As they prepare to face No.3 Michigan State in the College Football Playoff Semifinal, No.2 Alabama is a significant favorite to reach the national championship game. While the Crimson Tide has a good chance to defeat the Spartans in the 2015 Cotton Bowl, the contest on New Year’s Eve could be closer than many expect.
In a game between two of the country’s best defenses, points will be at a premium. The over/under is 47, and it could be a struggle for either team to score more than 20 points. Alabama has surrendered more than 15 points just twice this season, and Michigan State has held their last four opponents to 16 points or fewer.
Both teams have one loss on the year. Alabama fell to Ole Miss in September, and they’ve been dominant ever since. Michigan State was barely edged by Nebraska in a 39-38 loss last month.
Las Vegas odds makers have Alabama favored by 9.5 points, according to vegasinsider.com. Only one of their victories was decided by less than 13 points.
Can Derrick Henry be Stopped?
The running back was officially named this season’s best college football player when he won the 2015 Heisman Trophy award, and he might be the most important player in the playoff game. If Henry plays like he has all season, there’s little chance that Alabama will lose.
Henry has been unstoppable, rushing for 1,986 yards and 23 touchdowns on 5.9 yards per carry. He’s gotten better as the season has moved along, rushing for at least 189 yards in five of Alabama’s final seven games. Jake Coker hasn’t put up big numbers in 2015, but it hasn’t mattered because Henry has been so good. The quarterback hasn’t thrown for more than 262 yards in any game, and Henry has rushed for more yards than Coker has thrown in four of Alabama’s last seven games.
Henry faces a tough test against Michigan State, who ranks seventh in rushing yards allowed per game. But he has excelled against top teams, putting up 147 yards on 11.3 yards per carry when facing Wisconsin’s No.4 run defense. The Spartans do have a top defensive line, and they were able to limit Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott to just 33 yards on 12 attempts, giving Michigan State some hope that they can somewhat contain Henry.
In the Trenches
The Spartans have a top defensive line, and it might only be topped by the defensive front of Alabama. The Crimson Tide are terrific in the trenches, and they are almost certain to wreak havoc on Michigan State.
"I've never seen one team as loaded from seniors to freshmen as this team is," one NFL scout told FOX Sports regarding Alabama’s defensive line. "It's amazing. They're all huge and they all can move really well."
Without a top running back like Henry, the Spartans might have little chance to find success on the ground on New Year’s Eve. Alabama has the sport’s best run defense, allowing 74 rushing yards per game on just 2.4 yards per carry. The team shut down Leonard Fournette to the tune of 31 yards on 19 carries, and L.J. Scott could have a similar day for the Spartans.
Alabama’s defensive line is terrific at affecting the passing game, as well. Leading the nation’s No.17 pass defense, the Crimson Tide rank first in the country with 46 sacks.
Cook Gives the Spartans a Chance
It’s not easy to throw the ball on Alabama, but it can be done. If any quarterback is going to give Alabama some trouble in the postseason, it might be Connor Cook.
Cook battled a shoulder injury last month and was forced to sit out the team’s game against Ohio State, but he’ll be healthy when Michigan State needs him most. The quarterback has thrown 24 touchdown passes and five interceptions this season, and he found success against the Spartans’ toughest competition. When facing Michigan’s No.3 ranked pass defense, Cook threw for 328 yards and wasn’t picked off all game. Penn State has the No. 10 pass defense in college football, but Cook still managed to complete 19 of 26 passes for three scores against the Nittany Lions.
When Alabama has struggled, it’s been because opposing defenses were able to move the ball through the air. Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly helped his team upset their SEC rivals by throwing for 341 yards and three touchdowns. Wide receiver Aaron Burbridge is the team’s top playmaker with 80 catches for 1,219 yards, and he’ll be key for Michigan State.
With two of college football’s best defenses going head-to-head, the semifinal game should be a low-scoring affair. Henry gives Alabama a chance to have a few big plays, and Michigan State won’t be able to score enough to keep pace.
Alabama over Michigan State, 23-17