Three early keys to Alabama-Michigan State

The No. 2 Crimson Tide and No. 3 Spartans will meet in the Cotton Bowl -- here's what you need to know.

| 11 months ago
(AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

(AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

Three early keys to Alabama-Michigan State

The four teams are set and the committee has pitted two similarly-styled teams in Alabama and Michigan State against each other in the first round. Both teams rely on stout defense and mistake-free football, while looking to use the running game as the foundation for their offense. Here’s a deeper look at some of the intriguing matchups from their semifinal matchup:

1. Michigan State has to win through the air.

Alabama is built to win 1970s football on defense. Their front-7 is teeming with talent and they roll 14-deep with positive run grades between their defensive line and linebackers. Running against that front evokes the head-banging-against-a-brick wall emoji, especially when tried from tight formations. If Michigan State has a chance, they have to take to the air.

Quarterback Connor Cook is one of the nation’s best and he has NFL teams watching his every move. The SEC is not exactly loaded with passing talent, so Cook will be the best option Alabama has faced all season. Cook’s +29.4 passing grade ranks 11th in the country, while the top passing grade Alabama has faced is Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly at +20.0, and that was the only loss for the Crimson Tide.

Cook has a top wide receiver option in Aaron Burbridge who ranks 12th in the nation with a +19.9 receiving grade. He and Cook have been the nation’s most efficient downfield connection as Burbridge has caught 16-of-25 (64.0 percent) deep pass attempts for 475 yards and three touchdowns. He’ll be matched up on the outside against Alabama cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey (+9.0 coverage) and Cyrus Jones (+7.1 coverage) who have both played well, but when beaten, they’ve often given up big plays as they’ve surrendered 17.1 and 14.3 yards per completion respectively. Expect the Spartans to test them down the field with Burbridge.

2. Alabama wants to win on the ground, but the pass game should be open as well.

We all know Alabama wants to ride Heisman candidate running back Derrick Henry to victory, and he’s been outstanding during the second half of the season, but there should also be opportunities in the passing game.

Starting with Henry, he’s been the bell cow for the Alabama offense, carrying the ball a ridiculous 90 times over the last two games, and rightfully so. He gets stronger as the game progresses and he’s run for 1986 yards and 23 touchdowns, but Alabama has an emerging playmaker on the outside in true freshman WR Calvin Ridley. He leads the Crimson Tide with 893 receiving yards and his +9.7 grade against power-5 competition ranked fourth in the SEC.

Ridley goes up against a Michigan State secondary that has only one positive grade in its secondary in a late-emerging CB Ajren Colquhoun. The rest of the group has struggled as CB Darian Hicks’ -5.4 coverage grade ranks 34th among Big Ten corners while safety Montae Nicholson comes in last among safeties at -9.9. While Alabama will likely stick to the strategy that got them to the dance, riding Henry into the ground, there are plays to be made against the Michigan State secondary.

3. This game is loaded in the trenches on defense.

It’s often said the SEC’s advantage is the collective ability of their defensive lines, particularly the depth, and Alabama certainly resembles that remark. It starts with their big guys in Jarran Reed (+43.3) and A’Shawn Robinson (+25.8) rank second and 13th respectively against the run among interior defensive linemen. The other starter is +26.6 to go with 11 sacks, four QB hits, and 12 hurries. The big difference for Alabama this year compared to past teams is their ability to affect the quarterback off the edge, starting with OLBs Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams. Anderson has a +17.2 pass rush grade with six sacks, four hits, and 21 hurries while Williams has been incredible in his limited opportunities off the edge. He’s picked up 11 sacks, five hits, and 26 hurries on only 114 rushes, good for a +19.9 pass rush grad and a ridiculous pass rush productivity of 30.2 that dwarfs any other rusher in the nation with at least 100 attempts.

On the other side, Michigan State boasts talent of their own, led by DE Shilique Calhoun whose +43.4 pass rush grade ranks second only to Ohio State’s Joey Bosa. He’s notched 11 sacks, 16 hits, and 45 hurries on 449 rushes for a PRP of 12.9. True sophomore DT Malik McDowell is a budding start as his +20.0 rush grade ranks 10th in the nation among interior defensive linemen and fellow lineman Lawrence Thomas boasts a +12.3 overall grade of his own. Altogether, the Spartans have seven defensive linemen with positive grades and at least 250 snaps, so they’re bringing an SEC-like line to the battle against the Crimson Tide.

Make sure to check out our preview of the other side of the bracket as well: Clemson-Oklahoma. 

| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

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