(2) Alabama Crimson Tide (-10, 45 o/u) vs (3) Michigan State Spartans
The time has come for the Alabama Crimson Tide (12-1, 7-1 SEC) to put up or shut up. Despite sporting a somewhat embarrassing 45-37 home loss to Ole Miss on its resume, the Tide have been a favorite of pollsters and the CFP Selection Committee all year, topping the ranks of one-loss teams. Nick Saban and crew now head into the College Football Playoff as the second-ranked team in the nation, but will have to get by the Michigan State Spartans (12-1, 7-1 Big Ten) today in the Cotton Bowl (8:00 PM Eastern) on their way to the title game.
Bama was in a similar situation last year. They were deemed the best of the one-loss teams and, since no power conference squads remained undefeated after the regular season, went into the CFP ranked no. 1. They were faced with the Big Ten champs (Ohio State) in the semis, and came into the game as massive favorites. But the Tide found themselves on the wrong end of a 42-35 upset at the end of the day, and had to watch from home as the Buckeyes went on to claim the national championship.
Once again facing the Big Ten champs in the semifinals, Saban will be hoping for a much different result.
The key for the Tide will be shutting down likely first-round pick Connor Cook. The Spartan QB has an NFL-ready arm, but has struggled with consistency all year. Iowa was able to limit Cook to just 191 yards and no TDs on 50-percent passing in the Big Ten title game. The Hawkeyes also sacked Cook twice on 34 dropbacks.
Unfortunately for Cook, he’ll be facing an Alabama team that leads the nation in sacks (46) and is also top-20 in interceptions (16). If the Spartans are going to be competitive in this game, he’ll need to get the ball out of his hands quickly but carefully.
On defense, the Spartans will be tasked with stopping Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry. Henry has been an absolute beast all year, racking up nearly 2,000 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns. But the Michigan State defense has been a stout unit that’s defended the run well. In their 17-14 upset over Ohio State earlier this year, the Spartans held Ezekiel Elliott to just 33 yards on 12 carries. That’s the same Ezekiel Elliott who ran for 230 yards on 20 carries against Alabama in last year’s semifinal.
Just looking at the rosters, Alabama is the stronger team, top to bottom. On defense, they have all the pieces to shutdown an unpredictable Michigan State attack, which makes Bama (-10) a tempting play. But ten points is too many to lay to a Spartan team with a solid defense of its own. Expect Alabama to win, but Michigan State to cover in a close, low-scoring affair.
Pick: Michigan State (+10).
(Photo credit: John Martinez Pavliga (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode].)
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