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Cotton Bowl: 5 Reasons Michigan State Wins vs Alabama

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The countdown continues to the College Football Playoff semifinals this week, and the players took the stage on Tuesday to discuss the match up one final time with the media. With less than 48 hours to go until game time, it’s time to stop talking and finally prove it on the field.

Yesterday we took a look at why Connor Cook is the X-factor for Michigan State, and why that could be troubling thanks to his questionable health. But today, let’s take a brighter side view of this Cotton Bowl showdown.

Here’s the top five reasons why the Spartans will be the second straight Big Ten champion to knock Alabama out of the College Football Playoff in the semifinal round.

1. Connor Cook is the best quarterback on the field by a wide margin

One of the big reasons Alabama lost in the playoff last year was that Ohio State’s third string quarterback Cardale Jones was a better quarterback than Blake Sims. That allowed the Buckeyes to climb back from an early deficit, whereas Alabama could not dominate with a lead thanks to a relatively one-dimensional offense being easier to stop.

The script looks the same this year, except Michigan State is not relying on a backup quarterback if all goes well. Instead, Connor Cook has been consistently one of the best Big Ten quarterbacks for the past three years. Despite missing some playing time, Cook threw for 500 more yards and 7 more touchdowns on the season than Coker, and that’s after Lane Kiffin has worked with Coker for two full seasons to maximize his potential.

This is the biggest advantage at any position on the field, and it just happens to be at the most important position on the football field. Connor Cook is the X-factor, and if he is truly healthy, he will be the top reason Michigan State will win Thursday night.

2. The Spartan Defense successfully schemes against top-tier running backs

Michigan State has not lacked for facing tough competition at the running back position in the past couple seasons in the Big Ten. This includes such talents as Tevin Coleman, Jordan Howard, David Cobb, Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott, Ameer Abdullah, and Justin Jackson, just to name a few.

When a defensive front goes against that many tough pro prospect running backs, a defensive staff learns how to scheme to stop that phase of the game effectively or the team fails miserably. Michigan State lost two games to the two eventual national championship game contenders in 2014, and then only had one fluky loss at Nebraska this year. Clearly, the Spartans learned how to contain these talented running threats.

The defensive line is led by seniors like DE Shilique Calhoun, but even the one underclassman Malik McDowell was one of the most coveted recruits in the country just two seasons ago. This unit will fill gaps and not let Alabama dictate the pace with line play, which allows for Riley Bullough and the other linebackers to play in space and find the openings to stop Derrick Henry before he gets going downhill.

Henry may be at or near the top of the list of talents and workhorses the Spartans have faced (Ezekiel Elliott is probably the closest analogue in statistics and otherwise), but MSU knows exactly how to stop this type of player and attack. Lane Kiffin and Nick Saban better have a plan B.

3. Michigan State will not let Alabama dominate Time of Possession

Unlike the two teams playing in the other semifinal at the Orange Bowl, the Spartans and Crimson Tide have dominated time of possession for most of the season. Both these teams rank in the top 10 of the NCAA, with both averaging more than 33 minutes of offense per game.

Michigan State has been great at extending long drives when necessary to give the defense a rest, even if these long drives do not end up in the end zone. Assuming those clutch drives also happen against Alabama, the Spartans will avoid one of the biggest traps teams face when they play Alabama, that being wearing down in the second half due to having the defense on the field too much.

Michigan State may not have a star running back like Jeremy Langford this season, but Connor Cook and an effective short passing game can act just as well at keeping drives alive for long stretches. Plus, when the Spartans need the offensive line to dominate the line of scrimmage like in the 22-play drive against Iowa, Jack Allen, Jack Conklin, and company get the job done.

So don’t expect Michigan State, despite perhaps having less overall talent and 4-5 star guys on their roster compared to Alabama, to wear down and fall out of this game. That gives the Spartans a great chance to win, just like every other game this season.

4. The opportunistic Spartans will win the turnover battle

Alabama has lost to only two teams in the past two seasons, and one thing Mississippi and Ohio State had in common in those games was generating a ton of Crimson Tide turnovers. Mississippi this year benefitted from FIVE(!) Alabama turnovers to hang on for victory.

One might expect Nick Saban would have his team ready to protect the ball on the biggest stage after what happened last year, but this Michigan State team nearly leads the entire NCAA in turnover margin at +16 on the season. The Spartans are highly opportunistic and know when to take chances on tackles to strip the ball away. Perhaps Derrick Henry will not make a mistake, but keep an eye on those receivers trying to bust big plays, as that’s where a big turnover mistake can come.

Based on past precedent, Michigan State lives off the turnovers and winning that battle most weeks. We should expect no different in the Cotton Bowl, and that will help the Spartans be in position to win this game in the fourth quarter.

5. Michigan State and the Big Ten are on the rise, while Alabama is the last remnant of a crumbling SEC empire

Sometimes a team just has destiny on its side. That certainly seemed to be the case with a red hot No. 4 seed in the first College Football Playoff. While everybody is looking for a similar type of team in this season’s final four (cough, Oklahoma, cough), the fact is sometimes teams just have a magic and know how to win.

Michigan State knocked off Michigan and Ohio State without leading a single second of the second half of those games until the clock read zeroes. It was all about making the clutch plays and the long drives necessary to be in position to win. Likewise against Iowa, Michigan State survived long enough to put together a game winning drive with 30 seconds left.

Plus, Michigan State is still the only team to date to survive a loss so late as November and still make the playoff (and that loss was in a tough road night environment with questionable officiating). Sounds like a team of destiny, which is a tough thing to stop.

Michigan State has ascended to the top of what could be rapidly becoming the best division in college football, as well as possibly also the best conference. While the SEC changes a bunch of coaches and tries to regain footing outside of Tuscaloosa, the Big Ten keeps getting better and better. And MSU is right at the top of the heap, winning conference titles when healthy in 2013 as well as when suffering a bunch of injuries in 2015.

That shows roster depth which many other lesser name programs cannot develop. That’s also precisely why Michigan State is just as dangerous, if not more so, than the Buckeyes were to Alabama in this position a year ago.

Michigan State is battle-tested, perhaps even more so than the Crimson Tide.

Add all those reasons up and Michigan State not only can win Thursday night, it should win Thursday night.

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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Report: Danton Cole hired as Michigan State hockey coach

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It took a bit longer than expected, but the Michigan State Spartans have their new men’s hockey head coach. That name should be a familiar one to fans of the program, as former MSU player Danton Cole has been hired. 

The news was broken by SpartanNation.com ($).

Cole comes to the Spartans after heading up the United State National Developmental Team this past season. He is also a former Stanley Cup winner in the NHL, hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup with the New Jersey Red Devils in 1995.

The Detroit Free Press reached out to Cole, but he did not respond to calls or texts regarding the report from Spartan Nation.

Early on in the process of replacing Tom Anastos as the head coach, Cole had emerged as a real possibility. His name was thrown around behind the scenes, but it took until after the just completed Frozen Four in Chicago this weekend to make this hire.

Michigan State has not officially announced the hire, but our sources have also been able to confirm that Cole has long been the front-runner for the job and has accepted an offer.

Not only is Cole a former Michigan State skater, he was part of the 1986 national championship squad and has extensive ties to the junior hockey game. Previous to his stint at the helm of the U.S. NTDP U-18 squad, he was also the coach for Grand Rapids in the IHL and Muskegon in the USHL.

Those ties to the younger side of the game and the professional ranks added in with his ties to the Spartans program made him a prime candidate for this job.

Former MSU assistant and long-time Denver head coach George Gwozdecky had also been considered a front-runner and it may be interesting to see if he will get involved in this staff in some capacity.

Since his ouster at Denver, Gwozdecky has been the coach of a prep team in Colorado. However, will he want to get back in the college game as an assistant at this point in his career?

Look for the Spartans to make the hire of Cole official sooner rather than later.

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What to expect from 2017 Michigan State Spartans spring football game

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Believe it or not, the Big Ten’s first spring football game is about to commence on Saturday afternoon. It will be the annual Green-White game for the Michigan State Spartans. 

However, this isn’t going to be an ordinary spring game. That is impossible thanks to a lingering sexual assault investigation that has led on an unprecedented media blackout. To say things in East Lansing are tense right now may be an understatement.

What that means heading in to Saturday’s spring game is that those of us in the media literally know next to nothing about this team on the field. Luckily we do know that even with an ongoing sexual assault investigation the show will go on.

Head coach Mark Dantonio made it clear that there was thought of canceling the spring game, but there were other factors like not penalizing those who aren’t under investigation and giving the kids that were scheduled to come in as part of a youth clinic a chance to be a part of this.

So, there won’t be a lot we really know heading in to the scrimmage on Saturday. That doesn’t mean we can’t and won’t have expectations though. Here are three things we’ll expect to see and hear coming out of Saturday’s game.

Speculation Will Run Wild

There is no way to avoid it, speculation is going to run wild about which three players not on the field are the ones involved in the sexual assault allegations. Players aren’t going to be avoiding wearing their numbers and Dantonio has made it clear that there will be a group sitting this game out besides the three being investigated.

News reporters are not NOT going to report on those players who aren’t in uniform. That would be journalistic suicide and a clear dereliction of duty. However, only if the investigation brings up charges will the actual three names be confirmed.

Those of us in the media have the names, but it simply isn’t right or smart to release them until/if they are actually charged with a crime. It stinks that other players sitting out for suspension or other reasons are going to be lumped in to speculation, but it is inevitable when you pair curiosity with a public event like the spring game.

After 14 practices of hiding behind closed doors and not even a single internal production crew allowed around the team, this will be the first time seeing this team. Even if speculation over the three players isn’t the biggest headline, there’s a month or more of built up curiosity regarding the team on the field to deal with.

What fans and the media sees on Saturday afternoon will be the only judgement they can make for an entire offseason. It will certainly all boil down to speculation from here until August at the very least.

Quarterback Battle Takes Center Stage

No single position was as big of a mess in 2016 as that of the quarterback. It is a large part, although certainly not all, of the reason Michigan State limped to its worst record on the field since 2006 when the Spartans went 4-8.

This position may have been better had former walk-on sophomore Brian Lewerke not spent most of the season in a boot after breaking his leg. He seemed to steady the ship, finishing the year completing 54.4 percent of his passes for 381 yards and two touchdowns in four games of play.

Stats can be misleading, and given the multiple-quarterback situation for MSU last season, Lewerke’s stats are exactly that. Dantonio had enough confidence to name him the frontrunner for the starting job in 2017.

That doesn’t mean it will just be handed to him though. Senior Damion Terry seemed to slip down the depth chart quickly last season and this is his last shot. Meanwhile, highly touted redshirt freshman Messiah deWeaver showed some big time promise in spring and fall camp last season.

Given Terry is injury-prone and deWeaver is still learning the offense inside-out, Lewerke seems like the logical choice. But, we haven’t seen 14 practices of work and perhaps Terry has shown the consistency of the Penn State game to wow the coaching staff. Then again, maybe deWeaver has commanded the offense well enough to put himself in the mix given his natural arm abilities?

You can bet that quarterback is going to be talked about one way or the other. Either a starter will emerge or the picture will be blurry and the problems of 2016 could plague this team again.

Is the Defense Back?

The old adage is that a defense is always ahead of an offense at this stage in a season. It’s true to some extent, but given the disaster that was a 3-9 season last year, this offseason isn’t going to be about installing offensive schemes or defensive wrinkles. It should have been (and likely was) all about competition across the board.

Michigan State’s annual spring game also provides for some of the best on-field competition we see every year. The captains picking players and the competitive nature of the game lends itself to being intriguing.

That also means we’re likely to get a good idea of just how competitive this defense looks after it got beat up time and again last season. Plenty of new faces will be in new places thanks to graduations, early NFL draft entry or transfers. Can this defense show it is on the road to becoming the dominant group we’ve been used to seeing under Dantonio?

Perhaps the biggest thing is to know that there is a clear-cut leader or three emerging from the spring to bring this unit together. If the spring game doesn’t show that, maybe it is time to worry about the Spartans ability to bounce back immediately this season.

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Dantonio won’t put Michigan State football ahead of seriousness of sexual assault allegations against players

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Michigan State Spartans football will come out of the dark and play football in front of other people for the first time on Saturday in the annual Green-White spring game. 

On Tuesday, head coach Mark Dantonio spoke to the media for the first time in a long time. There were no questions about what has been happening on the field, and given an ongoing sexual assault investigation, that shouldn’t be surprising.

It was also just how Dantonio would have it, as he made it abundantly clear just how serious he and the entire athletic administration is taking this case.

At one point Dantonio noted that talking about “who would be the starting quarterback” just didn’t seem right considering the seriousness of what is happening off the field.

Unlike the Baylor debacle, Dantonio and Co. have struck the right tone here. It is clear they are serious about the situation at hand and won’t put football in the spotlight until all of this gets resolved.

It was also clear that Dantonio and Co. fully expected this investigation to have been completed by now. Otherwise, why wait nearly a month after releasing a press statement to come and talk about an investigation that is still ongoing.

That is something that could’ve been done weeks ago had there been any clue this investigation would be dragging on to this point. It also could’ve meant that this press conference could’ve been about what to expect from his team on Saturday.

As for that resolution, no one seems to know when it will actually come. It is all in the hands of the local district attorney’s office. Once the decision, whether to charge or not, is made, Michigan State football will get back to talking about football again.

Until then, perhaps Saturday will help the players showcase the chemistry that Dantonio talked about emerging thanks to this awful situation.

Just don’t expect Saturday to prove who is or isn’t under the cloud of investigation, as Dantonio hinted that other players besides the three suspended amidst this sexual assault investigation won’t be participating on Saturday as well.

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It is March, which must mean Michigan State is awake

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Michigan State is known for its exploits in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. That is no different this year as this young team has suddenly grown up.

Michigan State was on the bubble, but not really on the bubble entering the Big Ten Tournament.

Tom Izzo had his team play an extremely difficult schedule and pick up several nice wins. But the Spartans lost their fair share and were not in their familiar position. Their 19 wins were the fewest for the Spartans since the 2004 season. And, despite finishing fifth in the conference, Michigan State’s 10 conference wins are the fewest since 2011.

The Spartans entered the Big Ten Tournament in and likely in even with a loss in the second round Thursday. But still a bit uneasy. Michigan State’s success in March is well documented and this is, quite simply not that team.

Tom Izzo has led a young team with a lot of freshman who had to learn the ropes in the Big Ten.

There were growing pains and uncertainty.

This is March. This where Spartans mature. This is where Tom Izzo makes noise. And even this young Michigan State team is not going to do that legacy wrong.

Penn State upset Michigan State earlier in the season. The Nittany Lions never got the opportunity to do so again. Tom Izzo worked his magic for the tournament and had Michigan State playing up to tits fullest potential. The Spartans, facing a Golden Gophers team the Spartans have beaten twice already this year in the quarterfinals Friday, suddenly look like they could make some serious noise.

The damage to Penn State in Thursday’s second round matchup at Verizon Center was devastating.

Michigan State won comfortably 78-51, holding Penn State to 29.1 percent. The Nittany Lions fell behind by 18 at halftime and never made a serious run in the second half. The Spartans toyed with their opponent all game long.

Freshmen Nick Ward and Miles Bridges each had 15 points and nine rebounds. Michigan State had 19 assists on 28 field goal makes, hitting on 49.1 percent of the team’s shots. The Spartans made 10 of 22 3-pointers. Tum Tum Nairn recorded nine assists.

Michigan State dominated the game thoroughly. The Spartans dominated in the way they envisioned winnig games earlier in the year. Michigan State had seemingly grown up.

This is what Tom Izzo teams do. They peak in March. They thrive in these tournament settings. It is hard not to have that familiar feeling when it comes to the team wearing green in March during the Big Ten Tournament.

Michigan State does this seemingly every year. It really should not be a surprise.

It is a testament to Izzo’s coaching every year. His failures in March — like last year’s surprising first-round exit — are few. And Michigan State tends to thrive as the underdog.

There were plenty doubting whether Michigan State could grow up in time to performe this March. Penn State is not the strongest opponent. But it was hard not to be impressed.

And when it comes to the NCAA Tournament next week, Michigan State is a team no one wants to see.

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