Michigan State Spartans vs. Alabama Crimson Tide, Thursday Dec. 31, 8 p.m. ET
The fact that this game - a very promising semifinal by any measure - is being played at 8 p.m. ET on New Year's Eve is almost impossibly stupid. It's almost as if the powers that be at the NCAA and the networks don't like having viewers. Moronic. I won't let it taint my view of a very good game, though - albeit a game that I will only be able to watch in bursts when I can sneak away from the party I don't really want to go to but have no choice. Have I mentioned that this scheduling is dumb?
Cotton Bowl Betting Storylines
There is a big difference in experience between these two teams. Michigan State last claimed a national title in 1966. Alabama has seven since then, including three since 2009. It's more than just titles, too. Alabama was in the playoff last year - losing to the Ohio State team that the Spartans beat this year - and has made a nearly annual habit of playing in the biggest of games there is. Michigan State has a Rose Bowl win a couple of years ago, but it's nothing like what the Tide have. The stage doesn't get any bigger than this, and Alabama is much more experienced at handling it. That could be a factor here.
The subplot that probably doesn't mean much but is interesting nonetheless is the Nick Saban factor. He has plenty of ties to the Spartans, having served as DBs coach and then defensive coordinator from 1983 to 1987 and then returning as head coach from 1995 to 1999. He has had three other stops since, but East Lansing has been important to him. You can be certain that he will have no interest at all in losing to his former employer. Motivation is never a concern for Saban, but if he was lacking this would another log of fuel for the fire. Even more interesting, though, is that Saban's DB coach the whole time he was in East Lansing was none other than current Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio. The two men know each other very well despite not having played against each other, and neither will be interested in losing to their former colleague.
Though both teams have senior quarterbacks at the helm, Michigan State has a clear advantage. The Spartans' Connor Cook is in his third full year as a starter, and he has set several Michigan State records along the way. He's a very smart quarterback with a good arm and an aversion to mistakes, and he'll be playing on Sundays next year and beyond. He has been struggling with a shoulder injury, but the time off has allowed him to heal, he is practicing well, and he should be close to full strength. Alabama's Jake Coker, meanwhile, starts as much by default as destiny and is in his first year of significant play. He would be described accurately as more of a game manager than a game changer. Cook has the edge on this front - by a not insignificant margin.
We have seen in recent years that the Curse of the Heisman doesn't always have to be a very big deal at all. Winners have gone on to have strong bowl games as much as they have struggled. There is no reason, then, to worry for Alabama running back Derrick Henry - he may or may not have a good day, but his new hardware will have little to do with it either way. What will be a bigger factor, though, is that he is playing against a run defense that ranks seventh in the country in yards allowed and which has really played well when it most needs to. Ohio State's dominant Ezekiel Elliott, for example, was held to just 33 yards on 12 carries when he faced the Spartans.
Cotton Bowl Odds and Betting Trends
The game opened with Alabama favored by 8.5 points. That quickly shifted to 9.5 and has been stable at that level since. Michigan State has drawn a large majority of bets - more than 70 percent - so the line movement, or lack of it, suggests that sharp money is slightly on the side of Alabama. The total is modest at 46.5.
The Spartans are 4-0 ATS in their last four bowl games and 3-0-1 ATS in their last four games overall. They are 4-0-1 ATS in their last five games in December. Alabama has gone "over" the total in their last four games in December and in eight of their last nine bowl games. Mark Dantonio has a surprising edge in this battle of current and former Michigan State coaches - he is 6-3 ATS in bowl games compared to just 8-8 ATS for Nick Saban.
Michigan State vs. Alabama Cotton Bowl Expert Picks & Predictions
The Spartans just aren't getting enough respect here. They have nice talent offensively, and a stout defense, and they always find ways to get it done. They didn't necessarily deserve to win against Ohio State, Michigan or Iowa, but when push came to shove in the closing minutes or seconds they just willed their way to victory. They may not have the talent that Alabama does, but they are very well-coached, and they operate well with a chip in their shoulders. They will not lie down and die in this one, and at the very least they have a good chance of keeping it close. The Spartans and the points is the way to go.
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