1. Bashing rocks together
The last time Michigan State played Alabama, in the Capital One Bowl on January 1, 2011, the Spartans weren't ready. Mark Dantonio's fourth MSU squad had broken through with an 11-1 campaign, the best season in East Lansing since Nick Saban's final squad finished 10-2 in 1999. But smoke, mirrors, and close-game bounces were involved.
Against an angry Alabama watching rival Auburn prepare for the BCS Championship, Michigan State didn't have a chance. In a name-your-score blowout, the Crimson Tide scored touchdowns on six of their first seven full possessions. State either punted or turned the ball over on eight of its first nine. Only a garbage-time touchdown prevented a shutout, and a 49-7 Bama win felt more like 77-0. Total yardage: Bama 546, MSU 171.
Five seasons later, State is readier. The Spartans are 36-4 since the start of 2013 -- 36-4! -- and after an extended slow start to the year, they have reached cruising altitude. They survived a quarterback injury, a trip to Columbus, and an Iowa horde in Indianapolis to finish 12-1 and win an improved Big Ten.
Their computer ratings are only good, not great, thanks to the first two months of the season. But they come to Dallas battle tested and, in theory, healthier than they've been in a while.
From a styles perspective, this game will be like bashing rocks together, and Alabama does that as well as anybody. The last time the Tide lost to a team with a plodding, pro-style-ish offense was against LSU in November 2011.
The Spartans have earned this moment in the spotlight. They might still lose to Alabama because Alabama is awesome.
2. The Bama Dynasty Is Over, Part VII
Alabama, meanwhile? Just fine. If it takes that many bad breaks for a really good team to beat you, you aren't going to lose much. Every time Bama loses, we race to proclaim it the Beginning Of The End for Nick Saban's dynasty. And then Alabama goes months without losing again.
I wrote that three months ago after Alabama lost to Ole Miss, 43-37, in one of the most turnover-skewed games of the season. Only eight other FBS games out of 828 in 2015 also produced a turnover margin of five.
The loss proved the Tide can be consumed by a combination of bad breaks and poor focus. Even at the time, I was impressed by the fact that, despite these breaks, and despite Ole Miss being really good (the Rebels are currently seventh in S&P+, two spots ahead of Michigan State, despite an injury-laden mid-season funk), Bama only lost by six points that night.
Since the Capital One Bowl pasting of Michigan State, the Tide have lost seven games and won two more national titles, their second and third under Saban. But, gasp, they haven't won the national title for two years running! Is this the year the painful drought ends?
Alabama ranked first in F/+ in 2009, second in 2010, second in 2011. First in 2012, second in 2013, second in 2014. This year? The Tide are first so far, having overtaken Clemson in November.
Bama responded to a loss like Bama always responds to a loss. The Tide established a level of play higher than Michigan State's since its Nebraska loss, and they maintained it for longer.
- Alabama's average percentile performance (last 10 games): 93%
- Michigan State's average percentile performance (last 4 games): 89%
This ridiculous level has come despite a rebuilt passing game. The Tide rank 28th in Passing S&P+; Jake Coker has completed 66 percent of his passes, and his passer rating is 148.3 since week four. Even with improvement, Bama is still only good at passing.
The Tide are the top team because they are very good running the ball, and they have their best defense since 2011. They are as excellent as always at stopping the run (first in Rushing S&P+), but they have experienced a breakthrough against the pass. They rank first in Passing S&P+ thanks to a dynamite pass rush and their most active secondary in years.
An inconsistent passing game can give opponents an opportunity to stick around. The Tide led Florida and Texas A&M by only eight points late, led Auburn by six heading into the fourth, and didn't take their final lead on Tennessee until there were fewer than three minutes left.
This is a true, slow-moving-death Bama squad. They feed Heisman winner Derrick Henry frequently, they render you one-dimensional by so thoroughly defending the run, and they lean on you until you fall over. They've won three national titles with this recipe, and they are a favorite for a fourth this year.
Of course, they were the favorite last year, too. They're always the favorite.
3. Hey, Connor Cook. How's the shoulder?
Michigan State won the Big Ten title with a 22-play, game-clinching drive in the fourth quarter against Iowa. It is a drive that has already become legendary, a defining moment in a (mostly) fun season. Its significance made it big, but the sheer, unlikely nature of a 22-play drive made it bigger.
You're not going to rely on a 22-play drive to beat Alabama. You're probably not going to be able to rely on running at all. In the Big Ten title game, LJ Scott and Madre London combined to rush 34 times for 133 yards, 3.9 per carry. Despite all the third-down conversions on that final drive, the Spartans were barely able to run against Iowa, and Alabama's run defense is much better than Iowa's.
State can pass, though. Well, the Spartans can pass when Cook is healthy. He was limited and inaccurate against Iowa, and over State's final four games of the regular season, he missed one and completed 53 percent in the other three.
That brought to an end a run of super-human performances. With a young corps of running backs and an offensive line in flux, State's run game was dreadful over most of the first two months. The Dantonio Way means a run-first offense no matter what, but running meant Cook would be throwing on second-and-9 or third-and-7.
He was awesome on second-and-9 and third-and-7. Throwing mostly on passing downs, he produced a passer rating of 149.3 with a 7-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio. On third-and-7 or longer, he was 45-for-79 for 749 yards, six touchdowns, and just one pick. Absurdly good.
Alabama does have the best pass defense in the country this year. There's really no good way to attack the best defense in the country. But State has a legitimate weapon when Cook is healthy, and if the Spartans can do what others have done against Alabama -- stay close into the second half -- Cook and Aaron Burbridge could connect at some key times.
Spread: Alabama -9.5
S&P+ Projection: Alabama 30.3, Michigan State 19.3
Team Sites: The Only Colors, Roll 'Bama Roll
4. Key Stat No. 1: Passing downs
|Category||Michigan State offense||Alabama defense||Alabama offense||Michigan State defense|
|Standard Downs S&P+ (Rk)||94.0 (99)||153.0 (1)||115.3 (21)||126.1 (4)|
|Passing Downs S&P+ (Rk)||128.7 (12)||154.1 (3)||116.3 (36)||107.1 (50)|
The Michigan State run game got a little better in November, once the line had finally gelled. This has still been a vastly below average attack on standard downs. The Spartans run a lot, they gain three yards a lot, and drives consistently hinge on Cook making a throw from behind schedule.
State's opponents tend to spend even more time behind schedule. The Spartans' front four has struggled to maintain focus against lesser competition but has delivered when it counts, and it's conceivable they corral Henry in the four-yards-per-carry range for a while.
The question is which offense bails itself out more on passing downs. Alabama's defense is mortal on such downs -- only the THIRD-best in the country -- and Cook is a passing downs magician.
On defense, State's risk-reward balance can get skewed a bit on second- and third-and-long. Opponents have completed 66 percent of their passes at 14 yards per completion (with five interceptions) on third-and-7 or more. If Cook can trump Coker here, Sparty will have a chance.
5. Key Stat No. 2: Turnovers
Michigan State +5.46 (22)
Alabama +12.87 (2)
Michigan State +16 (3)
Alabama +7 (25)
Turnovers are only partially in your control. A combination of your talent and style of play has an impact on how many passes you get a hand on, how many fumbles you force (via sack-and-strip, for instance), etc. Once the ball hits the ground or a defender's hand, randomness takes over.
Michigan State and Alabama have had two of the more turnover-friendly teams in the country. Based solely on fumbles and passes defensed, both should have expected to have positive turnover margins, and both have. State's been a bit lucky, and Alabama's been a bit lucky, but both are used to winning the turnover margin. State did so in 11 of 13 games, and Bama either won or split the margin in 11 of 13.
Alabama's only loss came with a minus-five margin against Ole Miss. The projected turnover margin in that game, based on how fumbles and deflected passes usually go, was about minus-1.6, but bad fortune took over.
Though Michigan State managed to create an incredible outlier result in beating Ohio State without Cook and with a minus-two turnover margin, the Spartans also nearly lost to Rutgers, in part because of a minus-one margin.
Turnovers flip a game by about five points each, on average. Alabama might be expected to win by 10 points, but that's nothing two turnovers can't handle.