Alabama and Michigan State were supposed to be having a rematch of the 2011 Capitol One Bowl in their Cotton Bowl clash on New Year's Eve. Instead, Alabama just ran a replay, and ran over the Spartans for a 38-0 victory.
Jacob Coker lit up the Spartans' secondary for 286 yards and two touchdowns, and Derrick Henry barely had to be brought out of the barn in his first game as a Heisman winner, rushing for just 75 yards and two touchdowns.
Tide stars young and old contributed to the onslaught. Senior Cyrus Jones snuffed out Michigan State's best bid for points in the first half with a pick and put the game well out of reach in the third quarter with a sensational punt return touchdown. Freshman Calvin Ridley had the first two-touchdown game of his college career, and had the game's first big play even before his toe-tapping score.
Michigan State's defense fought gamely in the first half, but once Coker started humming, the Spartans had no answers for Alabama's offense. And with Alabama's absurdly talented defensive line menacing Connor Cook into two interceptions and shutting down Spartans runners all night, Michigan State had no hope of coming back -- or escaping the first shutout in College Football Playoff history.
Three things to know
1. Out-rolling the Tide doesn't work. Much of the talk prior to Thursday's game was about how Nick Saban and former Saban assistant Mark Dantonio had built programs that were mirror images of each other, with a defense-first, lines-outward philosophy that has established both teams among the national elite.
Once the game began, it didn't take long for Alabama to simply look like the bigger, stronger brother. Much like in its 49-7 shellacking at Alabama's hands in 2011, Michigan State couldn't do anything to either scar or stop the Crimson Tide. Coker played like a bigger-armed Cook; Henry was just better than all of Michigan State's ineffective backs. Alabama doesn't lose often, as a rule, but it really doesn't lose often to inferior versions of itself.
2. Saban's disciples haven't topped the master. Saban has a perfect 9-0 record in games against teams led by former assistants, with every win coming by at least 14 points. He's not scheduled to stare across the sideline at another protege until 2017, when Alabama and Florida State will open the Atlanta Falcons' new stadium, in what should be Saban's first matchup with Jimbo Fisher, but he could see Florida's Jim McElwain, Georgia's Kirby Smart, or South Carolina's Will Muschamp in SEC Championship Games in the near future.
History suggests Saban might have success in those hypothetical showdowns.
3. Ridley might be the key to a Tide title. Coker is playing at a very high level, coming off two games of 260-plus yards, two touchdowns, and no turnovers against excellent defenses. Henry is Henry. Alabama's defense is extraordinary. But Ridley has elevated the Crimson Tide's offense since averaging exactly 100 yards per game in October, and might be the key to defeating Clemson.
The Tigers have a fine pass defense, after all, one that allowed 311 yards to Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield and still ranks in the nation's top 15 in the yards allowed per game. Their run defense is more suspect, so they might well opt to load up the box and try to stop Henry with numbers. That will provide opportunities for Ridley to win one-on-one matchups, perhaps against future first-rounder Mackensie Alexander -- and he's proven capable of winning them.