DFEI: The defensive component of FEI.

DS&P+: The defensive component of S&P+.

Rush DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on rushing plays for the defense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at stopping the run.

Pass DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing plays for the defense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at defending the pass.

SD DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on standard downs for the defense — a good measure of a team's defensive effectiveness on earlier downs and short yardage.

PD DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing downs for the defense — a good measure of a team's defensive effectiveness on later downs and long yardage.

Special Teams Metrics

FVE: FEI Field Value Efficiency, a measure of how much field position value a team earned against its opponents.

Fremeau Special Teams Efficiency Components - The special teams component of F/+ is based on Brian Fremeau’s Special Teams Efficiency, which is made up of the following five components of special teams play (per FootballOutsiders):
FGEField Goal Efficiency, the scoring value per field goal attempt earned by the field goal unit as measured against national success rates.
PREPunt Return Efficiency, the scoring value per opponent punt earned by the receiving team as measured against national return rates.
KREKickoff Return Efficiency, the scoring value per opponent kickoff earned by the receiving team as measured against national return rates.
PEPunt Efficiency, the scoring value per punt earned by the opponent's receiving team as measured against national return rates.
KEKickoff Efficiency, the scoring value per kickoff earned by the opponent's receiving team as measured against national return rates.

Line-Specific Metrics

ASRAdjusted Sack Rate, which is a version of sack rate (defined as sacks / [sacks + passing attempts] ) that has been opponent-adjusted. The metric is scaled based on an average rate of 100; the higher the rate the better. ASR is calculated for both the offense (OASR) and defense (DASR).

ALYAdjusted Line Yards, which is a measure of success in the running game specific to the line. This is accomplished by taking each carry by running backs only and weighting the yardage as follows:

  • Runs for a loss are weighted 120%.
  • Runs for 0-4 yards are unweighted.
  • Runs for 5-10 yards are weighted 50%.
  • Runs for 11 or more yards are not included.

After the weighting process, the runs are further adjusted for game situation and opponent, and then averaged out per carry, resulting in adjusted line yards — a more detailed explanation of the entire process is available here. ALY is calculated for both the offensive line (OASR) and the defensive front seven (DASR).

The Swanson Giddiness Index

Easily the most accurate predictor of success in college football, the Swanson Giddiness Index is a qualitative, completely unsupportable metric that is presented via the tone of that week's image/animated gif of Ron Swanson — beloved Parks and Recreation character and official spirit animal of Processing the Numbers.

Wondering what all of this means? Check out the PTN Primer!

For even more advanced statistics goodness, check out the Advanced Stats Profile Index, the Alabama Profile, and the Michigan State Profile.

So, what do we know?

Overall Quality

We already knew this as the committee did an outstanding job this year selecting the best four teams in the country,[4] but these are two quality teams that absolutely deserve to be here at this point of the season. The only real question with the committee’s choices was the seeding of Michigan State and Oklahoma and the inclusion of those two teams ahead of Ohio State; in Michigan State’s case the head-to-head win likely made that an easy decision, last-second victory or otherwise. The four overall quality metrics have the Tide as the consensus #1 team in the country, with only Oklahoma’s placement as the #1 team in FPI preventing a clean sweep. The Spartans lag slightly behind in FEI, but the Tide’s near-significant edge is what gives them a 20% margin over Michigan State in F/+. Vegas agrees with the metrics’ position on this matchup, as they have the Tide installed as a 10 point favorite.

4 | They rank 1-4 in FPI’s Strength of Record metric, and possess top-15 rankings in any overall quality metric of note.

When Alabama Has the Ball

Probably a little more green here than you were expecting, right? Mark Dantonio was a successful defensive coach prior to taking the head job in Lansing,[5] and he’s built a program that’s based on defense and ball control. This year’s group is an outstanding one that barely dropped off from the departures of Pat Narduzzi for Pittsburgh and several defensive players for the NFL. In fact, “barely dropped off” is a bit misleading, because this year’s defense is actually better despite those losses, with a nine spot improvement in DS&P+ and a 19 spot jump in DFEI.

5 | He was Saban’s DBs coach at Michigan State, and the DC for Ohio State in their 2002 national championship year.

Oddly enough, the only clear advantage the Tide has is on passing downs, which appears to be a weak point for this defense. That’s a bit surprising given their top-10 mark in Pass DS&P+ and a strong DASR, but sure enough they finished 74th in success rate on passing downs and an abysmal 97th in passing downs IsoPPP, which suggests this defense becomes a sieve in those situations. That’s good news for Tide fans, as picking up third downs has been an Achilles heel for this team all season.

The only area where the margins are close is on the ground, where Michigan State’s run defense is just good enough to produce an interesting matchup with Derrick Henry and the Tide. There was a thought-provoking piece about this last week at AL.com which pointed out some inconsistencies in their performance this season. The gist is that they played up to better competition, specifically noting the poor performances of Ezekiel Elliot (2.8 YPC) and Royce Freeman (3.8 YPC), but also the better-than-expected performances by the likes of Purdue and Rutgers. It’s doubtful they will fail to show up for the biggest test of the season in Heisman winner Henry,[6] who comes in with four 200+ yard performances in his last six games against FBS competition.

6 | You can make an argument Elliot is the better overall back, but he got all of 12 carries in that game. Henry will get juuuussst a few more.

He will likely be asked to carry the load once again, as this is not a great matchup for Jake Coker. The senior has come a long way over the course of the season but is still given to errant throws and generally shaky play from time to time. This will be the best pass defense he’s played since the Wisconsin game, and while that was one of his stronger outings on the year,[7] that was with the full complement of receivers and zero tape for opponents to break down. Coker’s built a nice rapport with Calvin Ridley, Richard Mullaney, and ArDarius Stewart at this stage, but the connection he had with Robert Foster looked to be a special one before the latter went down for the season with a torn rotator cuff.

7 | 22/28 for 264 yards and a touchdown.

But as the nation saw over the last several weeks of the season, this offense lives and dies with Henry. Never in Saban’s nine seasons at the helm has the Tide been this reliant on the output of one player, which on one hand is terrifying to Tide fans but completely understandable on the other hand. When the offensive line blocks for this man there has not been a defense capable of containing him, as most teams do not have experience dealing with a linebacker that can outrun their secondary in the open field. That bit about the offensive line is important, of course — they’ve been below-average this season at allowing stuffs, and while Michigan State is not stocked with tackle-for-loss machines along the line they show up well in those metric.

One thing to watch out for, however: the Spartans are 47th nationally in defensive opportunity rate, which measures how often a back picks up at least five yards a carry. That’s the boundary for the so-called “second level,” and letting Henry get that far is a recipe for disaster for opposing defenses. Even when met at that four-to-five yard range he tends to power forward for an extra yard or three, and those extra yards pile up by the end of the game. The punishment he dealt while picking them up piles up, too, and that may be the even bigger factor.

When Michigan State Has the Ball

Look, this is real simple: Michigan State is not running on this defense, period. The Tide defense was likely the worst possible matchup for the Spartans in the playoff field, as despite the much-ballyhooed recruiting adjustments designed to combat the hurry-up and spread offenses this defense still specializes in shutting down pro-style offenses. Georgia was completely smothered until the game was long decided; over a quarter of their offensive production came on one Nick Chubb run in garbage time. The Wisconsin matchup is perhaps a bit more telling for what we can expect Thursday night, as the majority of their offensive production came via an abnormally strong performance from Joel Stave.

That occurred against a new-look Tide secondary where Minkah Fitzpatrick, Marlon Humphrey, and Eddie Jackson were still getting settled in their new roles, but it still highlights the most reasonable path to victory for the Spartans. Connor Cook is going to need to play the game of his life if Michigan State wants to move the ball on this defense, because the only way it’s happening is through the air. With apologies to Dak Prescott and Chad Kelly, Cook is likely the most talented QB the Tide’s faced so far this season, and the two Mississippi quarterbacks had perhaps the best performances of anybody against this defense. Kelly was aided by some poor officiating and an API-level unicorn touchdown of course, but together they combined to go 41 of 78 (52.5%) for 645 yards (8.3 YPA) and three touchdowns. The high yardage and low completion percentage suggests it’s tough for even the good quarterbacks to complete throws on this secondary, but the yardage is there if your receivers run good routes and the ball placement is on point.

That latter bit is important, as Cook’s been dealing with a nagging shoulder issue that’s still lingering despite the layoff. He’s not been the most accurate of quarterbacks at only a 57% completion percentage on the year, but he’s got a fleet of experienced receivers and tight ends; his top six targets on the season are all seniors or juniors. The big name is senior wideout Aaron Burbridge, who was the lone receiver in the B1G this season to crack 1000 yards receiving. He’s easily Cook’s favorite target, with nearly twice as many looks as the next guy on the list, and it’s likely he will be Cyrus Jones’ responsibility more often than not. Another receiver to look out for is the speedy R.J. Shelton, a converted RB who’s a dangerous option carrying the ball as well.

One of the more interesting matchups will be what the Spartan line can do with the Tide’s outstanding pass rush, which is holding steady at #2 in DASR. Cook’s been sacked just 14 times this year, but Tide’s hovered around the national leaderboard in total sacks for most of the season. This defensive line is stocked with hellacious pass rushers, most notably juniors Tim Williams and Jonathan Allen, both of whom may be playing on Sundays next fall. If they are able to get to Cook with any sort of regularity, this could get ugly in a hurry.

Special Teams

As you might imagine, Michigan State excels at controlling field position, and they slot in just five spots behind the Tide in FVE. That may be the only thing that doesn’t surprise you about this chart, however, as the Tide has several significant advantages on special teams. Per usual, that’s due to the strong play of Adam Griffith and Jones, who closed the season as two of the best at their positions in the SEC. Griffith’s been lights-out on kickoffs all year, and nearly automatic on field goals since an ugly stretch to open the year. The former bit is important, as the Spartan kick returners have done a fine job this season. Most of the fireworks for Jones came late in the season, of course, but he consistently makes smart plays with the football on his returns, and this is a juicy, juicy matchup against one of the worst punting units in the country. It’s unlikely he picks up another touchdown (or two!), but keep an eye on #5 regardless.

Aside from that, it’s the usual suspects for the Tide — J.K. Scott and the kick returners. The Spartans haven’t done a great job at covering kicks this year, as evidenced by the #109 ranking in Kickoff Efficiency, but the kick return game has been an eyesore for the Tide. The poor ranking is due mostly to the debacle against Ole Miss, but since then they’ve interspersed solid returns with really boneheaded plays, like Mullaney’s decision to return a muffed ball out of the end zone against API.

As for Scott, who knows? The form that garnered him a freshman All-America nod and Ray Guy Award consideration a year ago appears only in flashes, and the two times he’s significantly outkicked his coverage this season resulted in return touchdowns for the opponent. The Spartans are an average punt return team, and Scott certainly didn’t have any issues with distance the last time he played in a dome, but this is not a game where the Tide can afford to spot the opponent a free touchdown.

Any intangibles to consider?

Weather will be a non-factor as this one will be played in Arlington’s cavernous AT&T stadium, and while the Tide fanbase travels notoriously well, this atmosphere should be a truly neutral one for both teams. Despite the long and storied history for both of these programs, they’ve only met on the field once before: the Tide’s 49-7 detonation of the Spartans back at the end of the 2010 season in the Capital One Bowl.

The Tide enter the game as healthy as can be expected, with only the longstanding loss of Foster on the report. The Spartans are a bit more banged up, having lost several players to season-enders this year, most notably starting cornerback Vavante Copeland and lineman Dennis Finley, who ascended to the starting lineup by the Purdue game only to break both bones in his lower leg. The Spartans have been without starting safety R.J. Williamson for most of the season with a torn bicep, but he is probable to return for this game. Cook’s shoulder concerns are oft-discussed but poorly documented; he is listed as probable, but there’s no way he’s missing this one. Thus, the only outstanding concern is fullback Trevon Pendleton, who’s started most games for the Spartans this season but is questionable with a leg injury. Needless to say, Michigan State can ill afford any hindrance to a run game that is already significantly outmatched in this one.

Swanson Giddiness Index

Ron believes in the players, the coaches, and the Process. Ron knows the Tide is built to stop teams like Michigan State. Ron thinks the Tide have got this.

The Picks

That spread may seem a bit steep, but honestly the stats back it up. If Cook does his best Stephen Garcia / Trevor Knight impression this could get interesting, but those defenses were night and day compared to this one. It’s hard to see the Spartans moving the ball much, and while Henry’s going to work for every yard he gets, the script for this one’s going to be familiar to you. Lots of carries early, passing to sustain drives when necessary, and a worn out Spartans defense that slowly folds in the fourth quarter. This team is a throwback to the Sabanic ideal of football — you know exactly what’s going to happen, but you’re so dominated there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

STRAIGHT UP:      Alabama Crimson Tide
AGAINST SPREAD: Alabama Crimson Tide

ROLL TIDE