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.