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Michigan State Spartans Football: Cotton Bowl Five Factors Preview

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[Note: for more information on the stats referenced here, check out our stats primer.]

We're just days away from the Cotton Bowl. Crazy, right? Well I'd promised you a Five Factors preview of the game. Sorry it took so long to get it to you.

I'm going to lift a great table from this awesome Bill Connelly data dump. Seriously, go read it if you're interested in some additional Five Factors data.

I thought it might be helpful to add some color around these factors, though. So I'm going to dive into each one.

Explosiveness: MSU +.02 IsoPPP, Alabama -.04 IsoPPP

Alabama's five factors footprint is interesting for several reasons, but a big part of it is that they allow opponents to be more explosive than they are. I believe part of this is using Derrick Henry as a battering ram; rushing plays are just less explosive by nature, and Alabama has a clear preference for the run. On the flip side, Alabama's defense is much like the 2013-14 MSU defenses: break-but-don't-bend.

MSU's offense also hasn't been particularly explosive this year, partially for the same reasons as Alabama. But Harlon Barnett's defense has done a decent job of stopping big plays despite the constant shuffling in the defensive backfield. That's good news against Alabama's Jake Coker who is only averaging 6.6 yards per attempt.

Edge: Michigan State

Efficiency: MSU +3.9%, Alabama +16.3%

Alabama's defense is downright horrifying in terms of efficiency. 2015 Alabama compares favorably to 2013 MSU. That's, uh, not good. On offense, Alabama is going for efficiency, too. That's where Derrick Henry comes in.

I believe MSU has been significantly less aggressive defensively this season for a variety of reasons, including the loss of Pat Narduzzi. But mainly, I think there's been a trade-off in most games to limit the big plays that burned MSU in 2014. MSU has been able to dial up the aggression in games against Regular Michigan, Ohio State, and Iowa. And they'll have to do that here, too.

Offensively, I think MSU's efficiency is artificially low given the offensive line shuffling and game situations early in the season that led to vanilla run playcalling. Remember when Jack Allen was playing left tackle? I'm optimistic that MSU can cope with Alabama's brutal efficiency better than these stats suggest, but it's still an advantage for the Tide.

Edge: Alabama

Field Position: MSU +5.1 yards, Alabama +6.1 yards

Teams with efficient offenses and (somewhat) reliable special teams play will do well in this regard. That's what you're seeing here.

Alabama's Cyrus Jones could be a major issue, since he's got three punt-return touchdowns on the season. He's also lost a fumble. Fire up that random-number generator!

Edge: Alabama

Finishing Drives: MSU +1.1 points per drive, Alabama +0.9 points per drive

Somewhat ironically, I think Michael Geiger's struggles on the season have actually improved MSU's ability to finish drives. Geiger's struggles have caused Mark Dantonio to be more aggressive in going for it on fourth down (see: the Regular Michigan game) which has caused more touchdowns and fewer field goal attempts. When you average 5 points per drive inside the 40, attempting a field goal is admitting defeat.

Alabama's kickers have attempted 30 field goals to MSU's 19. They've made a larger percentage of them, but it's easier to settle for a field goal attempt when you've got a reliable kicker. MSU's ability to convince Nick Saban to settle for field goals is going to be a major key.

Edge: Michigan State

Turnovers: MSU +11 turnover luck, Alabama -6 TO luck

Alabama should probably have a larger turnover margin then they've got, and MSU's should be smaller. Does that mean anything in this game? Well, probably not. I would think, given Alabama's efficiency edge, that a negative turnover margin would spell doom for MSU.

Edge: Draw

High-Level Estimates

Here are the five systems I consider pretty useful for projections:

SpartanDan:: Alabama by 7
Sagarin: Alabama by 9
S&P+: Alabama by 11
FEI: Alabama by 6
Massey: Alabama by 10

This is probably blatant homerism, but I do believe that FEI has "seen" what I've seen out of this MSU team: slow play causing small winning margins. FEI's reliance upon drive-level data takes into account pace of play, and I think that's a good thing. FEI still likes Alabama better, partially because it views the SEC very fondly (Arkansas and Tennessee are both top-15 in the FEI). But it's right to have the Tide favored in this game; they've been more consistent.

Interestingly, Fremeau's game projections include the chances of dominating wins (margin of 25+), strong wins (17-24 points), moderate wins (9-16), and narrow wins (1-8). FEI gives Alabama a 65% chance of winning, but the most likely individual result when broken down is a narrow MSU win, at 21.8%. Alabama is just significantly more likely to come away with a larger win.

Bottom Line

I think that this Cotton Bowl will be B1G Championship Game-esque, in that both teams are going to try and establish themselves on the ground and will have some difficulty doing that. MSU's best chance in a game like thisis hitting a big play or two and holding Alabama to field goals, and there's a decent chance that happens, too. The Crimson Tide have some sizable advantages and should be favored, but a double-digit spread seems excessive.

I'm going to bring back a phrase I used when MSU basketball got to the Final Four last season:

Why not us?