The second NCAA semifinal is the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas between the Big 10 winning (12-1) Michigan State Spartans and the SEC champion (12-1) Alabama Crimson Tide (8pm ET, Thursday).
In a year when the Big 10 placed three teams in the top eight and four in the top 15, Michigan State finished with one of the toughest schedules (4th) and best resumes of all of their competitors. The Spartans opened the season with eight straight wins, including one over then #7 ranked Oregon and top rival, then #12 ranked Michigan.
A one-point loss to Nebraska set the Spartans back but the team won out after that and with a close victory over Iowa in the Big 10 Championship, which had held the fourth seed until that final week, earned its spot in the college football playoff for the first time.
Alabama Crimson Tide, a seemingly perennial contender for the title be it in the old BCS format or current college football playoff, once again earned the SEC, one of the best divisions in the NCAA. Alabama finished with the top ranked strength of record, second highest FPI and with a 22nd ranked offense, 31st ranked special teams and 1st ranked defense, earned the mark for the highest total efficiency among all FBS teams. Their schedule saw them lose early, in the third game of the season, against rival Ole Miss and then win out, complete with victories over then #8 ranked Georgia, #9 ranked Texas A&M, #2 ranked LSU and #18 ranked Florida in the SEC Championship.
The Tide’s Success Comes from Heisman Winning RB
Offensively, Alabama is not the juggernaut it has been in year’s past but like all of those great ‘Bama teams, this one did not lack for a top rusher and a top running game.
Following in the footsteps of Mark Ingram before him, Derrick Henry (pictured) became the second Alabama RB since 2009 to take home college football’s top award, the Heisman trophy. Henry had an incredible year on the ground, rushing for an FBS high 1,986 yards and 2nd best 23 touchdowns, just one behind leader Keenan Reynolds (QB, Navy).
Henry’s workload has been monstrous, toting the ball 339 times in 13 games including 46 in the final regular season game against Auburn and another 44 in the SEC championship against Florida. In fact, in Henry’s last seven games, he averages over 31 carries per contest.
The success of Henry has been huge for Alabama as a whole but specifically for QB Jake Coker. The pressure has been greatly relieved on the senior who in 2015 started a full season and carried a full workload for just the first time in his four year collegiate career. Coker had a respectable year with over 2400 yards and 17 touchdowns, but the strength of Alabama was no doubt via Henry. In fact, Coker attempted just 338 passes over the course of the season compared to the 339 rushes for Henry. Needless to say, the Crimson Tide are a run-first team. The Spartans, despite ranking 7th best in FBS, have still allowed on average over 113 yards to opposing teams.
For Henry, who has failed to meet the 113 mark just four times this year, it is a safe bet that while he may not top 200 like he has four times this year, that he will still be able to have a good game and lead Alabama back to the championship. If the Crimson Tide do lose however, it will no doubt be a result of Henry’s extensive workload finally catching up to him.
Our Preview’s Michigan State Spartans vs Alabama Crimson Tide Picks
Michigan State has gotten by this year on the skin of their teeth really, winning several contests in close and sometimes thrilling fashion. As exciting as this has made watching them, it doesn’t quite offer much faith for how the team will perform against the toughest opponent they have yet to face in Alabama.
In fact, according to ESPN’s game control rating which looks beyond wins and more at how a team wins, Michigan State lags far behind the other championship three, ranking 14th in that category. Again, this doesn’t do much to inspire faith in the Spartans’ chances against a much better and much more well-rounded team.
Alabama has the Heisman winning running back and the FBS’s best overall defense. They have played one of the toughest schedules and with the exception of one early season loss, have looked every bit the part of a championship winning team.
The sportsbooks have Crimson Tide favored by a somewhat lofty 10 points in the neutral environment. This preview does agree that Alabama, also favorite of the four teams to win it all, can taste a moneyline victory in this game. But there is enough to suggest this should be a closer match, between two talented teams, than the sportsbooks’ spread predicts.