Cases for and problems with Alabama and Michigan State

Published 12:10 pm Thursday, December 31, 2015

Alabama and coach Nick Saban return to the College Football Playoff as big favorites against the Big Ten champions.

That didn’t work out for the Crimson Tide last year and the players say they are determined to wipe away the memories of that loss to Ohio State.

Michigan State used upsets and fantastic finishes to reach the playoff. The Spartans are the underdogs again, just the way they like it.

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The cases for and the problems with the Crimson Tide (12-1) and Spartans (12-1) heading into the Cotton Bowl on Thursday night in Arlington, Texas.

<cTypeface:Bold> The case for Michigan State <cTypeface:Plain>

Coach Mark Dantonio’s Spartans are a resilient bunch and they love to prove doubters wrong. So this matchup against mighty Alabama feeds right into Michigan State’s state of mind. The Spartans will not be intimidated and if it’s close in the fourth quarter they will be confident.

Michigan State has a couple of things going for it: Connor Cook is the most talented quarterback Alabama has faced, and a veteran who can get the ball out of his hands fast against a Crimson Tide pass rush that has produced 46 sacks.

On the other side of the ball, few defenses sellout to stop the run like Michigan State’s, with an excellent defensive line led by NT Malik McDowell and DE Shilique Calhoun. To beat Alabama, you need to slow down Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry and force QB Jake Coker to make plays down field. Michigan State crowds the box and dares opponents to take shots.

<cTypeface:Bold> The problem with Michigan State <cTypeface:Plain>

Alabama’s big, strong and deep defensive front seven is built to stop teams like Michigan State, which plays a similar brand of power football to Alabama. Cook doesn’t have the mobility to be a threat in the running game, and simply handing the ball to the tailback and running power have not been an effective way to attack the Tide, which allows 2.38 yards per rush.

It’s pretty simple: The Spartans will need about 21 points to have a chance and getting there will be tough.

<cTypeface:Bold> The case for Alabama <cTypeface:Plain>

The Crimson Tide uses an 11-man rotation of defensive linemen that is the envy of all college football. Just about all of them are NFL prospects, and there is little if any drop off when the No. 2s and 3s are in the game. The depth also allows them to stay fresh.

The Tide also has plenty of extra talented players at linebacker and in the secondary. The defense comes at teams in waves. No opponent has figured out yet how to effectively and consistently attack the Tide.

On offense, Henry is a force who never seems to wear down. He carried 90 times total in Alabama’s last two games. And his speedy backup, Kenyan Drake, is healthy again. Alabama also has receivers like Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart and O.J. Howard who are matchup problems.

<cTypeface:Bold> The problem with Alabama <cTypeface:Plain>

When you recruit the way the Crimson Tide does, problems are hard to find. Coker is not a bad player but he was 41st in the country in passer rating (139.41) and 52nd in yards per attempt (7.4). He has thrown eight interceptions in 338 attempts.

If Michigan State can keep Henry from breaking off chunks of yards and Coker has to convert first downs with throws and make plays down field to loosen up the Spartans, it’s uncertain if he can deliver.

While Michigan State has thrived in close games, Alabama has played few. What will the Tide do if it is tested in the fourth quarter? Especially since the pressure is on the Tide to avoid another semifinal upset.

By Ralph D. Russo, AP College Football Writer