By now, you know all the storylines: the master, Nick Saban, against his apprentice, Mark Dantonio. Alabama looking to redeem last year's College Football Playoff loss to Ohio State. Michigan State in search of the ultimate validation of its program - a National Championship.
Finally, after almost a month, it's time to forget the storylines and get back to football. Let's see how these two match up.
When Alabama Has The Ball
Alabama's offense is not complicated and the Spartan gameplan won't be either: slow the running game and make the quarterback beat you. That will be much easier said than done, seeing as the running back in this case is Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry.
What Bama does from a scheme perspective isn't earth-shattering and MSU has faced much tougher tasks in that regard. From a talent perspective though, not so much.
We'll start with quarterback Jake Coker. The Florida State transfer hasn't put up gaudy numbers this year (17 TD's-8 INT's) but as his 65% completion percentage shows, he does what he is asked to do and does it well. He pushes the ball down the field to a talented group of wideouts when called upon, but is mostly charged with being a caretaker - only throwing for 200+ yards three times since the end of September.
In Bama's lone loss, they had three turnovers, two of which were interceptions thrown by Coker. Scoring on the Tide won't be easy, so the Spartans must capitalize on turnover opportunities if and when they are presented, something they have done very well this season.
Getting back to those wideouts - wouldn't you know it - Bama has some good ones. It's essentially a two man show with freshman Calvin Ridley and sophomore ArDarius Stewart accounting for 129 of the teams 260 catches. Five and four star recruits respectively, Ridley and Stewart are a dangerous combo.
Ridley leads the team with 75 catches, 893 receiving yards and 5 TD's while Stewart has put up 54 catches, 600 yards and 4 scores of his own. Each averaged over 11 yards per catch, which is indicative of Bama's passing philosophy. When they do pass - about 41% of the time - they don't dink and dunk. Ridley in particular has a penchant for big plays like this one...
He's good! Including that insane grab, the Florida native had catches of 46, 50, 55, 60 and 81 yards on the season. Arjen Colquhoun, Darian Hicks and the safeties cannot fall asleep on play action and let Ridley rip the top off the defense. Minimizing the big plays is crucial.
One thing that could play into MSU's hands is that Ridley and Stewart are each listed at 6'1". Obviously, that isn't short, but Colquhoun and Hicks shouldn't find themselves being physically outclassed, which is not always the case against the Tide.
Perhaps the most important matchup of the entire game comes in the trenches, where the Tide sport an elite offensive line because of course they do. The Spartans will have to find a way to crack a group that only surrendered 18 sacks on the year and is led by Rimington Award-winning center Ryan Kelly.
The hog mollies are the exact opposite of the wideouts in terms of relative size. All five check in at at least 6'4" and three of them - including both tackles, sophomore Cam Robinson and senior Dominick Jackson - tip the scales at over 315 lbs. Kelly is the lightest of the bunch at 297. When these fellas walk into a restaurant just get out of the way and hope they don't mistake you for a rack of ribs.
This will - literally and figuratively - be the defensive line's biggest test of the season. Expect a lot of rotating in order to keep guys fresh. Reserves like Craig Evans and Damon Knox will be just as crucial as stars Shilique Calhoun and Malik McDowell.
Forcing Bama into passing situations and making Coker feel the heat when they get there will be essential.
This is pretty much all you need to know about the Alabama running game and, essentially, the offense: No back has ever run for more yardage in a single SEC season than Heisman winner Derrick Henry.
Not Herschel Walker, not Bo Jackson, not Emmitt Smith. Just Henry.
Go ahead, be floored. I won't judge you. Little was made of this years Heisman finalists, but after watching more of Henry and looking at the box scores I'm surprised anyone else even got a vote. Along with that record, Henry had 23 TD's and three 200+ yard games on the year. While he did rack up 339 carries - a total that would make even Javon Ringer blush - those numbers are preposterous, even against a less than dominant SEC.
Suggesting MSU can "stop" Henry is crazy but they can - and must - contain him.
Ideally, I wanted to write that "containing" Henry would mean holding him to his average game against SEC teams, but according to my #math that's still 180 yards and 1.5 TD's, which will probably not cut it. However, since losing to Nebraska, the Spartan run defense has found another gear, slowing down powerful rushing attacks like Ohio State and Iowa on their way to the College Football Playoff.
It will take another supreme effort from the entire front seven, especially linebackers Riley Bullough, Jon Reschke and Darien Harris, to navigate that behemoth offensive line and keep Henry from ripping off huge chunks of yardage.
MSU will likely bring pressure from a variety of places on early downs to try and keep Bama off schedule. Montae Nicholson and Demetrious Cox are tough against the run, as is RJ Williamson if he is truly healthy. Don't be shocked if MSU stacks the box with eight or even nine men fairly often
In all likelihood, Henry is going to get his. The combination of opportunity - he had 90 combined carries in his last two games alone - and talent will ensure that, but if MSU can keep him around 130 yards and only 1 TD, they increase their chances of winning by quite a bit.
Exactly two teams were able to keep him under both of those marks in a game this season: Arkansas (a 3 point contest heading to the 4th quarter) and Ole Miss (Bama's only loss).
When Michigan State Has the Ball
Let's get this out of the way: for MSU to win by anything short of a miracle (not out of the question!) Connor Cook's shoulder needs to be at the least Penn-State-healthy. For this preview's sake, we're going to assume those 26 days between the Big Ten Championship and Cotton Bowl were enough to get to at least that level.
Hopefully I'm underselling it. Fingers (and toes) crossed.
Bama always has a great defense. That's nothing new. However, this season's pass defense has not lived up to typical Tide standards even though the talent is there. Starting safety Eddie Jackson did have five picks while his running mate, Geno Matias-Smith was third on the team with 57 total tackles. Senior cornerback Cyrus Jones also has loads of experience.
The second and third corners, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Marlon Humphrey are both redshirt freshman. They have two and three picks respectively, but can get burnt in coverage.
This is where Michigan State can exploit the Tide.
While their schedule was far from soft, Nick Saban's team didn't face any quarterback you'd care to write home about. The best of the bunch was probably Swag Kelly from Ole Miss and after that it was...Joel Stave? Brandon Allen? Those guys certainly aren't bad but they sure as heck aren't Cook.
Based on how impossible it has been for opposing teams to run the ball on Bama's excellent front seven, it's fair to say Cook needs to be his old self. I'm not saying throw the ball 50 times - controlling the clock and pace of play would also be nice - but he is going to have to make tough throws throughout. Aaron Burbridge should be able to find space. He managed to have good games against Jourdan Lewis and Desmond King, so I don't see Jones shutting him down.
If the Spartans are to stand a chance, Cook has to be able to deliver. Given his record in big games, I think Spartan Nation will roll those dice.
The biggest worry is whether MSU's offensive line can keep Connor upright. The Tide led the nation in sacks (46) thanks to an absurdly talented defensive line rotation that runs 10 deep. The last man in the rotation? Da'Shawn Hand: 2014's top rated defensive tackle recruit.
Jack Allen, Jack Conklin and company have held up against great defensive fronts in their careers but Alabama's depth makes them a challenge like the Jack's have never faced. Luckily, MSU has also manufactured a lot of depth along the line this season due to all of the injuries they have faced. Expect to see a decent amount of reserves Benny McGowan and Brandon Clemens to keep the main five fresh down the stretch and don't be surprised if one of those reserves lines up as a tight end or fullback a few times, either.
One big hit to Cook's right shoulder and this entire game changes. It's up to the guys up front to make sure that doesn't happen.
This is where things get tricky.
This is unequivocally the best front seven MSU has faced this year. Seven guys have at least 5 TFL's and two have 9.5 sacks. Bama traditionally runs a 3-4 but due to that incredible line depth, they have mixed in more 4-3 than in the past.
The linebacking corps is led by assumed first round NFL Draft pick Reggie Ragland. The 6'2" 252-lb senior led the team with 90 total tackles. For perspective, fellow inside linebacker Reuben Foster was second on the team with 60 total tackles. Basically, Ragland was everywhere, all the time, all season long.
Opening holes against a defensive line led by Jarran Reed and A'Shawn Robinson will be hard enough but being ready for the hard-charging Ragland and Foster is equally as daunting.
The last time we saw MSU's running backs, L.J. Scott was reaching over the goal line in Indianapolis but, aside from that monumental last drive, the ground game didn't do a whole lot against Iowa. Unfortunately, there likely wont be much of a change here but expecting MSU to abandon the running game, no matter how good the opposing defense, is foolish. Dave Warner will run the ball in order to keep the defense off balance and make play action a viable option.
Scott and Gerald Holmes have generally split carries, with Holmes taking the opening stanza and Scott closing things up with fresh legs, but trying to guess MSU's running back sub patterns is like playing the lottery: there's a pretty good chance you're gonna be wrong. Regardless of who is toting the rock, they will need to fight for extra yardage. Staying in second and third and manageable forces defenses to be prepared for the run and the pass. Allowing this Tide defense to key on obvious run or pass situations gives them a leg up they simply don't need.
The one concern I have about Warner is how often he likes to go East-West with the running game. Those plays - the jet sweeps and tosses - won't work against this front seven. They are too fast and too deep. I'm sure they'll be run once or twice, if only to keep the Tide guessing or catch them sleeping, but getting too fancy could be deadly.
As crazy as it sounds, trying to run the ball right at Bama is probably a better idea than trying to outflank them.
As if they didn't have enough going for them, Bama also has one of the best punt returners in all of the nation, the aforementioned Cyrus Jones. Jones has done his best Javier Arenas impression this season, not only acting as the teams top corner but also ranking among the nation's leaders with three punt return touchdowns.
Jake Hartbarger will have to get good hang time on his kicks in order to give his coverage teams time to get down the field. MSU's coverage units have certainly improved as the year has gone on, but they'll have to be at their best against Jones. RJ Shelton has come close to busting a few big returns but will need to do more to keep up with Jones, as will MacGarrett Kings on punts.
Both kickers have had their struggles. Michael Geiger went 12-of-19 and Adam Griffith 21-for-29. Griffith missed three from inside 30 and three between 40 and 49, representing one of the only not-sure-things on the entire Alabama team.
Bottom Line and Prediction
Mark Dantonio has talked about winning championships since he stepped foot on campus in 2007. Since then he has won several of them. First the Big Ten, then the Rose Bowl and finally the Cotton Bowl.
His team finds itself on familiar turf in Dallas, but the opportunity that lies ahead of them is unlike anything this program has ever seen. With a win, Dantonio's Spartans will have taken down the biggest and baddest program in all of College Football and secured a chance to play for the ultimate prize - a National Championship - in one fell swoop.
No longer would they be underrated, no longer would they be overlooked, they would be undeniably justified. So what, exactly, is on the line vs Alabama?
Yes, the Tide have the best front seven, offensive line and running back MSU will have seen all season, but guess what, Michigan State has by far the best quarterback Alabama has seen and the offensive line and front seven aren't bad either.
After the Miracle at Michigan, the Windmill Victory in the Horseshoe and the Eternal March against Iowa, I ask you - how can you pick against the Spartans?
My answer - I can't.