Match-up: Michigan State (Big Ten) vs. Alabama (SEC)
Spread: MSU (-9.5)
Location: AT&T Stadium. Arlington, TX
When: Thursday, December 31st, 8:00 PM
Where to Watch: ESPN
Michigan State Overview
What a wild season for the Spartans. After being on cruise control, the Spartans went into Ann Arbor unbeaten, and in the thick of the playoff conversation. Despite playing poorly on offense for three quarters (thanks to the dominance of Michigan’s defense) , Connor Cook engineered a touchdown drive to cut the score to within 23-21. Then, well, the magic happened. On 4th down and with 9 seconds on the clock, Michigan was in punt formation to just kick it away and essentially seal the game. The snap was mishandled buy the punter, and instead of just falling down to prevent anything terrible from happening (if he falls down, Michigan State takes over at roughly the 50-yard line, with only a hail mary attempt at their disposal), the punter tried to pick up the ball and kick it while pressure was in his face, and the Spartans blocked the punt and returned it to the end zone for the game winning score as time expired. Yeah, that was the start of their magical run to the College Football Playoff. Then, they stunned the undefeated and reigning national champion Ohio State Buckeyes in Columbus without Connor Cook, and then beat unbeaten Iowa to cap off a Big Ten Championship. I could write for days about how lucky they actually were to get to this point, but hey, everyone needs some sort of luck, right? Overall, it was a terrific season by the Mark D’Antonio and the Spartans, who are not quite finished yet.
Players to Watch
Connor Cook (QB): The key here is his throwing shoulder, which forced him to sit out the Ohio State game and was an issue in the Big Ten Championship game against Iowa. If he’s close to 100 percent by game day, Cook could very well be the x-factor in this semifinal game. The Crimson Tide haven’t faced an efficient quarterback like him all season, and with his experience, poise, and intelligence, Cook could be one of the few to potentially exploit this Alabama defense. Keyword, potentially.
Shilique Calhoun (DE): The 6-foot-5 250 pound will be matched up with Alabama left tackle Cam Robinson. While Robinson is one of the better tackles in college football, Calhoun could make his life miserable with quick moves and explosiveness off the line of scrimmage. With 10.5 sacks on the year, Calhoun is the heart and soul of the Spartans defensive front. If he consistently wins the battle against Robinson, he could be the difference in this game in terms of slowing down Derrick Henry.
How Michigan State Can Win
Hold Derrick Henry under 100 yards rushing. WAY easier said than done, as no power five team on Alabama’s schedule this year including all SEC opponents were able to hold Henry to under 100 yards en route to his Heisman Trophy winning season. Outside of Henry, Alabama’s offense is nothing special. If the Spartans can turn their full attention to stopping Henry at all costs, it will force Jacob Coker to win the game with his right arm. While certainly capable, Coker hasn’t consistently proven it this season. That’s the recipe to a Spartans win.
This is unfamiliar territory for the Alabama Crimson Tide. Ever since Nick Saban took over back in 2008, all Alabama has done is win 3 national titles and 4 SEC Championships. I guess you could say that’s pretty good, huh? I think just about every college football analyst expected the Crimson Tide to be here prior to the start of the season, so this certainly not surprising. After losing their only game to Ole Miss at home in the beginning of the season, all everyone did was write Alabama off after that loss. But typical Nick Saban, he didn’t care what anyone thought about his team and just kept his team motivated week after week. Sure enough, they were in the conversation when it was all said and done and as usual, were able to accomplish their mission. Oh yeah, and all running back Derrick Henry did was break Herschel Walker’s single-season rushing record at won all of the awards possible, including the Heisman. So yeah, he’s really good.
Players to Watch
Derrick Henry (RB): He won the Heisman, and he’s the engine to Alabama’s offense that gets fed about 40 times per game. Do I need to say anymore? He’ll have the biggest impact on this game one way or the other.
A’Shawn Robinson (DT): Outside of Henry, no one is more important to Alabama than it’s defense, and it starts up front with Robinson. The 6’4″ 312 pound defensive tackle is literally impossible to block one-on-one, I don’t care how good your center or guard is. Robinson is a beast, plain and simple. While Reggie Ragland gets all of the attention, this defense all starts with the defensive line, particularly Robinson. Going against all Big Ten conference players Jack Allen and Jack Conklin will be a good test for Robinson, though.
How Alabama Can Win
Be sound in the secondary and run, run, run, with Henry. First off, Alabama is going to stop the run. Their front seven is too good and too deep to not consistently make plays in the backfield. As good as Spartans tailback LJ Scott is, he’s just a true freshman, and he won’t face a front seven like this in his college career again. Unless, they play Alabama again next year. However, the Tide’s secondary is young, and has been vulnerable in giving up big plays through the air at times this year. Aaron Burbridge, Magarrett Kings, and R.J. Shelton will be the best trio of wideouts the Tide have faced all year, and they will be tested. Connor Cook is certainly no slouch. When given time, Cook is the most accurate passer in college football. If he is healthy, Cook is going to challenge this Alabama secondary early and often. If Alabama can limit the big plays defensively, they will win this game. Period.
Final Score Prediction: Alabama wins 27-17.
Photo Credits: http://www.hngn.com/articles/131550/20150919/alabama-vs-ole-miss-college-football-live-stream-and-radio-broadcast-watch-listen.htm