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Cotton Bowl: Status of X-Factor for Michigan State Spartans is Unclear

When matching up the resumés for Michigan State and Alabama in this year’s CFP Semifinal game this Thursday night, there’s only one position where the Spartans potentially hold a massive edge. That position is quarterback.

Connor Cook has started for over two seasons now, leading his team to two Big Ten championships and previous wins in the Rose and Cotton Bowls. He has 2921 passing yards and 24 touchdowns to go against only 5 interceptions.

Meanwhile, his counterpart for the Crimson Tide, Jake Coker has a respectable 2489 passing yards. However, Coker has thrown 8 interceptions and only 17 touchdowns on the season, as Alabama has not put up huge points in many contests.

Looking at the defenses, both of these teams feast on run-first teams thanks to a wealth of talent along the defensive line and linebackers. However, both of these teams get into trouble when the defensive backfield can be torched by a good passing attack, as that can open up a running game like Ohio State did a season ago with Cardale Jones leading to Ezekiel Elliott.

If Michigan State is going to follow a similar game plan, Connor Cook needs to “take the top off the defense” and help give his young running backs some breathing room before handing the ball off to them consistently. This necessitates accurate deep ball passing. Something teams like Georgia, LSU, and Florida did not have in losses to the Crimson Tide this season.

And therein lies the potential problem with this X-factor for a potential Spartan victory.

After injuring his throwing shoulder against Maryland, he sat out against Ohio State and then was clearly less than 100% against Penn State and Iowa. Against those teams, backup quarterbacks and a limited Cook were good enough, but that does not seem to likely be the case against Alabama. Michigan State has decent backup quarterbacks, as proven in the OSU win, but they cannot and will not come close to the threat that Cook is. In other words, there’s not likely a Cardale Jones-like performance waiting on the bench if Cook remains less than 100% healthy.

During open practice this week in Dallas, Cook wore a shoulder harness and showed mostly soft touch short passes. With only a couple days left before the game, it at least opens the question of whether the starting quarterback is actually 100% and ready to throw the deep ball with pinpoint accuracy. If he has not tested the arm much during the rehabilitation, that is a huge unknown in the game plan that must be used to beat a team like Alabama.

Michigan State is a solid team overall, otherwise it would not be in the College Football Playoff at all. That being said, Alabama will wear this team down over four quarters unless the X-factor of a much better and experienced quarterback is healthy and comes through with a big game in his second-straight Cotton Bowl.

Indeed, with Cook’s health up in the air, potentially, this game might be trending the wrong direction before it starts.

Big Ten and Spartan fans can only hope that MSU was playing it coy regarding the health and ability of Cook during this week’s open practice. That plus a great effort from the Spartan offensive and defensive lines will be required to repeat the feat from last year, knocking off Alabama as a conference in the semifinal round of the CFP.

Dave is a FWAA member and a Columnist focusing on Big Ten football for talking10. Before joining talking in 2014, he was a Featured Columnist for three years at Bleacher Report and previously wrote for seven years on SouthernCollegeSports.com. He was born in Hawkeye Country and went to college in Columbus, so there's plenty of B1G running through his blood. Dave is a patent and trademark attorney in his day job. If you have any questions in those areas or about his latest articles, please contact him on Twitter @BuckeyeFitzy.

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