There are two things Alabama fans can count on New Year’s Eve: Derrick Henry and the front seven.
But to beat Michigan State — and then either Oklahoma or Clemson — the Crimson Tide will likely need timely help from other members of the team.
Here are three things ‘Bama must do to win the College Football Playoff:
1. Protect the football (ahem… Jake Coker)
Yes, Coker is a solid NFL prospect. He’s gone 13-0 in starts this season. But his eight interceptions — and countless close calls — have threatened to sink the Tide at various points.
Coker’s decision making is not on par with the guys who won national titles, especially when there’s a rush in his face. Given that this Alabama offensive line is inconsistent in pass protection, we’re likely to see more situations in which Coker is forced to make game-changing decisions.
If he plans to float more balls to opposing safeties, ‘Bama could be in big trouble.
2. Avoid breakdowns in the secondary
Alabama’s back four are a strong bunch. But they’re young, and they have not faced many capable quarterbacks this season.
Perhaps the best passer they’ve seen was Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly, who threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns in a huge September upset. Beyond him? Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott reached 300 yards through the air. Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs and Arkansas’ Brandon Allen both had fourth-quarter leads in Tuscaloosa.
Yes, the Crimson Tide’s secondary is strong. But it’s a mistake to think it’s as good as the run-stopping unit. Michigan State’s Connor Cook will probably the best quarterback Alabama has faced this year, and the challenge will only get tougher against Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield or Clemson’s Deshaun Watson in a potential championship matchup.
3. Kick the ball well
It sounds simple, right? It’s not. Alabama fans should be well aware of this after witnessing Adam Griffith’s early-season kicking struggles and JK Scott’s quick decline from preseason Ray Guy watch list to on-again, off-again shank artist.
Michigan State is a smashmouth football team, and you can expect field position to play a big role on New Year’s Eve. Winning that battle involves connecting on field goals and flipping the field. We’ve seen Griffith and Scott do that convincingly. But on the biggest stage? We’ll find out.
The Cotton Bowl kicks off Dec. 31 at 7:10 p.m. ET (ESPN).