College Football Playoff Matchup Breakdown, 2) Alabama vs. 3) Michigan State

College Football Playoff Matchup Breakdown


Cotton Bowl, December 31

2) Alabama vs. 3) Michigan State


Quarterback: Jake Coker or Connor Cook?

It has been a struggle at times for Jake Coker during his first season as Alabama quarterback. He was benched once in favor of Cooper Bateman but seems to have somewhat righted the ship by the tail end of the season. Coker isn’t a game-changing quarterback, but he’s at least reached the point where he isn’t holding the team back any longer.

Connor Cook at Michigan State is the opposite, when healthy. If he’s right, Cook is one of the best quarterbacks in the country, capable of winning ballgames on his own. By the end of the season, even after returning supposedly healthy, Cook struggled to make throws and put the ball where he wanted. Despite a 24-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio, he completed just 56.9 percent of his passes. Michigan State needs Cook to be right. Hopefully all the time off between games will allow for that.

Selection – Cook (MSU)


Running back: Derrick Henry or LJ Scott and co.?

Derrick Henry is one of three finalists for the Heisman Trophy. He is inarguably one of the most valuable players in the country. In over 330 carries on the year, he finished just shy of 2,000 rushing yards. His 5.9 yards-per-carry average and 23 rushing touchdowns are the stuff of video games.

Michigan State doesn’t have anyone close to as powerful as Henry out of the backfield. Because of that, it’s gone with a running back by committee approach. LJ Scott leads the team with 140 carries, 691 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. Each of Gerald Holmes and Madre London also has over 100 carries on the year. Scott is just a freshman so his future is bright, but right now, no Spartan ball carrier, nor the group at large, can rival Henry’s production.

Selection – Henry (Alabama)


Wide Receiving Corps?

There is a valid argument to be made over which team has the better number-one receiver: Alabama with Calvin Ridley or Michigan State with Aaron Burbridge. Ridley, just a freshman, caught 75 balls for nearly 900 yards. Burbridge, a senior, had a breakout in his fourth year, tallying 80 catches for 1,219 yards. The fact that Ridley is a freshman certainly gives him the edge moving forward, but Burbridge may be the more valuable commodity right now.

It’s also tough to decipher whose remaining crew is superior. Ridley is flanked by tight end O.J. Howard, who has caught a lot of balls but has yet to score a touchdown. MSU’s tight end, Josiah Price, already has six touchdowns even though he’s caught just 19 passes all season. A healthy Kenyan Drake for Alabama is a scary thought for defenses, but Michigan State has its own version of the runner/receiver Drake in R.J. Shelton.

Perhaps it comes down to each team’s next options on the outside. ArDarius Stewart and Richard Mullaney combined to out-produce Ridley. They are both viable targets. Meanwhile, the lone remaining weapon for the Spartans is Macgarrett Kings, who caught just 38 balls. If Alabama can contain or continually double Burbridge, he doesn’t have quite enough help to keep the offense flowing.

Selection – Alabama


Offensive Line?

According to analytics at Football Outsiders, Alabama’s offensive line play has been solid but not spectacular for a team of its caliber. Based on adjusted line yards, which is a metric that tells a group’s collective impact on the run game and is adjusted for strength of opponent, Alabama is in the top 15 nationally. It drops outside the top 30 though when calculating adjusted sack rate for passing plays.

Michigan State has reverse strengths. The Spartans really struggled based on ALY this season but are slightly better than Alabama according to sack rate. Michigan State still lacks the elite unit though that Bama has on running downs. Neither of MSU’s numbers put it amongst the top 25 in either category.

Selection – Alabama


Defensive Line?

Defensively is where Alabama really shines. Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards stat marks the Crimson Tide as the nation’s third-best unit, and adjusted sack rate places the team second overall. There isn’t another group in the entire country that resides in the top 10 in both categories, let alone the top three like Alabama.

Michigan State is actually very good on the defensive line, just not as good as its upcoming opponent. FO has Sparty as a top 25 unit both against the pass and the run, but still outside the top 12 in both metrics.

Selection – Alabama


Total Defense?

There are few, if any, better defenses than Alabama this season based on the numbers. The Crimson Tide rounded out the year as the number two total defense, number one rush defense, number three scoring defense and number four pass efficiency defense. Wisconsin was the only other team this year to finish in the top five in all four categories. Alabama was also stout on first- and third-downs.

Once again, Michigan State has a solid group but can’t come anywhere close to matching what Alabama delivers. State ranks just outside the top 25 in total defense but is a special group against the run and in the turnover department. MSU could make up a lot of the difference if it was elite in the red zone. But instead it is actually a bit worse than Alabama there as well.

Selection – Alabama


Special Teams?

Cyrus Jones is one of the premiere punt returners in the country. JK Scott is also one of the better pure punters despite his very slow start to the season. Alabama is weak in the kick return game, but Michigan State isn’t good enough to grab much of an edge there. The other spots, Michigan State falls behind. Even if Scott fails to continue his mini turnaround near the end of the season, the Tide still has Jones as a weapon that MSU can’t match.

Selection – Alabama


Head Coach: Nick Saban or Mark Dantonio?

Nick Saban used to coach Michigan State back in the day. That’s about where the comparisons between he and Mark Dantonio end. Saban is the best in the business. Since coming to Alabama in 2007, he has led the Tide to seven years where it lost one game or fewer in the powerful SEC to go along with three national championships.

The following sentiment is turning into a common trend, but only because it’s continually true. Dantonio isn’t bad by any means. He just isn’t as good. Having won four straight bowl games and three conference titles in six years is swell. It’s not on Saban’s level though.

Selection – Saban (Alabama)


Analytical Edge?

Based on Sports-Reference’s Simple Rating System, Alabama is the number one team in the country. It is ahead of even Clemson by this system that combines strength of schedule and point differential to churn out a grade for each club. Michigan State actually comes in sixth, which means it would be outside of the playoff entirely if the final four was determined by SRS. FiveThirtyEight also gives Alabama the heavy edge in this matchup. The Tide has the best chance of any playoff team to advance to the title game based on FiveThirtyEight’s FPI figures. It is projected to defeat MSU 68 percent of the time.

Selection – Alabama


End Result?

Whether based on talent, the eye test or the numbers, Alabama has the advantage, eight categories to one.


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