Cotton Bowl 2015: Examining Key Stats, Matchups for Michigan State vs. Alabama

Cotton Bowl 2015: The 2015 Cotton Bowl will double as the second College Football Playoff semifinal on New Year’s Eve. The Michigan State Spartans will face the Alabama Crimson Tide at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, in a battle between two smashmouth teams. Three key statistics will decide Thursday’s contest. We’ll take a look at each stat as well as the primary matchups that will affect the bottom line.

Cotton Bowl 2015

Alabama Sacks

Alabama comes into the game as the nation’s leader in sacks with 46, per cfbstats.com. If the Spartans offensive line can’t contain the Crimson Tide pass rush, it’s going to be a long night for quarterback Connor Cook and the Michigan State offense.

Highly touted left tackle Jack Conklin figures to draw the toughest assignments throughout the night. The team could charge him with blocking defensive end Jonathan Allen or pass-rushing linebacker Tim Williams on any given play.

Both Crimson Tide defenders bring a different style to the table. Allen is a physical pass-rusher who is more likely to bull rush; Williams is blazing fast and will test Conklin’s ability to move his feet. Repeated failure is not an option for Conklin. His quarterback’s health and the offense’s potency could be hinging on his performance.

Connor Cook’s Completion Percentage

The Spartans quarterback has been one of the best in school history. He’s already the school’s all-time leader in passing touchdowns with 71, per Sports-Reference.com. Even with all he’s accomplished, though, Cook has never had a completion percentage above 60 in any of his four seasons with the Spartans.

He’ll need to be as accurate as he’s ever been if the Spartans are going to beat Alabama.

The Alabama run defense is No. 1 in the nation. It’s unlikely that Michigan State will be able to establish its running game to save Cook from difficult 3rd-and-long predicaments. In these situations, Cook will have to complete passes into tight windows.

That task doesn’t fall squarely on the quarterback’s shoulders. Senior Aaron Burbridge has been Cook’s go-to receiver all season. He has 14 receptions for first downs on 3rd-and-7 or longer.

Burbridge must get separation from Alabama’s defensive backs—specifically senior Cyrus Jones, who will probably draw the assignment of covering the Spartans’ leading receiver.

Derrick Henry’s Carries

When Alabama is running the ball, it’s in control of the game. That’s why Derrick Henry’s carries are a barometer for the team’s success. If he gets 35-plus carries (he’s had 90 combined in Alabama’s last two games), it’s bad news for Michigan State.Alabama’s offensive line is fierce, and Henry is a load to bring down. The Spartans defensive line has to compete at the line of scrimmage. Defensive tackle Joel Heath must be a force against Alabama center Ryan Kelly and the other Crimson Tide interior linemen.

If Heath can clog the middle, he’ll free teammates such as middle linebacker Riley Bullough to chase down Henry in the backfield. Getting there is only half of the battle, but it’s the best the Spartans can hope for in their quest to slow down the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner.

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Cotton Bowl 2015: Latest Odds, Storylines for Alabama vs Michigan State

Cotton Bowl 2015: Michigan State embarks on arguably the biggest game in program history, and standing between the chance to play for its first outright national title in 63 years is a team that fits rings regularly.

Almighty Alabama is gunning for its 16th championship and fourth under head coach Nick Saban, who’s created an unprecedented dynasty for a sport so cyclical.

This year’s Crimson Tide are on a march to reconcile unfinished business after losing as heavy favorites in last year’s national semifinal to eventual champion Ohio State.

Cotton Bowl 2015

Cotton Bowl 2015

Those Buckeyes watched their back-to-back hopes crumble at the hands of these Spartans, who have become increasingly poised in playing games of such significance under ninth-year head coach Mark Dantonio, as Mike Hall of the Big Ten Network showed:

The Spartans haven’t been in a game of these stakes this late, but that hasn’t halted their confidence—regardless of the opposition.Alabama’s loss to Ole Miss in Week 3 seems like ages ago. The Tide have won 10 straight with by a combined score of 334-117 and been largely impenetrable on defense.

Yet the Spartans objectively believe they can topple the all-powerful Tide, as MSU cornerback Arjen Colquhoun indicated, per Mike Griffith of MLive.com:

They’re beatable. We’re aware of Alabama football. It’s a tremendous program and I’d say over the last 10 years they’ve ran college football. From the film I’ve watched, they do some very good things, and I think they do some things they don’t do so well. I feel like they do some things we can exploit and take advantage of.

The Tide’s tendencies prove it’ll take a balanced offense to tumble. Their last five losses—Ole Miss in 2015, Ole Miss and Ohio State in 2014, Oklahoma and Auburn in 2013—all prove such, with strong running games complemented by aggressive aerial attacks.

Of Alabama’s opponents since their most recent defeat—Georgia, Arkansas, Texas A&M, Tennessee, LSU, Mississippi State, Charleston Southern, Auburn and Florida—not one presented a formidable pass game that MSU quarterback Connor Cook anchors. Matt Hayes of Sporting News offered a glaring assessment of such following the Tide’s dominant win over one-dimensional Florida in the SEC Championship Game: “None of those aforementioned teams can throw the ball (and protect the quarterback) with any semblance of consistency, thereby failing to expose the Tide’s most glaring weakness: inconsistent coverage in the back end.”

Cook is considered among the best quarterback prospects for next year’s NFL draft, and Saban believes he may be the best quarterback Alabama will face all season, per John Talty of AL.com.

Cook and the Spartans are justified in indicating Alabama can be beat, and they will prove the 9.5-point spread, per Odds Shark, is far too steep.

Alabama Heisman Trophy winner and SEC record slasher Derrick Henry is appreciative of his accolades, but he has moved on from their discussion in his preparation for the Cotton Bowl, per Alex Byington of the Decatur Daily/Florence Times Daily (h/t Montgomery Advertiser):

It was fun, (but) I really don’t want to talk about Heisman stuff. I want to focus on what we need to do to get ready for Michigan State. So if y’all can talk about that I would be happy. Everything that happened (last week) is over with, you know, it’s time to get back to what we need to do.

His 1,986 rush yards leads the nation and set a 34-year-old SEC record once held by Herschel Walker, considered among the sport’s all-time greatest. The SEC Network shared a graphic of where the workhorse runner ranks among the conference elite:Once considered a dark horse for the Heisman behind fellow SEC standout Leonard Fournette of LSU, Henry catapulted to the forefront in a surging manner that aligned with his team’s mid-to-late-season success. But Henry and his burly offensive line—as much as their reputation precedes—will face the toughest run defense they’ve seen all season. MSU ranks seventh in the FBS at 113.1 rush yards per game, well under the 152.7 Henry is averaging.

Alabama’s workhorse is every bit of 6’3” and 242 pounds, but he won’t be able to bulldoze the box as he did throughout the regular season. The Tide must alter their run-heavy approach—Henry is averaging an overwhelming 31.7 carries per game in SEC competition—and attack Michigan State’s exploitable secondary, ranked 74th against the pass.

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Cotton Bowl 2015: TV Schedule Matchup Predictions and More

Cotton Bowl 2015: The College Football Playoff committee revealed its final rankings before the New Year’s Eve semifinal matchups are officially set Sunday (12 p.m. ET), and it’s starting to become clear which squads have the best shot to square off in the Cotton Bowl. But before breaking down the programs in prime position to clash with a chance to advance to the CFP National Championship Game, here’s a rundown of when and where fans can catch the action, courtesy of the playoff’s official website.

Date: Thursday, Dec. 31

Time: 4 p.m. ET or 8 p.m. ET

Location: Arlington, Texas

TV: ESPN

cotton bowl 2015

However, it’s not hard to envision a world where the final picture assumes a slightly different form when the committee gathers for one final round-table discussion.

Assuming Clemson hangs on to defeat No. 10 North Carolina in the ACC Championship Game and Alabama doesn’t suffer a meltdown against No. 18 Florida, the top half of the CFP picture should remain intact.

Then things get interesting.

Oklahoma is seemingly locked in after crushing Oklahoma State last weekend, but an idle week that coincides with Michigan State’s showdown against Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game will open the door for the winner of that clash to potentially leapfrog the Sooners and square off against the Crimson Tide.

What’s the most likely Cotton Bowl matchup?
No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 Michigan State
No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 Iowa
No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 Oklahoma

And while the undefeated Hawkeyes may well stand up and slay the Spartans, Michigan State’s 44th-ranked scoring offense (33.4 points per game) could prove challenging for Iowa’s 41st-ranked unit (33.7 PPG) to best.

“Our players want more,” Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio said, according to the Detroit Free Press’ Joe Rexrode. “They want it all.”

Iowa’s 15th-ranked scoring defense (18.7 PPG) will be a stiff test for a Michigan State offense that mustered a meager 17 points against Ohio State’s second-ranked squad, but Connor Cook’s stability under center could be the difference-maker against a less potent Hawkeyes attack.

“Look for Cook to continue his success, possibly earning an invite to New York City as a Heisman Trophy finalist with a big performance against a shaky Iowa secondary,” Bleacher Report’s Ben Axelrod wrote.

If the Spartans are fortunate enough to be crowned Big Ten champions, they could be staring at showdown with Alabama.

Although that’s hardly an appetizing reward given the way the Crimson Tide have bowled over opponents since losing to Ole Miss, Michigan State is the sort of disciplined side capable of giving Nick Saban’s squad a run for its money.

Source: bleacherreport 

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