1) The Offensive Line Has Work To Do
MSU averaged just 2.6 sack-adjusted yards per carry and Connor Cook got sacked four times. Even when he wasn't sacked, he was put under pressure consistently and MSU needed to roll the pocket out at times to try and counteract Alabama's pass rush.
The offensive line is the only position group where Mark Dantonio hasn't had a player drafted, and that should change this year regardless of Jack Conklin's decision. But whether it's been injuries (#AMSUOLHG) or recruiting, it's still been an area that MSU needs to improve to compete on the Playoff stage.
2) Felton Davis Has A Bright Future
I was a little confused about Davis having his redshirt burned this year, given that there's some depth in the receiving corps but also because he dropped several catchable balls while he was in the game. But to see him get some run on this stage - and make a nice, 28-yard catch in a 3rd-down situation - made me understand the burned shirt.
Also, in terms of roster construction, it'll be important for there to be some experience on the roster with Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings graduating.
3) The Secondary Got Exposed
Jake Coker had the best game of his career, and it made sense to commit to stopping Derrick Henry. But the secondary gave up far too many big plays, including multiple 50-yard bombs to Calvin Ridley. The secondary had been shuffled over the course of the year, and the loss of Vayante Copeland early in the year certainly hurt; this is just another area where improvement will have to happen to keep progressing.
4) The Front Seven Can Hang With Anyone
MSU held the Heisman winner to 3.8 yards per carry, and were especially terrific in the first half. Given how brutally efficient the Alabama offense generally is, that's a very respectable figure. MSU loses several seniors, but might have Ed Davis back and will have Malik McDowell causing havoc.
5) There's Still A Step To Take
Rarely does a program so linearly make the Mediocre->Good->Great set of leaps that MSU has done under Dantonio. Even more rarely does a program go Mediocre->Good->Great->Blue-Blood in a non-painful fashion. Look at Oregon, which is probably the best example of a newly-established national brand. They haven't won a national title yet, despite playing in two different title games. It takes time
MSU absolutely deserved to be playing in this Cotton Bowl. It had the right résumé, and had four rock-solid wins against Oregon, Michigan, Ohio State, and Iowa. Three of those wins were not in Spartan Stadium.This was an ass-kicking, but that happened partially because Alabama got some breaks; 38-0 is not an accurate representation of the quality of these two teams.
I went back to Bill Connelly's preview of MSU this season to grab a section I especially remember. Bill is great; I'm not grabbing this for #DISRESPEKT reasons, but to illustrate the most reasonable outlook for MSU at the beginning of the season:
It's a strange year for Michigan State. The Spartans are clearly the second-most proven team in the conference and should have an excellent shot at double-digit wins again. But with defending national champion Ohio State returning a monstrous load of talent and playing host to Sparty in late-November, the odds of any serious conference title run are minimal.
So we'll call this a legacy season, likely one without any newfound achievements but one that further burnishes the résumé. Win another 10-plus games, go to another big bowl, and hope Ohio State loses enough talent after the season that you can strike again (albeit without Connor Cook).
MSU totally accomplished a conference title run, a newfound achievement, and a burnished résumé. This season helped MSU establish itself at the top of the Big Ten and indeed, nationally. Only seven college programs can claim being a part of the College Football Playoff. MSU is one of them.
All of that said, it's clear that MSU doesn't have the quality of team to win on the biggest stage just yet. There's another step for the program to take; would you bet against Mark Dantonio?