Flash back to the first round of the 2014 College Football Playoffs...Alabama, the top ranked team in the country and the presumed favorite to reach the title game, drew the fourth seed, an Ohio State Buckeye team many thought shouldn't have even made the four-team field at all. Alabama looked to be well on its way to yet another shot at the title during the storied tenure of Nick Saban, with Ohio State and its third-string quarterback representing a mere speed bump in the path of the rolling Tide.
We all know how that turned out.
In something of a redux of Alabama's first-ever playoff appearance in 2014, the Tide is once again facing a Big10 Champion few figured was destined for the playoffs at the dawning of the 2015 season. After all, the Spartans have been contenders in many years, but usually stumble in their quest for a spot on the national stage at some point during championship season. But with a win over the reigning national champion Buckeyes at season's end, and a victory over undefeated Iowa in the Big10 Championship, the Spartans crowbarred themselves into the final four.
Once again, Alabama is arguably the best team in the nation, and the Big10 representative is considered the most likely team to fall in the opening stanza. But as Alabama learned painfully in 2014, to quote Outkast, nothing is for sure, nothing is for certain.
Sure, the last times the two teams met in 2010's Capital One Bowl, it was a one-sided affair, with the Tide working out the frustrations of a disappointing season on an overmatched Sparty squad. Alabama throttled MSU offensively and defensively, flexing talent and setting the stage for the 2011-2012 championship runs. Many have cited that win as indicative of the eventual outcome of this year's pairing, but to do so is folly. This is a different Michigan State team: a top-10 defense paired with a pro-style offense commanded by possibly the best quarterback the Tide has seen to date.
This game may be a good match-up for the Tide, but the Spartans will also test the mettle of their crimson-clad opponents. Like their Grecian namesakes, these modern day Spartans will not cede an inch without a blood-letting, and Alabama will need to gird its loins prior to this episode of gridiron gladiatorial combat. It's true, the Tide is a nine to 10 point favorite heading into the game, but the Tide was favored against Ohio State as well.
Will Michigan State be able to establish their multi-headed running game against Alabama's top-ranked rushing defense? Will the Tide be able to counteract quarterback Connor Cook's ability and Aaron Burbridge's deep threat capability? Can the Tide stop the aggressive Spartan red zone attack? Will Alabama's Derrick Henry be able to run over, around and through the Michigan State defensive wall? Can Jake Coker spark the Bama offense with an accurate, quick passing attack?
These questions will define the tone and timbre of the game. Let's take a closer look...
The Alabama offense versus the Michigan State defense
It's obvious that the Tide will want to establish the run first and foremost against an attacking, lethally simple Michigan State defense. The Spartans don't have a lot of flash defensively, but what they lack in sparkle they make up for with aggressive efficiency. The MSU defense is designed to allow the front seven to attack downhill, snarling the line of scrimmage with defensive linemen while linebackers shoot gaps and protect the edges from running backs who must bounce out around the interior traffic jam.
This, in and itself, could pose a problem for Alabama's usual mode of attack. Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry has proven himself worthy as Alabama's battering ram, toting the ball a superhuman 40+ times per game routinely while getting stronger as the carries amass. But Henry will be challenged at the line of scrimmage, at least early on, by the Spartans' style of play and a scheme that will force him to stutter through the line of scrimmage at times due to congestion. Henry is not the type of back who is prone to bounce outside, rather preferring to bang between the tackles and take advantage of his superior size against second level tacklers. This will be a challenge for him if the Tide offensive line cannot effectively clear the lanes and open holes against a clingy tangle of Spartan defenders.
Speaking of the offensive line, Alabama has one of the best in the nation, and they'll need an effective strategy for dealing with Michigan State's line of scrimmage chaos. Between the MSU "triangle keys" system and "wrong-arm" technique used in attacking blockers, the whole purpose of the Spartan defensive line is to halt the forward momentum of the offensive line and clog holes with bodies en masse. Alabama cannot just pound away with the Henry mallet, as doing so plays right into the Spartan run defense strategy. Instead, the Tide will need to mix the run-pass options adeptly, and blend in some counters to minimize the effectiveness of the Spartan traffic jam strategy.
Because the Spartan defense lacks experienced depth to a degree, expect Alabama's physical attack to gain traction in the second half. Sure, the Spartans are accustomed to four quarter Big10 battles of attrition. But Alabama is also used to being the last man standing in the final stanza. And with a 242 pound sledge hammer running behind a road-grading offensive line, one has to believe that as good as MSU may be at stopping the run in the first half, by the time the fourth quarter rolls around, their ability to stand strong may falter.
So say that Michigan State is able to keep Henry in check by plugging the line and forcing Alabama to adapt. How does Alabama find a way to muster offensive momentum? After all, one key to a Michigan State victory is putting the ball in the hands of the talented Cook, and if Alabama routinely goes three and out on offense, Cook will get more chances to sting the Tide defense with the Spartans' explosive receiving targets. It will be imperative that Alabama finds a way to generate some momentum in the passing game and sustain drives early, and that will likely go beyond simple play action strikes.
Given the fact that the Spartans have only the 72nd ranked passing defense in the nation (giving up 229.8 yards per game), it's safe to assume that Coker and his receiving corps will be able to move the ball through the air to a degree. When Sparty goes to its 3-deep 2-under blitz package, Coker will need to take that opportunity to find guys like Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart underneath and at the edges, where there will be space for them to use their speed and athleticism to great effect. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin would do well to draw the corners downfield with vertical route decoys while leaving Kenyan Drake in the shallow space on the edge, allowing him to shake-and-bake against Spartan Star LB Darien Harris and strong safety Montae Nicholson. Such passes to the edge could keep the sticks moving, and with enough success, the Spartan defense will have no choice but to spread their defense and account for the Tide passing game. It is then that Henry may find room to run, as the Spartans are uncomfortable when opponents force them out of their eight-man-box comfort zone.
There will also be opportunities for Coker to find slot receiver Richard Mullaney and tight end O.J. Howard over the shallow middle, as when the Spartans blitz, they often leave Nicholson or Harris isolated in space between the hashes. While both defenders are solid in coverage, a big-bodied possession target such as Mullaney or Howard could have enough success to stun the Spartan defense and slow their continuous downhill attack of the line of scrimmage.
If all else fails and the Tide cannot effectively use the passing game to stretch out the Spartan defense, Saban has no qualms about using Henry to pound away in the gridiron equivalent of a back-alley fist fight. On several occasions this season, Saban has allowed the burly back to pile up 40+ carries, and there's no reason to believe that if the passing game falters, Saban won't ride the horse who got him into the playoffs this season by letting his offensive line and Henry carry the load. Henry isn't just all pound-ation, and he has the speed and explosiveness to break long runs against tiring defenders (as the Tide has eight of its 21 yards of more than 20 yards in the fourth quarter). Michigan State can't execute perfectly on every play, especially if they are gassed, and all it takes is a few missed tackles or misread keys for Henry to take it to the end zone.
Alabama's offense won't have to be explosive all the time to beat Michigan State. The Tide can play within its game plan for the most part, though slight tweaks may be required to loosen the Sparty pile in the middle and let Henry do what he does best. The Tide can use the edge passing game, WR screens and short passes to the slot to keep the Spartans off balance, and when Coker sees man coverage deep on his talented receivers, there will be opportunities for big plays with little risk. The Tide offense will need patience to probe the Spartans for weaknesses, and they'll need to find ways to pick up first downs. Long drives that end in scores are the perfect recipe for a Tide victory, whether those long drives come on the legs of Henry or the arm of Coker.
The Alabama defense versus the Michigan State defense
This may be the most important aspect of the game for Alabama. For several years, the Tide has maintained run-defense dominance, but the chink in its armor has been a suspect pass defense. Much of that suspicion seems to have been confronted this year, as the Tide secondary has gotten better as the pass rush has developed into a holy terror.
It's clear that, if one pays attention to some seemingly wrong-headed quotes from the Michigan State camp this week, the Spartans think they can run against Alabama's defense. However, it is more likely that the Spartans will not be able to effectively run the ball against the Tide's number one-ranked run defense, as better backs (and stables of backs) have found the task nearly impossible. The Tide defense has allowed a mere six rushing touchdowns in the course of the season, and even backs like Leonard Fournette, Alex Collins and Nick Chubb have found the going rough against the Bama defense. Alabama's run defense is a machine that never relents. It is as effective in the fourth quarter as it is in the first, with wave after wave of talented, physical, fast front-seven players who rotate in for four quarters. Few offenses have been able to muster a running game against the Tide unit, as Alabama allows only 74 yards per game on the ground. That is an astoundingly low number for a team that plays against some of the nation's rushing powerhouses in the SEC.
Conversely, the Spartans don't have a single 1,000 yard rusher. Sure, they have a trio of backs (L.J. Scott, Gerald Holmes and Madre London) who together have rushed for around 2,000 yards, but that running-back-by-committee tactic hasn't worked well against an Alabama defense that prevent backs from gaining momentum. There is little reason to believe that the nation's 79th ranked rushing offense will find a way to penetrate Bama's "Great Wall of Hell Naw," no matter how many backs they throw at the Tide. Michigan State doesn't do anything unique or innovative in the running game, and like most previous comers, their running game will shatter like glass on steel if they attempt to manhandle the Tide defense, despite their bravado and declarations of establishing the run.
In the passing game, the story couldn't be more different. Though the Tide pass defense has performed admirably in the last half of the season (good enough that the Tide is ranked 16th in the nation while allowing 184.2 yards of passing per game), third downs continue to be a sketchy prospect against precise passing teams. Michigan State has the fourth best third-down offense in the country, averaging a conversion 50 percent of the time. This could be problematic for Alabama, as Cook has the arm and the receiving targets to take advantage of seams in Alabama's preferred Cover 2 and Cover 4 looks. It's not that Alabama's secondary is weak by any stretch of the imagination. But if one was searching for a weakness in the unit, the only conceivable option would be the pass defense. This, along with Cook's skill and Sparty's nice array of steady receivers, could pose problems for Alabama and allow the Spartans to extend drives. Burbridge is fantastic, and he is the only Big10 receiver to break the 1,000 yard mark in 2015. He has the physical tools and the deep-threat ability to create potential big plays against Alabama if corners are left to seal him off for too long.
Which brings us to the Alabama pass rush. The pass rush will be the make-or-break proposition in the Cotton Bowl for Alabama defensively. Cook reportedly has a dinged up shoulder, and even when he's been healthy this season, he's only a 57 percent passer. But, if he is allowed time to operate and run through his four primary targets (Burbridge, receivers Macgarrett King and R.J. Shelton, and tight end Josiah Price), the Alabama could be in trouble. Therefore, the Tide must find a way to unleash its ferocious defensive line and cause panic in the Spartan backfield while giving its secondary the best chance for success.
Alabama's defensive line is the best of the Saban Era, with both NFL caliber talent and depth. But Michigan State has proven adept at stymieing some of the nation's best pass rushes, as they've only allowed 17 sacks in 2015. Alabama has consistently ranked among the top teams in terms of sacks, so this will be strength-on-strength. If Alabama can find a way to dial up pressure with three- and four-man fronts, Michigan State will find it difficult to move the ball through the air. If Alabama has to bring more defenders on blitzes, it will allow the Spartan receivers more room to work, and create match-up problems for Alabama, particularly underneath and in the red area.
Alabama's ability to dominate the run is unquestioned, as they've stopped multiple styles of rushing attacks this season with equal aptitude. To be blunt, Michigan State will have little chance of moving the ball effectively on the ground. However, if Alabama's pass rush stalls and the seasoned Spartan line is able to protect Cook from the marauding hordes, the quarterback has the targets and the ability to test the Alabama secondary. The pass rush is the pivot point for the Alabama defense, and if it is successful, even the Spartan's strength in the passing game could fall short.
Both kicking games are adequate, and Adam Griffith's turnaround this year could be Bama's feel good story of the season. He could be counted on in critical situations in the Cotton Bowl if the game devolves into the kind of low-scoring, physical contest many have forecast, and he's done enough in the last eight weeks to reinstill the faith of Bama fandom in his ability to kick in a clutch.
As is always the case in defensive battles, the punting game will be important in regard to the field position battle. Both Saban and Dantonio are content to play field position while waiting for the opponent to make an error. J.K. Scott has run hot and cold in 2015, and though his overall average has improved, he has still shown himself prone to the occasional shank from time to time. He'll need to be on top of his game, as his ability to pin the Spartans deep and flip the field could be important in a low-scoring affair. Conversely, shanked punts could make the rough going easier for the talented Spartan offense, and the last thing Bama needs is to give MSU a helping hand.
Alabama's return game has gotten better and better throughout 2015, and Cyrus Jones is lethal in returning punts. The biggest concern in the punt and kick return games has to be ball security, as Alabama returners have too many times put the ball on the ground and sacrificed field position (or worse). In a game like this one, every turnover will count, and Alabama will need a flawless performance on special teams to salt away a win.
While on paper Alabama may look like the better team, things are not always as they seem. After all, Alabama was the favorite last year against Ohio State, and they allowed the Buckeyes to dominate the second half en route to a win and an eventual national championship. The Tide cannot afford to remove its foot from the pedal against Michigan State, as if the Spartans have shown nothing in the last quarter of the season, they've proven themselves a gritty, never-say-die group of athletes who play to the final buzzer.
Many underestimate the Spartans, and it may be true that Alabama poses match-up problems for Dantonio's old-school style. These are the teams Saban loves to play, as they allow him to play the type of physical football he relishes. That said, Michigan State has beaten the likes of Ohio State, Oregon and Michigan this year, so it's obvious the Spartans know what it takes to compete, and win, in the elite college football ether.
If Alabama plays its game and establishes the run, there's little chance the Spartan offense will break the Tide's defensive stranglehold and establish the kind of prolonged offensive success necessary for a victory. However, if the Tide cedes routine three-and-outs offensively, if the Spartan defense creates enough chaos to clog the running lanes, if the Tide pass rush can't crack the Spartan protection puzzle, then this could be a different game than the one pundits are forecasting. And as Ohio State learned the hard way in the final week of the regular season, Sparty in a close game late in the fourth quarter is a dangerous beasty indeed.
Bama, beware. The Spartans are coming, and they're convinced they can win. Hope for the best...