The Michigan State Spartans will look to cap off an amazing season this weekend as they take on the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Capital One Bowl on Saturday. This New Year’s Day bowl will feature the classic Big Ten versus SEC matchup to see which conference reigns supreme over the other. This has always been a heated battle as to which conference is the best, and this year should provide us with the answer after all is said and done. Both teams had aspirations of a national championship or BCS bowl berth, but stumbled along the way to set up this game between two teams that will begin a home and home series starting in 2016. The 7th ranked Spartans finished the regular season 11-1, only the third time in the program’s history a team has reached the 10 win plateau. Even though they had the most wins ever for a Michigan State team, the Spartans were left out of the BCS picture because for some reason three teams from the same conference cannot get BCS berths in the same year, but an 8-4 Big East team is guaranteed a spot if they win their conference crown (I know, I do not get it either and never will!). Meanwhile, 15th ranked Alabama finished the season 9-3, losing three tough games to SEC foes, including a devastating and heartbreaking loss to their bitter rival Auburn, the last week of the season.
There are many stories inside this game and the biggest one of all is the Spartans taking on their former coach in Nick Saban. For those of you who do not remember, the now Crimson Tide coach decided to bolt for LSU after the 1999 season, leaving the Spartans with no coach for the 2000 Citrus Bowl. He said he was staying and that he was not going anywhere, but once the next best coaching job came along, Saban showed no loyalty and abandoned Michigan State players and fans. I know that true Spartan fans have never forgiven him and still dislike him to this day for the fact that he did this to the program. I hold a personal grudge against him, even though I was very young when it happened, and I hope that the Spartans stick it to the old ball coach to show him what he is missing here in Spartan country.
Another story that is cliché but is always talked about around this time of the year is whether a bruising Big Ten team can hang with the speed of an SEC team. News flash, the Big Ten has speed, maybe just as much as the SEC, but because the style of football is different in these conferences, everyone assumes that Big Ten teams are big and slow and SEC teams small and fast. This is not the case and I do not know what the Big Ten needs to do to change this misperception about their teams. Ohio State got beat in those championship games against SEC opponents because they were an inferior team, not because they lacked the speed or skill to hang with these teams. Big Ten teams beat SEC schools all the time and it is about time that people realize that MSU, OSU and Wisconsin have just as fast of players as Alabama, Auburn and LSU.
The most important key to this game for the Spartans and Crimson Tide will be how each defense will stop the other’s offense. Both teams have excellent skill players on the offensive side of the ball and it will be very interesting to see how both defensive coordinators game plan for such athletes. For Michigan State, it starts with Kirk Cousins. He has been phenomenal this year, throwing for 2,705 and 20 touchdowns, while limiting his interceptions to only 9. Cousins is the team’s leader by far and he has proved it time and time again, leading the Spartans to numerous comeback victories. He has really grown up and matured this year as a football player, and Alabama will need to put pressure on him or they will be in for a long day. Cousins’ top target B.J Cunningham will be out for the game, as he injured his foot during practice in December. He will be missed greatly, as not only a big play threat for the Spartans, but also a possession guy who will make the key catch for a first down. Wide receiver Mark Dell will need to step it up as a result of the Cunningham injury, and he is more than capable of doing so, ranking 9th in the Big Ten this year in receiving yards. But if MSU is to win this game, they will need to run the ball effectively to open up the passing attack. Running back Edwin Baker had a breakout year, in which he rushed for 1,187 yards, good for 3rd in the Big Ten, while also scoring 13 touchdowns for the Spartans. He will need to be the workhorse in controlling the clock, as I look for him to get 20 plus carries on Saturday.
For Alabama’s offense, it all starts with last year’s Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram. He had somewhat of a down year because of a knee injury early on in the season, but he is still very dangerous every time he touches the ball, especially at 100% which he should be for this game. He only had 816 rushing yards this season, but he averaged 5.6 yards per carry and 11 touchdowns. Michigan State must stop the two headed monster of Ingram and Trent Richardson and force Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy to beat them. I believe he is the weak link on this offense and is prone to making mistakes when he has guys in his face. McElroy threw for 2,767 yards and 19 touchdowns, but was sacked 30 times, the most by any quarterback in the SEC this season. The Crimson Tide’s quarterback was helped out all year by having such a talented wide receiver that catches everything. Julio Jones, a likely first round draft pick in this coming NFL draft, was 2nd in the SEC in receiving yards with 1,084. He has all the tools: speed, hands, size, in which he will be the toughest matchup for the Spartan defense on New Year’s.
There will be great matchups all over the field when these two teams take the field. If the Spartans can contain the Alabama athletes and get a big play on special teams from their explosive returner Keshawn Martin, the Spartans should win this game…
Michigan State 27 Alabama 24
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Written by David Lesmeister