By Jess Nicholas
Dec. 28, 2015
After last year’s opening-round debacle to the College Football Playoff, one would think most Alabama fans would never again make light of a Big Ten opponent in the postseason.
For this year’s playoff opener, Alabama has drawn Michigan State, coached by former Nick Saban cohort Mark Dantonio. The last time Alabama saw Michigan State, the Crimson Tide put a shellacking on the Spartans, 49-7, in what was essentially a meaningless Citrus Bowl. The game came at the end of the 2010 season, arguably the most frustrating season in Alabama history, thanks to the Cam Newton-led Auburn Tigers winning that school’s second national championship over Oregon.
Still, the one-sided nature of the Citrus Bowl, coupled with Michigan State’s pedestrian resume on offense this year, has brought forth the braggadocio once again from some corners. While it’s true that Michigan State lacks the explosiveness of the other teams in the playoffs, the Spartans still have a difference-maker at quarterback and, on a fundamental basis, rival only Alabama.
Last year, Alabama went into the Ohio State game probably looking ahead a bit. Alabama fans are probably doing the same this year. But don’t expect Nick Saban to allow his players to downplay the importance of the semifinal round a second time.
In regards to offensive theory, Alabama and Michigan State are two sides of the same coin. Both teams run a multiple, pro-style attack based around ball control and efficiency. In practice, however, the two schools have gone their separate ways as the season went along. Michigan State’s best player is its quarterback and its second-best player is a star wide receiver. For Alabama, Derrick Henry has become the avenue through which the entire offense is driven. Alabama ranked 48th in total offense for the season, split 27th in rushing and 72nd in passing, although team pass efficiency was 46th and QB Jake Coker finished the year on a hot streak. Michigan State ranked 69th in total offense, 79th in rushing offense and 53rd in passing, and 41st in passing efficiency. Both teams will use a fair bit of I-formation and Ace-package looks. This will essentially be an NFL game in regards to look.
If Michigan State’s Connor Cook is healthy, he could end up being the best quarterback playing in the Final Four, better than either Clemson’s Deshaun Watson or Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield. The issue is, he’s not healthy. Cook injured his throwing shoulder Nov. 14 against Maryland, missed the Ohio State game the following week and has been undergoing intensive therapy to get ready for Alabama. Cook’s completion percentage for the season – 56.9% – doesn’t wow anyone, but his 24 touchdown passes against just 5 interceptions points to a good grasp of coverages. Like Alabama’s Jake Coker, Cook isn’t so much a running threat as he has good escapability when the pressure comes. Tyler O’Connor will back up Cook; he has looked decent in limited work but isn’t polished. He has better athleticism than Cook but not nearly as much experience as a passer.
For Alabama, Jake Coker is riding a streak of several games in which his accuracy has been exemplary. Coupled with Coker’s size and ability to escape pressure, while the passing game may not be Alabama’s strength, it is certainly enough to keep defenses from keying on Derrick Henry with impunity. Backup Cooper Bateman appears to be a slightly better option than O’Connor. Alabama’s passing game is a better second option than the running game is for Michigan State, but Cook has a better skill set. Michigan State leads here, but the gap will narrow significantly if Cook’s shoulder is still a problem spot. Advantage: Michigan State
Despite the way Mark Dantonio likes to rely on his running game, Michigan State’s 2015 numbers would suggest the Spartans struggled more often than they ever really did. L.J. Scott and Gerald Holmes combined to rush for 4.9 yards per carry and 19 touchdowns, but total yardage wasn’t what one would expect from a Spartan feature back. Scott tallied 691 yards while Holmes got 534.
Add in third back Madre London, who carried 114 times for 489 yards (4.3 avg.) and 3 touchdowns, and the Spartans’ top three backs still trailed Alabama’s Derrick Henry (1,986 yards). R.J. Shelton and Delton Williams add depth behind this group, giving Michigan State the undisputed edge in pure depth. But an injury to fullback Trevon Pendleton could cost Michigan State here. Pendleton is questionable for this game, and without him, the Spartans would have to rely on a tight end (Matt Sokol or Dylan Chmura, most likely) to fill the fullback/H-back role.
For Alabama, Kenyan Drake is nearing 100-percent health again, which will stabilize the depth chart behind Henry. Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough are available as well, but with a healthy Drake, neither is likely to play unless Alabama turns this into a rout. Michael Nysewander would give Alabama the edge at fullback even if Pendleton were healthy for the Spartans, and he’s not. Aside from sheer numbers, Alabama leads everywhere else in this category. Advantage: Alabama
Even though the Spartan program is rarely known for offensive explosiveness, Michigan State has produced several top-flight wide receivers. In 2015, that guy is Aaron Burbridge, who caught 80 passes for 1,219 yards and 7 touchdowns through the regular season. Burbridge is a doppelganger for former LSU star Josh Reed; he’s built like a running back, is physical against coverage and can make things happen after the catch. He also got plenty of help this year from Macgarrett Kings Jr. and R.J. Shelton, who combined for another 1,000-plus yards. Michigan State also seemed to lead the nation in number of competent tight ends on the roster; Josiah Price, Jamal Lyles, Paul Lang and Dylan Chmura each played important roles for this team.
Alabama will counter with Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart and Richard Mullaney at wideout, with O.J. Howard, Brandon Greene, Hale Hentges and Dakota Ball at tight end. Ridley developed into a major weapon over the course of the season, while Stewart showed a penchant for showing up in big situations. Mullaney’s consistency in the slot and blocking ability made him one of the team’s most important role players. Neither team is incredibly deep on the edges, with Alabama holding a slim edge there. But the Spartans’ edge at tight end and the presence of Burbridge make it hard not to take Michigan State, even with Ridley on the Tide sideline. Advantage: Michigan State
The two teams look surprisingly similar: Jack Allen for MSU and Ryan Kelly for Alabama were both Rimington Award candidates; Kelly won the award in the end. Jack Conklin is a future NFL stud at left tackle for Michigan State; many believe Cam Robinson will eventually be the same for Alabama. Alabama used basically the same lineup all year, although it was altered for a brief time when right tackle Dominick Jackson was injured. Jackson rebounded to finish his senior season in strong fashion, and guards Ross Pierschbacher and Alphonse Taylor, while inconsistent at times, both had moments of greatness.
For Michigan State, Kodi Kieler at right tackle and Donavon Clark at right guard bring experience and veteran savvy, but the left guard position can have issues at times. Either Brian Allen or Benny McGowan will start, but the other will certainly see time. McGowan’s role as a super-sub in 2015 saved Michigan State during several bouts of injury.
While Alabama has the better athletes, the Tide struggled at times in keeping defensive linemen out of the backfield. Alabama ranked 83rd in tackles for loss allowed, although that number improved significantly in the final fourth of the season. Michigan State ranks 22nd in the same category. Neither team yields a lot of sacks. But Alabama’s superior ability to create lanes in the running game gives the Crimson Tide the edge here by the slimmest of margins. Advantage: Alabama
Whereas Mike Dantonio’s offense mimics Nick Saban’s preferred offense almost exclusively, there are differences on defense. Like many teams in the current age, Michigan State has incorporated elements of the 4-2-5 and 3-3-5 into its base defense. Alabama also plays a nickel look more often than not these days, but MSU’s fifth backend defender is more akin to a linebacker than another safety. To the surprise of no one, Alabama’s defensive unit is bigger and faster overall than is Michigan State’s, and the differences become apparent in the statistics. Alabama ranked 1st in rushing defense, 2nd in total defense, 3rd in scoring defense, 5th in pass efficiency defense and 16th in raw pass defense. Michigan State’s numbers in the same categories, respectively, were 9th, 26th, 20th, 69th and 72nd.
Michigan State may advertise a four-man front, but put into practice, it looks quite a bit like Alabama’s nickel front with the Jack linebacker in a down position. There’s a 55-pound difference between the two defensive ends, Lawrence Thomas (305) and Shilique Calhoun (250). Thomas is a combo tackle/end in the mold of Alabama’s A’Shawn Robinson, while Calhoun is a similar player to Bama’s Denzel Devall. Up the middle, Joel Heath and Malik McDowell will start at the tackle slots, but both are in the 275-pound range and rely more on quickness rather than mass. Whatever Michigan State did in 2015, it worked, as evidenced by the ranking of 9th in rush defense. The Spartans also ranked a respectable 23rd in the country in sacks, recording 35 of them. Calhoun had 10.5 on his own, and Alabama’s tackles will need to be aware of his location at all times.
Bama figures to be in its base 3-4 look for much of this game, meaning an alignment of Daron Payne, Darren Lake or Josh Frazier up the middle, with A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed, Jonathan Allen, Dalvin Tomlinson, Da’Shawn Hand and D.J. Pettway rotating outside. Alabama ranked 3rd in the country in sacks and was marginally better against the run, but the real issue here is that Alabama’s DL is a worse matchup for Michigan State’s OL to handle than the reverse. Advantage: Alabama
Middle linebacker Riley Bullough and “Star” linebacker Darien Harris were the Spartans’ two leading tacklers in 2015. Harris plays primarily the weakside position but can act as a rover, and he’s small enough to get into coverage. However, he may be too small to properly defend against Alabama’s zone blocking and downhill running scheme. Both players had 7 tackles for losses, but Harris didn’t record a sack. Strongside backers Jon Reschke and Chris Frey were bigger parts of the Spartan defense than strongside linebackers typically find themselves being in the current day; they’re both built like rush ends and Michigan State schemes them accordingly. Shane Jones and Andrew Dowell provide depth inside.
Alabama will counter with Reggie Ragland, Shaun Dion Hamilton and Reuben Foster inside, with Dillon Lee and Rashaan Evans on the strongside and Denzel Devall, Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams working at Jack linebacker. Bullough is a steady player for the Spartans and Harris looks enough like Ohio State linebacker Darron Lee to cause Alabama a few night terrors, but the depth of Alabama’s unit and the ability of the inside linebackers to make a difference in the offensive backfield is too much for the Spartans to overcome. Advantage: Alabama
Michigan State knew coming into the year that this unit could be trouble. Aside from safety R.J. Williamson, the Spartans didn’t have a playmaker in the fold, and returning experience was at a low ebb. Thirteen games later, not much has changed. The Spartans have been opportunistic – 13 interceptions in 2015, which has led to Michigan State ranking 4th in turnover margin – but they give up both too many yards and too many big plays. Moreover, Williamson won’t be 100 percent for this game. He is suffering from a biceps injury that could wear on him if he is called upon to help tackle Derrick Henry too often.
With Williamson limited, nickel safety Montae Nicholson figures to start in his place in the base defense. Nicholson emerged this year to become the team’s third-leading tackler, but he’s more of a ballhawk than a stalwart run supporter despite his size. Demetrious Cox gets the call at the other safety position, while Arjen Colquhoun and Darian Hicks will start at the cornerback spots. Colquhoun, who goes 6’1”, 205, is thick for a corner, and his 10 PBUs and 12 passes defended show he’s not afraid to stick his nose in the action. But Alabama should have a speed advantage going against him in one-on-one coverage.
Alabama will start Cyrus Jones and Marlon Humphrey at the corners, with Geno Matias-Smith, Eddie Jackson, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ronnie Harrison, Maurice Jones, Tony Brown and Jabriel Washington playing the safety roles. Both teams have aggressive defensive backs, but Alabama’s group has been better in run support and have done a better job limiting big plays. Advantage: Alabama
Both teams have gone through both tough times and good times in regards to placekicking. Michael Geiger has missed a couple of extra points and is 12-of-19 on field goal tries, with a long of 47 yards. His make/miss percentages are mostly stable no matter the distance. Alabama’s Adam Griffith got off to a horrid start, but then caught fire in the middle of the season and kept riding the wave of success through the end of the year. But he also missed a chip-shot field goal in the SEC Championship Game and is 21-of-29 on the season.
Punting strongly favors Alabama; J.K. Scott is a year removed from being a Ray Guy Award finalist, while Michigan State ranks 111th in net punting. Punter Jake Hartbarger carries a strong 42.1-yard average, but punt coverage has been an issue. The return game also strongly favors Alabama; Michigan State is a dismal 120th in punt returns and a mediocre 61st in kickoff returns. Alabama is 24th and 110th in those same categories.
The only question for Alabama is one of consistency, as the Crimson Tide can look like all-pros one week and a pee wee squad the next. Assuming things hold to form, this will be a Bama edge. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in six categories, Michigan State in two, although the OL category could easily go to the Spartans as well. In OL-DL matchups, each team’s DL appears to have an edge, although Alabama’s is much stronger and it’s not out of the realm of reason to suggest Alabama’s offensive line could find itself able to control the smaller Spartan group. That would give Alabama both line matchups and probably seal the deal on this game.
The specter of the Ohio State loss from last year, in fact, is probably keeping predictions on this game further in check than might otherwise be warranted. Alabama is better on defense, top to bottom, and better on special teams. The Alabama running game is strongly favored, but the passing game stands on its own merits and doesn’t figure to drag down the Tide’s effort.
There is the revenge factor, to be certain: Michigan State coaches who were around in 2010 have something to fight for, and the stakes are higher this time out. And because of Ohio State’s win over Alabama last year, there isn’t a fear factor in place anymore for Big Ten teams that find themselves matched up against SEC foes.
Still, any unbiased look at these two teams is going to yield the same conclusion – Alabama should win the game, and if not win it by blowout, the Crimson Tide ought to at least not have to suffer through an uncomfortable fourth quarter.
Michigan State’s path to an upset goes like this: Connor Cook (or his backup) has to have a career day throwing the ball, the MSU secondary has to goad Jake Coker into making multiple dumb throws, and Alabama’s special teams have to self-immolate. It’s a tall order, for sure, but that’s what it’s going to take to turn the Tide away.
Michigan State 13
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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