Probably the most questions of any of this year’s top tier bowl games comes in the Cotton Bowl. Our Cotton Bowl Preview will take a look at many of these questions and search for clues to the game’s final answer.
For Michigan State, most of the questions revolve around quarterback Connor Cook. Is Cook’s shoulder finally healthy? Has he regained his timing and rhythm with his receivers following his short absence at the end of the season? Clearly his outing against Iowa wasn’t his best performance. And in his absence, questions emerged from Spartan insiders about locker room and leadership perceptions of the highly-rated passer. There are non-Cook questions as well. Is Michigan State mentally prepared for their biggest game program history? Can the defense stop the Tide rushing attack?
Cotton Bowl Preview: An Answer to Many Questions
For Alabama, the questions range from mindset to conference strength. Will they be mentally prepared, a question Nick Saban himself is responsible for after two big bowl letdowns in his tenure at Alabama. Can they shake all of the media questions about last year’s performance against Ohio State, the 2014 Big Ten champion? And with the talk and performance of a weakened SEC, the media have essentially anointed Alabama as the single litmus test of the strength of the SEC. An Alabama loss seemingly indicates the death of the dominance of the SEC. A Tide win seemingly validates the “conference cannibalism” theory. Does Alabama feel the pressure of this expectation? Or the yearly championship pressures of their own fan base?
College Football Playoff Seminfinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, Arlington, Texas
Alabama (12-1) vs. Michigan State (12-1)
December 31st, 8:00 p.m. ET
The answers to these questions will come – fittingly – just a few miles away from the headquarters of the College Football Playoff Committee. And unlike the selection committee, these answers will come from the players on the field.
The most important of these players to finding these answers? Jake Coker. Why Coker? Because Alabama should be able to establish an effective running game behind a stout offensive line and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry. While Michigan State’s defense is good, they are giving up an average of over 100 yards of rushing a game. Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will look at the Nebraska film to see how the Cornhuskers carved up 179 yards on the ground and he’ll find a way to get Henry his customary 100 yards.
That means that it’s Coker that has to translate a steady diet of Derrick Henry into sustained drives and scoring chances. Coker must leverage Alabama’s success in the running game to an efficient passing game. Key will be Coker using play-action to hit tight ends and receivers in second-level routes for six to 14 yards at a time. Kiffin’s passing attack will look a lot like Iowa’s gameplan from the Big Ten Championship Game, where Hawkeye quarterback C.J. Beathard went 18-27 (66%) for 216 yards (8.0/completion). If Coker hits gets anywhere closet to 8 yards a catch at 66%, Alabama will win this game.
Michigan State will have to rely heavily on Cook, who says he’s throwing at full velocity now and is 100% healthy for this game. While the Spartans have a solid rushing attack of their own, the Crimson Tide defense has probably the best front seven in college football and is holding opponents to under 75 yards of rushing a game. It’ll be interesting to see how much the Michigan State offensive staff pushes the run game. With any success, look for the play calling to be as close to 55/45 passes as possible. If the Tide defense can sit back in coverage rush Cook all night, that too would play into Alabama’s hand. Cook will likely rely on flat routes and screens to loosen up the Tide linebackers in coverage. And expect that Cook has instructors to run immediately if he sees a lane out of the pocket. While Cook is very athletic, he isn’t the mobile quarterback that traditionally gives Alabama defenses trouble. If he can force Alabama to assign a linebacker to him, he can attack the second-level through the air.
Cook will have some success through the air as Alabama puts a priority on preventing Michigan State from running the ball effectively. Cook has a great deep ball, and Alabama gives up a big one at some point in this game.
But I think Coker has improved enough over the course of the season to guide Alabama through this game. You can say what you want about Kiffin, but he knows how to put together an offensive gameplan. The Tide will use the Nebraska and Iowa games to set their strategy and then execute a steady running attack with safe and efficient passing from Coker. If Cyrus Jones is able to break one, Alabama might break the game open.
Alabama answers the biggest question of the night by advancing to the National Championship Game.
Prediction: Alabama 31, Michigan State 24