The No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide (12-1) are the only squad to return to the College Football Playoffs this year, and once again face a formidable Big Ten power in the No. 3 Michigan State Spartans (12-1) in Thursday night’s national semifinal at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Last season the Tide fell to eventual champion Ohio State 42-35, surrendering 281 rushing yards and committing three turnovers despite entering the matchup as a heavy favorite.
And now history could repeat itself with Alabama a 10-point favorite over the Spartans in this year’s Cotton Bowl.
The two traditional powers have met only once before, with Nick Saban’s Tide blowing out Mark Dantonio’s Spartans 49-7 in the 2011 Capital One Bowl, but a national title wasn’t on the line back then and Michigan State may have a much stronger crew to take down Alabama this go-round.
In The Air
After an offseason and training camp filled with wonder and controversy over who would start for the Tide under center, Jake Coker managed to pop off 2,489 passing yards for 17 touchdowns to eight interceptions for a 65.7 completion rate and 139.4 passer rating, both top five in the SEC.
Unlike last year’s squad with Amari Cooper leading the receiving corps, Coker hit six different receivers for touchdowns with Calvin Ridley by far the best option with 75 receptions for 893 yards and five scores.
On The Ground
The Tide pounded opposing defenses into submission with Heisman Trophy winner and running back Derrick Henry, who set a new SEC record with 1,986 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns, gaining 5.9 yards per carry.
But Alabama and Saban can dig a little deeper if Henry needs a breather, with senior Kenyan Drake next on the team with 347 yards and a score and freshman Damien Harris slowly rising the ranks with 155 yards and one touchdown.
Vs. the Run
No team in the country was better against the run than the Tide, surrendering a mere 74.0 rushing yards per game and just six scores all year. Opposing backs averaged 2.38 yards per carry and totaled only 962 yards off 404 attempts this season, thanks to such run-stopping linebackers like senior and leading tackler Reggie Ragland, junior Reuben Foster, junior Tim Williams, and junior defensive lineman Jonathan Allen.
Vs. the Pass
Williams and Allen have terrorized offensive lines all season with a combined 19.5 of Alabama’s 46 sacks on the year, which technically earns the Tide the distinction as the nation’s best pass rush though they played one more game that Arizona State and Penn State, each of which totaled 44 sacks in 12 games.
In the defensive backfield, the Tide relied on junior back Eddie Jackson and his SEC-best five interceptions while freshman Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick exploded onto campus with 13 combined pass breakups and 18 more passes defensed to lead the team. Overall, opponents tried to take advantage of the Tide’s young corners but could managed only 184.2 passing yards per game and just 13 touchdowns while completing 49.1 percent of their attempts.
In The Air
The Spartans have a decided advantage at quarterback with senior Connor Cook amassing 2,921 yards and tying his career-best with 24 touchdowns to just five interceptions, ranking second in the Big Ten with a 142.2 passer rating. Cook was forced to sit out the crucial road matchup against rival Ohio State, but he shined against ranked opponents like Oregon and Michigan and kept the Spartans alive against Iowa in the conference title game.
Cook’s unleashed 80 balls to the Big Ten’s best receiver and fellow senior Aaron Burbridge, who totaled 1,210 yards and seven scores while burning passes defenses for 15.2 yards per reception.
But there’s plenty of depth behind Burbridge. Senior receiver Macgarrett Kings Jr. accumulated 492 yards and five scores off 38 receptions, and junior R.J. Shelton was second on the squad with 41 catches for 484 yards and four more touchdowns. Cook can also target junior tight end Josiah Price, who scored six times off just 19 receptions, though he did sit out three games this season.
On The Ground
Dantonio didn’t have a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time since 2011, but the Spartans split up carries between a trio of underclassmen running backs. Freshman LJ Scott ripped off a team-best 691 yards for 11 scores, sophomore Gerald Holmes chipped in another 534 yards and eight touchdowns, and freshman Madre London contributed in spots for 489 yards and three scores.
Vs. the Run
The Spartans defensive frontline led by senior defensive end Shilique Calhoun, sophomore defensive lineman Malik McDowell, and junior linebacker Riley Bullough posted the second-best rushing defense in the Big Ten, allowing 113.1 yards per game and just 83 first downs, ranking third in the conference.
Michigan State’s actually gotten stronger as the season’s progressed. It allowed just 86 total rushing yards to juggernaut Ohio State, and 52 yards to Iowa in the Big Ten championship.
Vs. the Pass
The Spartans weren’t as dominate against the pass, but they still have a number of playmakers who can force Coker into mistakes. The secondary ranked 10th in the Big Ten in total passing yards allowed, but only surrendered 18 touchdowns and still generated 15 interceptions, second in the conference.
More than half of those picks came from junior defensive back Demetrious Cox, senior cornerback Arjen Colquhoun, and sophomore safety Montae Nicholson, with Colquhoun breaking up 10 passes and defending 12 others.
There’s also the matter of top sack artist Calhoun, who was third in the Big Ten with 10.5 sacks, nearly a third of Michigan State’s 35 total.