While the Playoff selection committee paired the spread teams on one side of the bracket, it stuck two of the most hard-nosed football teams in the country on the other. When Alabama and Heisman RB Derrick Henry take on the Spartan run defense in the Cotton Bowl, it will be a strength-on-strength matchup in which neither side will back down until real blood has been drawn.
Alabama has always run a "bell cow" offense under Nick Saban, and you can be sure Henry's battle with the Spartan front is absolutely going to determine how this game proceeds. The Spartans are going to do all they can to challenge the Tide's willingness to just have Henry lower his helmet and plunge ahead.
Here's how that plays out with the preferred strategies and tactics of these two teams.
Most defenses have pressure points.
This is especially true of a defense like Michigan State's, one that relies on simplicity and execution and doesn't bring a great deal of disguise or variation to shield its pressure points.
Michigan State has two main defensive structures it relies on. First, is the base defense. The 4-3 Over with wrong-arming defensive ends, run-first LB play and aggressive cover 4 coverages that pressure most throws.
On any play with run action from the offense, the Spartan linebackers and strong safety come downhill, leaving the corners and free safety isolated in space out wide in the flats and deep down the field. The Ohio State Buckeyes' failure to get at these defenders with the vertical passing game was the main reason their normally potent running game couldn't do anything at all.
The other main defensive structure of the Spartans is their three-deep/two-under zone blitz packages, which includes their dreaded double-A gap pressure.
Normally a single-deep safety coverage is most vulnerable in the seams, where the deep safety could potentially have to handle multiple intermediate or vertical routes in the middle of the field. However, the two underneath defenders in this blitz will help protect the seam and key the QB's eyes in order to protect that deep safety. The goal is to either force a quick and harmless throw to the flats or to encourage the QB to make a poor decision and throw into deep zone. Or the Spartans can just flatten the QB behind the line under a cascade of green jerseys.
What makes these two defenses so perfectly complementary is the mind set they instill, and the way the blitzes protect the base defense. Spartan defenders know in advance that they're going to be freed up to attack downhill all the time, and it results in an aggressive and confident mind set in their play. When you watch them on film, you see confidence and physicality in their play that flows from this overall philosophy.
Meanwhile, an offense looking to punish the defense with vertical passing has to be mindful of soft zone coverage, while being overloaded by six blitzing Spartans. While you want to attack the base Spartan D with vertical routes, that is not at all an advisable way to handle their blitz package.
This leads us to Alabama's approach on offense.
The Crimson Tide's plan is basically to hand the ball to Henry as many times as possible, while building most of the rest of the offense around constraining defenses from loading the box to stop him. Against LSU, for instance, Alabama made great use of three-wide formations with an H-back and four-wide formations -- looking to get the Tigers out of the box, so that Henry could find running room on Bama's favorite play, inside zone.
Here's a sampling of how LSU looked to match these sets:
LSU took no chances with Jacob Coker getting quick passes off to receivers outside, bringing the nickel to stop the easy constraint throws. Instead of closing in on the Bama run game from every angle, the Tigers relied on strong safety Jamal Adams, providing the extra run support needed to stop Henry. Unfortunately for the Tigers, and very nearly Les Miles himself, that was not sufficient, mostly because Alabama's interior OL was driving the LSU DTs several yards off the line of scrimmage on every snap.
By the time Adams had fought through the wash to try and make the tackle on Henry, the back was generally already three to five yards downfield. Many other teams pursued similar strategies, because it's risky business to try and leave the caliber of skill athletes that Alabama has in space. Henry was pretty good at making defenses pay for that all year.
Here's how Michigan State would line up to defend that.
The Spartans aren't going to trust their strong safety alone to outnumber and choke out Alabama's run game. They're going to bring their field linebacker to attack the edge, as well, preventing any chance of Henry bouncing outside.
Instead, Michigan State will dare Coker to consistently make throws outside and for the Alabama WRs to consistently break tackles against the Spartan DBs ... or for Alabama to break the rules of its own system and hand off to Henry despite Michigan State's numbers advantage.
This should present an interesting dilemma for Saban and Lane Kiffin. Either they will welcome the challenge and see if they can beat the Spartans the way their system is designed, by repeatedly throwing the ball outside on run-pass options (RPOs), or they'll try to scheme ways to keep the ball in Henry's hands.
The spread doesn't really bring any answers here, because the Spartans have schemes that allow them to keep their linebackers in the box and fly downhill to prevent double teams no matter how the Tide line up. Additionally, while the Tide were able to run the ball on LSU with Jamal Adams as an extra man, can they find similar success against a Spartan front that features superior DL and an extra linebacker?
The Tide faced these questions against Arkansas.
Like the Spartans will do, the Razorbacks looked to keep the box loaded, so Coker would be forced to throw the ball outside.
In that game, Coker threw 33 passes for 262 yards, good for 7.9 yards per attempt, with a pair of TD passes and a pair of interceptions. Henry produced only 95 yards despite 27 carries, but WR Calvin Ridley had a field day with 140 receiving yards and a TD.
Will that approach generate similar results against the Spartan defense? Or will Coker succumb to Michigan State's pressure when asked to throw so much?
If Kiffin prefers not to go down that route, he could revert the Alabama offense back to its roots and trot out a fullback and tight end on most snaps. Doing so would turn this game into a full-blown bloodletting, with Henry just repeatedly smashing into the Spartans. This game should prove whether Saban has fully embraced the spread RPO revolution, or whether he'll go back to his safer inclinations against his former pupil, Mark Dantonio. Either way, there will be blood.