Cotton Bowl: Alabama vs Michigan State Preview


What to look for in tonight’s Alabama vs Michigan State Cotton Bowl matchup.

ICYMI: We wrote a Cotton Bowl good luck note to our sister site Spartan Avenue.

As the college football playoffs roll back around, it’s comforting to find Alabama back in the fold. It really is a good time to be a Bama fan.

This time, again, Alabama squares off against a Big 10 opponent with Michigan State fitting the bill in the opening round.

So how will this game play out? Well, you’ve come to the right place, because we are rife with opinions. Alabama vs Michigan State, here we go.

Alabama runs the ball, but – Sure, who wouldn’t run the ball with Heisman winner Derrick Henry stationed in the backfield but don’t be so media-quick to assume the entirety of the Tide’s game plan. Jacob Coker is completing over 75% of his passes in the second half of the season and Alabama receivers are talented enough to build an attack around.

There’s another reality too. The one that realizes the vaunted Spartan defense actually ranks 92nd nationally against the pass. That’s behind every defense Coker faced while building his case as a capable passer over the last several games.

While all the pundits chirp about State stacking the box and making Coker beat you with his arm, understand that this tactic may be the exact game plan the Tide’s offensive brain trust is drawing up.

I half expect the Tide to play action down the field on their opening snap and fully expect Coker to produce a 24 of 30 for 265 and 2 TD-like stat line.

Sure, Henry will get his (a buck fiddy sounds about right), but look for a dynamic game plan that puts opponents and experts alike on notice.

Alabama Offense, watch for this – Aside from Coker, Henry, and even Ridley watch for these match ups when Alabama has the ball. Is OJ splitting out and drawing linebackers? I continue to be bullish on his talent and this might be an opportunity for him to demonstrate his unique skills. Watch also for Drake to return to his X-Factor role and for Stewart to lead all Tide receivers on the day.

Michigan State passes the ball, but – Well, actually Michigan State has a 60/40 run/pass distribution on the season so they aren’t exactly a passing offense in today’s sense of the term, but that fact is being sacrificed to support the Connor Cook vs. the Bama secondary narrative.

Interestingly enough, I think the talking heads have this right but not for the reasons they think. The Spartans will come out trying to establish a running game. They feature a trio of productive backs and will be eager to slow the pace of the game from the start.

This is a tactic that will look better on paper but will quickly give way to a short passing game fueled by TE Josiah Price and FB Trevon Pendleton. These cats will each have productive plays early but it won’t be sustainable against the ever adjusting Tide defense.

In the end, a combination of playing from behind and calling the best available plays will have the Spartans slinging the ball all over the field. That too will produce its share of moments but a steady rotation of fresh Alabama pass rushers will find their mark and it’ll get late early.

Alabama Defense, watch for this – I think there are two measures that could predict the game very early. Can Alabama stop the run with a five man front and how does Cyrus look in coverage against Burbridge?

Special Teams – Here again the stats tell an interesting tale. The Spartans rank in the bottom 20% of FCS teams in punt coverage, returns, and Field Goals. Assuming form holds, watch for each to conspire with the next. Consistently poor field position for State while needing to drive more of the field for a viable FG attempt.

Voodoo – This is normally a plot line reserved for our LSU friends but the Spartans appear to have some dark arts working in their favor this year and it’s something that can’t easily be game planned. Consider that Michigan State beat both Ohio State and Michigan while leading exactly ZERO seconds on the clock. Add to it the 22 play drive cumulating with their lone go-ahead score with 27 seconds remaining against Iowa.

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Predictions – I think the Tide will move the ball well between the 20s but they won’t immediately crack the endzone. Meanwhile, the Spartans will have their moments but not nearly enough of them to carry the day.

Alabama 24 – Michigan State 14