#3 Michigan State v. #2 Alabama
AT&T Stadium — Arlington, TX
December 31, 2015 — 8:00 pm Eastern (ESPN)
Why You Should Watch
Yes, New Year’s Eve has been thrown for a tailspin this year with the semifinals falling on December 31 in the bowl rotation. Still, the second College Football Playoff has arrived, and this year choosing the four-team field didn’t cause many headaches for the selection committee. Once again that committee has deigned to pit the Big Ten champion against the SEC’s best team, sending them to the Lone Star State to do battle at Jerry World in the biggest expression of New Year’s excess possible for this new tradition. Dick Clark it ain’t, and instead of a crystal ball there will be the replacement for the crystal pigskin on the line. As the commercials on ESPN keep saying, there’s nothing like “watching college football through confetti”…
The duel between Michigan State and Alabama will be a reunion between master and protege. Mark Dantonio was a staple of Nick Saban’s staff in East Lansing, serving as the defensive back coach for the Spartans from 1995 until 2000 before moving on to Ohio State as defensive coordinator and then getting his first head coaching opportunity at Cincinnati before coming back to Michigan State in 2007. Similar squads bring similar philosophies to AT&T Stadium, looking to control the clock and score just enough to outpace the opposition while counting on their defense to keep that number as low as possible. Oh, and Alabama has the Heisman Trophy winner… and we will see if he can live up to the precedent set by last year’s Heisman Trophy winner in the semifinal round.
What Each Team Brings to the Table
Michigan State Spartans
Michigan State did not win the Big Ten title on the strength of its offense, which did just enough to win games in 2015. Only Indiana and Penn State stand as true blowouts of 20 points or more, and the Spartans ranked outside the top 40 in every offensive statistical category except first- and third-down success rates. Senior quarterback Connor Cook’s return for one more season paid off in a playoff berth, but it didn’t translate into better draft stock for the caretaker behind center. The MSU run game also fell off dramatically, gaining 75 fewer yards per game than 2014 averages.
The defense tapered off some as well in East Lansing after the departure of coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who took over the head job at Pittsburgh after the 2014 campaign. The biggest dropoff was in the secondary, against which opposing offenses didn’t gain many more yards but were able to move more efficiently. The Spartans still finished in the top 20 in scoring defense, allowing 20.5 points per game, but they also allowed opponents to convert fourth downs and score in the red zone at a distressing rate. Shilique Calhoun managed to pile up 10.5 sacks, but he was one of the few bright spots on a yeomanlike defense that lacked as many big-play stoppers as in recent seasons.
Everyone remembers the miraculous punt block and return touchdown that preserved the win at Michigan, but it was a rare bright spot for a team who was deficient on special teams throughout 2015. Jake Hartbarger was a top-50 punter, averaging over 42 yards per punt, but the coverage unit fell short in ranking 112th in net punting as teams averaged seven yards per return. Their own punt return team was even worse, finishing 119th in FBS with fewer than three yards per return attempt. Kick returns weren’t much better, as the Spartans ranked a perfectly mediocre 63rd in that category.
Alabama Crimson Tide
The one constant during the first two years of the College Football Era is the fact that Alabama gets a second chance at redemption after losing to Ohio State as heavy favorites in last year’s Sugar Bowl. The Crimson Tide won the SEC in 2015 largely on the strength of Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, who led the nation with nearly 2000 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns on the ground. He had to be a workhorse, as Jake Coker proved to be an inconsistent quarterback who threw just 17 touchdowns against eight interceptions. The Tide had limited success on third and fourth down, and only scored on 80 percent of red zone trips.
Their defense, though, more than made up for any offensive deficiencies Alabama suffered through this season. No team allowed fewer rushing yards than the 74 per game that the Tide gave up on average, with teams averaging less than 260 total yards and just two touchdowns per game. Just as Bama’s offense had difficulty converting third and fourth downs, so too did the Tide’s opponents struggle to move the chains. Defensive lineman Jonathan Allen and linebacker Tim Williams combined for 19.5 sacks between them, aiding a secondary that helped Alabama rank fourth nationally in opponent passing efficiency.
Sophomore punter JK Scott, such a field-position weapon in 2014, saw his punt average drop by nearly four years per kick this season, and the Tide as a team regressed from first nationally in net punting to 90th. Cyrus Jones provided strong punt returning, averaging over 12 yards per return, though the kickoff return game fell flat by comparison. Meanwhile, placekicker Adam Griffith connected on just 13 of his 21 field-goal attempts in 2015, as Alabama uncharacteristically left points on the board several times throughout the season.
What is Likely to Happen
It is awfully hard to differentiate between two conference champions forged in similar fashion, but Vegas feels confident enough in Nick Saban’s team to install the Crimson Tide as 9.5-point favorites. The last time these two teams met, in the 2010 Capital One Bowl, Alabama stampeded the Spartans 49-7. But that only sparked a four-game bowl winning streak for Michigan State in which Dantonio’s team has prevailed by three points, one point, four points, and one point respectively.
This game is going to be a closer affair than the sharps at the sportsbooks give Michigan State credit, and it is likely that the two teams will be defined by the performance of their defenses. If Cook’s shoulder is back to 100 percent healthy, he should be able to outperform his counterpart Coker. But in the end, the Spartans’ front seven will be severely tested by Henry and one of the nation’s best offensive lines. Look for Alabama to build an early lead, never getting more than 10 points ahead, before MSU begins clawing back into the contest. The SEC champions should manage to prevail, but it could come down to something like a missed field goal at the end that keeps the game from going to overtime.
Alabama 20, Michigan State 17
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