ARLINGTON, Texas — Nearly 365 days have passed since Alabama’s crushing loss in the Sugar Bowl. Thursday night, the Crimson Tide get a chance at redemption against a Big Ten team in the national semifinal.
The Cotton Bowl kicks off at 8:10 p.m. ET (ESPN), and fans will need to keep an eye on three on-field storylines.
- Can Connor Cook and Michigan State move the ball through the air?
Alabama coaches and players have been clear: Cook is the best quarterback the Crimson Tide have faced this season.
Their front seven has been dominant all year, but the secondary? It’s had some forgettable moments. Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly lit them up in September, and Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott went for 300 yards two months later.
It’s not that Cyrus Jones, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Eddie Jackson and others aren’t up to the task of stopping Cook; We just won’t know until the senior lets ‘er rip.
- How many carries will Alabama running back Derrick Henry get?
Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has shown a tendency to air it out early instead of getting the running game going. Will he unleash another balanced attack to begin the Cotton Bowl, or will he immediately pound the rock with Henry?
Much was made of the Heisman Trophy winner’s 90 total carries in the final two games of the regular season. But he’s had nearly a full month of rest since, so there’s no reason to think Alabama will limit him in what is likely his last college game.
Of course, Michigan State’s defensive front will have a chance to dictate Henry’s workload. If the Spartans can stuff the ground game early, it will force Alabama to take chances with its passing game. Which leads us to…
- Will a strong Spartans pass rush get in Jake Coker’s face?
The fifth-year senior has issues when defenders get in his face. Sure, he’s adept at scrambling, but he often holds the ball too long when his initial reads don’t work out.
There’s also his penchant for tossing up jump balls. If Michigan State — which features eight players with multiple sacks — can force Coker to toss a couple wayward bombs, they’ll be in position to change the game with turnovers.
“Either he’s gonna scramble and pick up 10 or 15 yards, or he’s gonna get sacked, or he’s gonna turn it over,” ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit told SEC Country on Wednesday. “Because he’ll throw it into trouble.
“So it’s still in him. He’s just gotta do a good job of avoiding some poor decisions.”