Nick Saban’s astronomical rise to college football’s coaching elite began in Toledo way back in 1990, but it was his work five years later at Michigan State that truly kicked off his career and eventually led him to one of, if not the, top program in the country, Alabama.

Saban amassed a 34-24 mark with the Spartans over five seasons, earning three bowl berths at a school that labored at the bottom of the Big Ten and posted just one above-.500 record in the four previous years before he arrived.

That hard work and dedication paved the way to jobs at LSU and then the Crimson Tide. While Saban is certainly grateful to the Spartans for the opportunity that shot him to fame, the 64-year-old now looks to snap a two-game bowl losing streak in Thursday night’s College Football Playoff Cotton Bowl semifinal against No. 3 Michigan State (12-1).

Despite experiencing some heavy turnover on offense, the No. 2 Crimson Tide (12-1) returned to the CFP and are the only member of this year’s four-team field to make repeat appearances after claiming the SEC crown for the third time in four years.

But all that success, with Saban leading a team that has suffered just five losses the last three seasons compared to 35 victories, hasn’t translated into a national title since 2012.

Yet, much like his three national championship squads during his tenure in Tuscaloosca, Alabama, and Saban have assembled a dominant defense capable of stunting the Spartans aerial attack and whatever either No. 1 Clemson or No. 4 Oklahoma can throw at them should they make Jan. 11’s championship.

The Tide have stunted opponents to 14.4 points per game and no one was better against the run, as opposing running backs averaged 74 yards per game and scored only six times in 13 contests. Only Georgia and Tennessee were able to gain more than 100 yards against the Tide, and Alabama still prevailed by forcing five combined turnovers.

Clearly the Spartans and head coach Mark Dantonio, who no doubt owes Saban for elevating the East Lansing program eight years before his arrival, have their hands full. But this Michigan State squad is one of the most battle-tested in the nation, and could easily silence many detractors.

Behind quarterback Connor Cook’s 2,921 passing yards and 24 touchdowns, Michigan State upended ranked Oregon to start the season, then flipped the Big Ten on its head with huge victories over Michigan, title-favorite and talent-loaded Ohio State, and handed then-No. 4 Iowa its first loss of the season in the conference title game.

That final victory allowed the Spartans to creep into the CFP and contend for its first title since 1966, when it shared bragging rights with Notre Dame and, of course, the Tide.

Dantonio is seeking his fourth straight bowl victory and could equal his career-high of 13 victories if he can outcoach Saban, something he failed to do in the two programs’ only meeting in the 2011 Capital One Bowl. Alabama coasted to a 49-7 victory, but since then the Spartans and Dantonio have been perfect in the postseason.

Start Time: Thursday, 8 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPN

Live Stream: Watch ESPN

Betting Odds: Alabama -10

Over/Under: 46 points

Prediction: Alabama over Michigan State, 27-17