Preview: Capital One Bowl

Bobby Williams'd.

Your MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS vs. the ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
THE ORLANDO CITRUS BOWL STADIUM, ORLANDO, FLORIDA
JANUARY 1, 2011, 1PM (ET)
TV: ESPN.  ONLINE RADIO FEED: WJR

(Absolutely gorgeous) WEATHER: MOSTLY SUNNY, 78 DEGREES, 12MPH BREEZE

We haven't yet run the teams' statistical comparison, so we start there:

Alabama (nat'l rank) Michigan State (nat'l rank)
Passing offense 260.33 (28) 237.83 (44)
Pass efficiency 165.85 (6) 152.46 (18)
Rushing offense 175.25 (36) 168.83 (39)
Total offense 435.58 (27) 406.67 (38)
Scoring offense 34.58 (21) 31.33 (39)
Pass defense 172.67 (12) 215.83 (60)
Pass efficiency defense 102.51 (7) 116.99 (32)
Rush defense 123.33 (22) 121.92 (20)
Total defense 296.0 (6) 337.75 (31)
Scoring defense 14.08 (5) 20.08 (26)
Turnover margin +.92 (14) +.5 (26)
Penalty yards 38.75 (6) 59.08 (93)


In the twelve key statistical categories we usually track, Michigan State has the advantage in exactly one: rush defense, and MSU's advantage in the category is all of ~1.5 yards/game.  MSU isn't at a large disadvantage in any category, but taken together, it's somewhat easier to understand the 10-point spread in this game.

More in depth, after the jump.

Pete has already covered Alabama in detail in his three posts (one, two, three) reviewing the Tide season.  So, instead of discussing Alabama's defensive personnel, I'll take a page from Black Shoe Diaries and take a look at the five factors/keys which I think will decide tomorrow's game.

5.  Can MSU's defensive line generate any pressure?  This has been a sore spot all season.  MSU ranks 83rd in the country in sacks, with only 1.67 per game.  Take away an 8 sack performance against Northwestern (which clearly is an outlier) and the team averages barely more than one sack per game.  All is not lost, however: Alabama's offensive line has struggled all season to protect Greg McElroy.  They've allowed 2.67 sacks per game, only 97th best in the country.  Roll Bama Roll analyzed the situation from an Alabama perspective:

[The Spartans] average one more tackle for loss than we do, but both teams have been woefully inadequate at getting sacks.  The Tide offensive line looked lost this year (especially near the end of the season), and facing a team that has been as bad as us at controlling the line of scrimmage is a huge blessing.

It's the moveable force versus the resistable object.  The same offensive line problems have really curtailed production from Alabama's phenomenal running backs, Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson.  It's probably hoping too much to expect our defensive linemen to drag either of them down for losses even if the line is able to penetrate into the Alabama backfield, but getting into the backfield should at least help slow Ingram and Richardson down, and limit opportunities for big plays.  It's the biggest test of the season for the defensive line because this is an eminently winnable battle.

4.  Can MSU get production from its tight ends?  The biggest absence for MSU is clearly B.J. Cunningham, who blossomed into the biggest receiving threat this season.  With that being said, there isn't a massive dropoff between Cunningham and Mark Dell, who will be the primary receiver.  Furthermore, the strength of MSU's receiving corps is depth, and Dell, Keshawn Martin, Keith Nichol, and Bennie Fowler are still an impressive receiving corps.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that I don't think replacing Cunningham is the biggest key in the passing game.  Rather, it's imperative for MSU to involve Charlie Gantt and Brian Linthicum early and often.  Alabama's biggest injury loss is safety Mark Barron, who led the team in tackles and was the best member of the secondary all season for the Tide.  They'll be starting walk-on Will Lowery in his stead, and to help cope, Alabama is likely to drop their linebackers deeper into coverage -- which should provide Gantt and Linthicum opportunities to pick up chunks of yards on underneath flat routes and the like.  They're both excellent receivers, and especially given the circumstances, they should play a large role tomorrow.

3.  Can MSU's secondary avoid allowing long touchdown passes?  They've generally been good at this during the season; by my quick count, MSU has only allowed 5 passing plays of longer than 40 yards, and only two of them went for touchdowns.  Julio Jones has four such plays on his own this season, and Marquis Maze is an extremely strong #2 option.  Both have speed to burn (this is the ESS EEE SEE, after all) and Greg McElroy has the accuracy to hit them in stride.  Look for MSU's cornerbacks to be very physical in coverage -- but they can't whiff on their bumps, or the results will be painful.

2.  Will MSU start the game strongly?  This has been the big issue for MSU throughout the second half of the season.  In games against Illinois, Northwestern, and Purdue, the Spartans have started the game very, very lethargically and required furious comebacks to turn losses into improbable wins; against Iowa, the horrific start was far too much to overcome.  (The win against Penn State was exactly the opposite, obviously -- solid start, shaky finish.)  While the Crimson Tide were, in their last game of the season, victims of the most remarkable football comeback I've ever seen, Alabama is too talented and too well-coached to think there's even a possibility of that happening again.  MSU doesn't need to fly out of the gate--although that certainly wouldn't hurt--but they can't afford to go down early.

1.  Can MSU turn this great season into an exceptional one?  (Yes, this is much more intangibl-ey than we usually get here at TOC.)  The two most MSU memorable seasons of the past 25 years were both punctuated by exciting bowl wins over name-brand teams: the 1999 Citrus Bowl win over Alabama (above), and the 1988 Rose Bowl win over USC (below).

 

This particular MSU team seems acutely aware of their potential to surpass either of those teams and stand alone as the greatest Spartan team since the 1960s glory years.  I think it's for that reason that there hasn't been too much bitterness--at least outwardly--about the BCS snub from those within the football program.  (It's a different matter amongst us fans, obviously.)  They've won the Big Ten, they're in a very good New Year's Day bowl game, and are in the very intriguing situation of playing a name-brand team that 1) is very highly regarded, but 2) is beatable.  And really, the respect and plaudits that have evaded this team all season are sure to follow if they're able to pull this off tomorrow.

MSU is 0-3 in bowls under Mark Dantonio, but I honestly don't think it has been because of flawed or inadequate preparation.  They came up barely short to a Matt Ryan-led Boston College team, they stayed close to a massively talented Georgia team, and played extremely well last season 1) against Texas Tech, which was the worst conceivable matchup for MSU, and 2) without the services of so many key players.  While MSU is facing an extremely talented and extremely tough Alabama team (albeit one which may have motivation issues of their own), in many ways this is MSU's best chance for a bowl win--because this season, MSU's talent finally matches their drive.

Just before last season's Orange Bowl, BHGP's Patrick Vint wrote:

Georgia Tech is a frontrunner in the most basic sense of the term, devastatingly effective when ahead and nearly incapable of winning in any other fashion.  Iowa hasn't found a fourth quarter deficit it didn't love.  Say what you will about Swingin' Dick Stanzi (and they've said plenty), but he is undefeated in games he's completed since Halloween 2008.  This quarterback -- while sometimes frustrating -- and this defense -- while sometimes susceptible -- and this staff -- while sometimes ultraconservative -- exude more confidence than any other group I've seen in black and gold.  I can't believe I'm the one to ignore the mathematical argument, but did anyone doubt this team would find a way back with 90 seconds left against Michigan State?  Did anyone doubt this team would find a way back when down 14 to Ohio State?  Does anyone doubt them now?

Some do.  Georgia Tech is now a 6-point favorite, just the way Kirk Ferentz likes it.

They have no fear of the underdog.  That's why they will not survive.

Replace the Iowa references with Michigan State ones and the paragraph still rings true.  And so we hope that this MSU team, a team which resembles that Iowa team in so many ways, can produce a similar effort tomorrow.  That 10 point spread betrays a tremendous lack of regard for these Spartans.  But ask yourself: having seen this team all season--and having seen their resilience, their determination, and their sheer ability--would you bet against against them now?  Would you?

I'm not.

Go Green.  Beat Alabama.

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