Alabama vs. Michigan State Prediction, Cotton Bowl Preview

    Alabama vs. Michigan State prediction and 2015 Goodyear Cotton Bowl preview. Find out who's picked to win this College Football Playoff semifinal showdown.

    December 10, 2015

    Michigan State (12-1) played Alabama (12-1) for the first and only time in the 2011 Capital One Bowl – it wasn’t pretty. The stakes are a wee bit higher now than they were in the Crimson Tide’s 49-7 win with both programs shooting for a spot in the national championship. Check out the Alabama vs. Michigan State prediction and preview for the 2015 Goodyear Cotton Bowl matchup.

    Alabama vs. Michigan State Game Preview


    Bowl Game: Goodyear Cotton Bowl
    Date: Thursday, December 31
    Game Time: 8:00 ET
    Network: ESPN
    Venue: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, TX 

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    Why You Need To Care

    With only some due respect to that other matchup in Miami Gardens, this is probably your 2015 national championship.

    It’s not that Clemson isn’t very good, and it’s not that Oklahoma doesn’t have the talent, but this is the main event between two heavyweights who were supposed to be here from the start – or at least close. One treated its SEC championship win like a business trip, and the other has been knocking on the door of really, really big things for years, and now it’s finally inside.

    The 2013 Spartans would’ve been in a four-team playoff, but instead they ended up with a big-step-forward Rose Bowl win that head coach Mark Dantonio said at the time was supposed to be a beginning, not a destination. Last year’s team – at least according to the final College Football Playoff rankings – would’ve made an eight-team playoff if one existed. But now, the program that stepped out of Michigan’s shadow, and proved it could more than handle itself against Ohio State, has its shot.

    This Spartans don’t have the talent of the Crimson Tide, and they might not be as flashy as Clemson and Oklahoma, but this is a rock-solid, tremendously-coached, sound team that proved its mettle with a rock-solid, tremendously-coached, sound performance against both Ohio State and, for the most part, against Iowa. Now, this could be the most dangerous team for Alabama to deal with.

    MSU has been there before in the big game and the big moment with two Big Ten championships in the last three seasons, a 2014 Rose Bowl, a 2015 Cotton Bowl, and wins over Michigan, Oregon, and Ohio State with each turning into a test of mental toughness. It’s used to being pushed around. It’s used to having to deal with adversity. It’s used to figuring out ways to win no matter what.

    Alabama figured out how to win no matter what – just be better than everyone else.

    Other than the three losses in that 2010 season that finished up with the angry and cathartic blowout over the Spartans, it’s taken something extraordinary – and sometimes at a historic, all-time level – to beat the Crimson Tide over the last eight seasons. The program has been so good, the coaching so superior, and the talent level so high that there’s absolutely no wiggle room for anything but a national championship at this point.

    Before writing this, I was a guest on two different radio shows. Both hosts asked the same sort of question, to paraphrase: “If Alabama loses in the playoff for a second year in a row, does that mean Nick Saban and Alabama are slipping?”

    But there is something to the pressure the program is facing. How do you possibly enjoy the ride when anything less than winning a national title is, for all intents and purposes, a failure? Forgetting that Bama was, probably, a kick-six and an Ezekiel Elliott home run away from gunning now for its fifth straight national title, you either win it all, our you don’t. For good and for bad, that’s Alabama football under Saban.

    Why Michigan State Will Win

    The Spartans do all the little things right.

    It’s not going to beat itself with penalties, big turnovers – even though there was a whopper against Iowa – and, most importantly, it’s not going to stall. The offense is fantastic on third downs, and because of it, it’s outstanding at grinding out the clock and controlling the game.

    No, the Michigan State offensive line isn’t going to lead the way on a 22-play drive that lasts over nine minutes against Alabama like it did with its epic game-winning march to beat the Hawkeyes, but QB Connor Cook knows how to keep the chains moving. Keep control of the clock, keep the Alabama grinding offense on the sidelines, keep the Spartan defense fresh, and the MSU offense might have the right formula.

    Alabama wins on talent, but it also wins with the right formula of cranking out the running game and not screwing up offensively. The Tide lost the turnover margin just twice this year – the loss to Ole Miss and the close-call win over Arkansas. Michigan State is a +16 on the year losing the turnover battle just twice, beating Ohio State and Rutgers, anyway. If Bama is hoping for MSU to melt in the moment, it’s not going to happen.

    Why Alabama Will Win

    Derrick Henry might be coming into Arlington as the signature star, but with almost a month to prepare, this is a game for the Alabama passing game.

    The Michigan State run defense has been fantastic – Air Force was the only team all year to run for more than 200 yards on the Spartans – and this coaching staff will figure out how to gang up on No. 2. However, the MSU secondary is vulnerable and can be picked apart if Jake Coker doesn’t have to press.

    The Spartans allowed 200 yards or more in four of the last six games and eight times on the year, partly because no one could run the ball, but also because the pass defense was just that mediocre. The secondary often makes up for mistakes with picks, but considering the Alabama O line has allowed just 19 sacks on the season, and Coker has matured and found ways to make things happen both in and out of the pocket, this should be a balanced Crimson Tide attack.

    Michigan State’s biggest problem might be on the other side. The offensive line has been solid at protecting Cook, but this year’s Alabama defense is at a whole other level in terms of its pass rush.

    The Crimson Tide haven’t been bad in terms of getting to the quarterback, but they came up with just 22 sacks in 2013 and 31 last year. So far, this year’s defense has cranked up 46 sacks while doing an outstanding job of providing constant pressure. That means Cook has to get the ball out of his hands in a hurry on short to midrange throws, and while he can do that, there won’t be many yards after the catch. Alabama doesn’t miss tackles.

    Player Who Matters

    Connor Cook was hurting.

    He got banged up against Maryland, missed the Ohio State game, came back for the Penn State win, and wasn’t right for the Big Ten championship. He ended up only completing 16-of-32 passes for 191 yards with no touchdowns and a pick, but he came up with two plays that’ll go down among the most important in MSU football history.

    Down four late and facing a 3rd-and-8 at midfield, suddenly, the shoulder injury didn’t matter anymore.

    He knew where he was going, firing a dart between two Hawkeyes to Aaron Burbridge for a 16-yard gain and the first down with the type of NFL-caliber throw that few college quarterbacks would even attempt, especially in that big a situation. It was the type of throw a veteran with Cook’s resume is used to making.

    With less than two minutes to play, MSU had it 4th-and-2 from the Iowa five. Cook, who’s not exactly Keenan Reynolds when it comes to mobility, had the game in his hands running the option to keep the dream alive. That was his play, this was going to be his game to potentially win or lose, and injured wing and all, he barely got it.

    Alabama faced Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly, Arkansas’ Brandon Allen and Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott this year, but Cook is probably the best quarterback the program has faced since Johnny Manziel. This has to be Cook’s game, and with time to heal, and with three years of big game preparation, he’s more than ready for a game like this.

    But Derrick Henry is getting a month to rest up, too.

    Alabama was starting to get a bit banged up and started to look a bit worn halfway through the season in a rough game against Tennessee, but it got two weeks off and then came the boom, taking the heart out of LSU to start a five game run of power offense and lots of thump. With everyone paying attention to Leonard Fournette, Henry dominated the Tigers with 210 yards and three scores on 38 carries, followed it up with 204 yards against Mississippi State, and ended the year with a brutally effective 90 carries for 460 yards and two scores against Auburn and Florida.

    Michigan State – like LSU, Mississippi State, Auburn and Florida – will be ready to try stopping Henry. It might not matter.

    What’s Going To Happen?

    Michigan State isn’t going to be able to run the ball, Alabama isn’t going to be able to go on its typical grinding drives, and each team will have to deal with moments of massive frustration.

    MSU is one of the few teams that can hold up on both sides against the toughness of the Crimson Tide lines, and it already proved this season it could handle itself just fine against the ultra-talented, beating Ohio State. Alabama is one of the few teams able to match coaching chops with the Spartans – Mark Dantonio and his staff won’t have any wrinkle that Saban and his group won’t have figured out.

    The difference will be Alabama’s reliance on the running game, even when it’s not working.

    Urban Meyer, as great as he is, forgot to give the ball to Ezekiel Elliott in the loss, just like he inexplicably quit giving it to Carlos Hyde in the 2013 Big Ten championship defeat. Henry will get stuff early and Michigan State will feed off of it, but as the game goes on, Henry will be more and more effective. However, Cook will be terrific.

    Go back to Alabama’s 35-17 opener against Wisconsin. Badger quarterback Joel Stave was shockingly sharp, hitting his midrange throws and keeping the offense moving until Henry and the Tide offense took over in the second half. Expect the same sort of game, only with better quarterback play from the Spartans.

    It’s going to be the last game of the 2015 calendar year. It’s going to be the last anything of the year before the ball drops.

    It’ll be worth it.

    Alabama vs. Michigan State Prediction

    Final Score: Alabama 26, Michigan State 20, Line: Alabama -9.5, o/u: 48
    Must See Rating: 5: Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens – 1: Property Brothers at Home on the Ranch … 5

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