It’s been addressed in this space once or twice over the last month.
For everything Michigan State does exceptionally well — and that’s a lot of positive ground to cover, in advance of Thursday’s Cotton Bowl/College Football Playoff clash — Alabama enjoys a slight advantage within the majority of categories.
Stronger in the trenches. A devastating rushing attack. More dynamic kick returners. Better suited for attacking the opposing quarterback during crunch time.
All together, it’s a case of the Crimson Tide being a little bigger, deeper, brawnier … and likely better than the Spartans.
The lone exception, at least on paper, involves the quarterback comparison between Michigan State’s Connor Cook and Alabama’s Jake Coker.
With the Spartans, Cook (8,974 yards passing, 74 TDs) has been a four-year contributor (Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl hero as a freshman), three-year starter and a two-year dynamo on the national front — quickly morphing from a so-called game manager to one of college football’s most prolific passers.
As such, he’s also one of the most attractive quarterback prospects for the upcoming NFL draft.
On the flip side, Coker might have entered the collegiate ranks as the more heralded recruit, but his career only started taking off as a senior — and at a second school — through no fault of his own.
As a freshman and sophomore at Florida State, Coker served apprenticeships behind E.J. Manuel (2013 first-round pick) and Jameis Winston (2013 Heisman Trophy winner for the national champion Seminoles). Relatively speaking, Coker’s only passing heroics at FSU occurred during the celebratory moments of scout-team practices.
And after transferring to Alabama before the 2014 campaign, Coker (6-foot-5, 232 pounds) lost a hotly contested fall-camp battle to Blake Sims, who answered the time-compressed bell of being a one-year starter by racking up 3,487 yards passing and 35 touchdowns (28 passing).
Sims’ prodigious efforts paid off on the team front, as well, with the Crimson Tide capturing the SEC championship and clinching a berth in the inaugural College Football Playoff (losing to Ohio State in the semifinals).
Back to the present: Coker (2,489 yards passing, 19 total TDs) has no chance of replicating Sims’ numbers from last season; but that won’t matter much … if Coker can become the third Alabama quarterback to hand-deliver a national championship to head coach Nick Saban (along with Greg McElroy and AJ McCarron — two titles).
Within that scope, Coker has a chance to cement his legacy as one of the most clutch quarterbacks in Alabama history — even as a one-year mainstay.
However, there’s still one lingering questions to answer: Does Coker have the goods to carry the Tide to championship-game glory on New Year’s Eve, if he’s obliged to partake in a pass-happy shootout with Cook?
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The aforementioned McCarron collected one SEC title, two national championships and a 36-4 overall record in three seasons as the Alabama starter (2011-13) — capping a decorated Crimson Tide career which either eclipses that of noted quarterback alums Kenny Stabler, Richard Todd or Hall of Famers Bart Starr and Joe Namath.
But McCarron didn’t flirt with the hallowed mark of 400 yards passing until his final college game — the 2014 Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma.
On that night in New Orleans, the Mobile, Ala. native passed for two touchdowns and a career-best 387 yards … but it was largely borne out of necessity, once the brash Sooners exploded for 24 points in a 17-minute span and seized a 31-17 lead by halftime.
Oklahoma was out of sync in the running game against Alabama, mustering only 81 yards on the ground. But freshman quarterback Trevor Knight carried the offense to victory, passing for 348 yards and four touchdowns — essentially shredding a vaunted Alabama secondary which featured Landon Collins, Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix, Cyrus Jones, Trey DePriest and Vinnie Sunseri.
Amid the rush of a high-scoring affair, Alabama called on McCarron for 30 pass attempts against Oklahoma — which, on the surface, doesn’t seem inordinately high. The quarterback registered 27-plus passes seven times as a senior.
But factor in McCarron’s 10 “rushes” for minus-43 yards … and that equates to 10 fewer targets for blue-chip receiver Amani Cooper or decisively fewer carries for the tailback tandem of Derrick Henry (161 total yards, two TDs vs. Oklahoma) and T.J. Yeldon (95 total yards, one TD).
Which brings us back to Coker: Is he well-suited to rescue Alabama for long stretches, if necessary?
Of the Tide’s eight victories against SEC competition (including the title game versus Florida), Coker averaged 25.1 pass attempts and one touchdown.
For the Sept. 19 loss to Ole Miss, where the Rebels forced five turnovers and subsequently raced to a 30-10 lead in the second half, Coker attempted 45 of Alabama’s 59 passes for 201 yards and three touchdowns — in a relief role (backing up Cooper Bateman).
When assessing that four-hour window in a vacuum, the optimist would focus on how Coker led Alabama in its frenzied comeback, leading four touchdown drives in the final 16 minutes.
The pessimist, in turn, would point to Coker’s final two drives — with the Crimson Tide only down six points — resulting in one interception and one futile possession that accounted for zero yards in four plays.
Of course, another optimist might also be shouting from the rafters: If Coker had drawn the start against Ole Miss, Alabama (12-1 overall, No. 2 Playoff seed) would have cruised through the entire season without a defeat.
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Kudos to SEC Country writer Alex Smith for tracking down ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit this week, in advance of Thursday’s semifinal showdown, for some clarity on Coker’s place in this four-team Playoff.
Specifically, what separates Coker from the more renowned quarterbacking trio of Cook (Michigan State), Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma) and Deshaun Watson (Clemson)?
“Confidence,” said Herbstreit in his discussion with SEC Country. “The other three (QBs) get a lot of talk, and they should, but Jake Coker has really done a very good job of improving and maintaining, I think, a little bit of an edge.”
As an escape artist, the Tennessee game on Oct. 24 might have been Coker’s finest hour. A requisite time and place for discovering that mojo.
The Heisman-in-waiting Henry might have earned the headlines that day, collecting 143 rushing yards and two touchdowns — including the game-winner. But Coker stepped up during that transcendent, perhaps season-saving drive, hitting ArDarius Stewart for 29 yards on second-and-long … and then finding Calvin Ridley (15 yards) on a crucial third-and-6 situation.
The Ridley reception put Alabama — down 14-13 late in the game — in position for the go-ahead field goal; but it wasn’t necessary, as Henry trudged the final 25 yards (on three carries) for the touchdown.
“Early in the year, (Coker) was trying to avoid that mistake that could cost his team, and then he got benched,” said Herbstreit, referencing the Ole Miss defeat with Coker. “Then he got mad. You see him scramble, he looks like a bull in a china shop running around. He’s a big dude that’s athletic, so I think he brings a lot to the table.”
There’s no perfect number for Coker against Michigan State, in terms of ensuring victory.
No set number of passing yards required. No promises of bowl happiness when notching multiple touchdowns. No automatic aura of invincibility when ceding the spotlight to Henry (SEC-record 18 straight games with at least one touchdown).
The only Coker-centric stat to behold hails from his last nine outings with the Crimson Tide (all victories):
If he’s forced into an aerial-assault showdown with Cook … Coker might do it at an absurd completion rate of 72 percent.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.