The Cotton Bowl is finally upon us. All the hype and anticipation, the waiting and the thoughts of last year all come to a fruition Thursday when the Crimson Tide take the field for the semifinals of the College Football Playoff.
It’s a new stage for Alabama at this point in the year — where the Crimson Tide’s season ended last year, it starts over again Thursday.
Here is everything you need to know about Alabama-Michigan State prior to kickoff:
No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide (12-1, 7-1 SEC) vs. No. 3 Michigan State Spartans (12-1, 7-1 Big Ten)
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 31, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN) at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas
Weather: 52 degrees, 0 percent chance of rain (Weather.com)
Line: Alabama -10
By the numbers
16 – The quest for Alabama’s 16th national championship starts now. The winner of Alabama-Michigan State will play the winner of Clemson-Oklahoma on Jan. 11 for the title in Glendale, Ariz.
2– These two programs have next to no experience playing against each other, as this will be just the second meeting between the two. It’s been five years since the Crimson Tide and the Spartans squared off. Alabama beat Michigan State handily, 49-7, in Orlando in 2010. Seeing that the victory was five years ago and no players from that year still play collegiately, Alabama fans shouldn’t put too much stock into that win.
7– Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook ranks in the top three of seven different school passing records. He is the school’s all-time leader in touchdown passes and 300-yard passing games.
Storylines to watch
Deja vu for the Crimson Tide
Obviously, Alabama has been here before. A year ago, the Crimson Tide traveled to New Orleans to play Ohio State, a team who at the time had gotten into the College Football Playoff via what many considered a controversial decision by the committee. As you know by now, Ohio State proved it belonged, handed Alabama an abrupt loss and eventually won a championship. Alabama is right back in that same position this year: in the semifinal against a team that it is supposed to beat. The Crimson Tide learned the hard way last year that they can’t play any way other than their best and still come out with a win. This isn’t a non-conference game that they can still run away with even if they aren’t fully clicking. This is crunch time, and Alabama has some unfinished business to attend to.
Saban vs. Dantonio
When the two teams take the field, it’ll be pupil versus teacher in Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio and Alabama’s Nick Saban. From 1995 to 1999, Saban was the head coach of the Spartans and Dantonio was his defensive backs coach. Saban is also linked to Michigan State co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett, who spent the 2003 season with Saban at LSU as a graduate assistant. Both head coaches have been extremely complimentary of each other in the recent weeks and they’ll have a reunion of sorts Thursday.
Michigan State’s front seven vs. Derrick Henry
Michigan State’s defense made national headlines when it revealed its plan for Henry: “We are going to have to hit him harder – harder than we’ve ever hit anyone else.” Michigan State’s rushing defense ranks ninth in the nation — the best Alabama has seen since Wisconsin — and Henry — well, you know the story with him. Henry has had a monstrous season, even when teams have extensively watched his game tape. But Michigan State has had the advantage of time. They’ve had more time to dissect Henry and this Alabama squad than they have any other team all year. If we know Henry, he’ll likely still find a way to be effective, but this could be his tallest order of the year.
Alabama defense vs. Connor Cook
If Henry is the heartbeat of ‘Bama’s squad, Connor Cook takes on the same role for the Spartans. The fifth-year quarterback is the school’s winningest quarterback and is 34-4 as the team’s starter. This season, Cook has thrown 24 passing touchdowns to just five interceptions. He averages 243.4 yards per game through the air with his longest pass this year being a 74-yarder. Alabama ranks third in scoring defense, 17th in passing defense and second in total defense — another strong matchup.
Prediction: Alabama 35, Michigan State 27
The Crimson Tide lost this time last year, but as a general rule it’s never a bad idea to bet on Saban. Alabama is hungry for a win and the team is clicking on all cylinders. Alabama takes this one and advances to the championship.