College football is really good at reminding you how far you've come and how far you still have to go.
The Michigan State of Biggie Munn and Duffy Dougherty was one of the nation's dominant programs. Between 1951 and 1966, the Spartans finished among the AP top three seven times, finishing first once (1952). They went from "not in the Big Ten" to "Big Ten power" overnight. This was a wonderful program over a sustained amount of time.
But after finishing second back-to-back in 1965-66, State fell off. Daugherty went 27-34-1 over his final six years. Between 1967 and 1998, State would finish ranked just five times and managed only one top-10 finish (1987).
Nick Saban got the Spartans to seventh again in 1999, but when he left, so did the success. Mark Dantonio inherited a sagging, no-confidence program in 2007.
What a job Dantonio has done. Michigan State has won at least 11 games in five of the last six seasons and is about to finish in the AP top 10 for the third consecutive year. After winning the Big Ten outright once between 1966 and 2012, the Spartans have done it twice in the last three years.
Michigan State has come so far.
On New Year's Eve, Alabama showed Michigan State has so far to go.
I referenced the last time State played Bama as a clear sign of the Spartans' progress:
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.
Technically, I wasn't wrong. The yardage was closer, thanks in part to a couple of decent garbage-time drives.
But Alabama's dominance of Michigan State in a 38-0 Cotton Bowl win was eerily reminiscent. After a sustained feeling-out period in the game's first quarter and a half, the Crimson Tide figured out how they were going to attack the Spartans, and they did so with terrifying efficiency.
- First 22 minutes (plays-yards): Bama 24-74 (3.1), MSU 20-63 (3.1)
- Next 30 minutes (plays-yards): Bama 36-348 (9.7), MSU 33-116 (3.5)
Michigan State's run defense passed the test against Derrick Henry; the Heisman winner finished with 20 carries for only 75 yards, and 11 of those came on his final carry, a malicious 11-yard score against a demoralized foe.
But when the game was still within reach, Henry didn't have room to run.
Unfortunately for MSU, Alabama can pass, too.
Quarterback Jake Coker and his young receiving corps struggled to find a rhythm in the first half of the season, but Coker completed 71 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and no interceptions over the final three games.
With State selling out against the run, Coker and Lane Kiffin did what Kiffin always wants to do: nibble around with quick passes to the perimeter, then, once the defense is officially spread too thin, go deep. A 50-yard bomb to Calvin Ridley set up Alabama's first score, a 41-yarder to O.J. Howard set up the second, a 26-yarder to Richard Mullaney got Alabama going to start the second half (and led to a third score), and another 50-yarder to Ridley sealed the deal late in the third quarter.
Coker was almost flawless: 25-for-30, 286 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions. Ridley had eight catches for 138 yards. The short passes and two sacks lowered the per-attempt averages, but Alabama had far too many weapons beyond Henry, and Kiffin's steady game plane was perfect.
State found almost no holes to exploit on offense.
The run game was as unsuccessful as I assumed it would be -- Madre London and LJ Scott combined for 19 yards on 11 carries -- but despite occasional success in intermediate passing, Connor Cook didn't have the time or the open receivers. His career ends with one of his worst performances: 19-for-39, 210 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions, four sacks, and 4.2 yards per pass attempt.
This is Alabama's best defense since 2011; it was just too much to handle.
Clemson will have its chances in the national title game, but in Arlington, Alabama proved why it has been the best team in the country. It took some fluky bounces and a minus-5 turnover margin for the Tide to lose by six points to a top-10-caliber Ole Miss in September, and the Tide have improved dramatically since.
On Thursday, they were so good that they made Nick Saban smile.
Despite eery similarities to the cruel result five years earlier, this game was more about Bama than Michigan State. Dantonio's Spartans rode a blessed run to the national semifinals and, as a sustained Big Ten contender, could revisit the Playoff soon.
But Alabama is simply awesome this year. With ridiculous quality on the depth chart and redemption in their heads following last year's loss to Ohio State, the Crimson Tide had a message to send.