How Lane Kiffin and Alabama outsmarted Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl

DALLAS — Moments after Alabama completed its 38-0 blowout of Michigan State here in Thursday’s Cotton Bowl semifinal, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said to a couple of reporters on the field: “I wasn’t expecting that.”

He was referring to the lopsided score against the No. 3 team in the country. But the rest of us were much more surprised by how the Tide did it.

If you could have known last week that the Spartans would hold Heisman winner Derrick Henry to 75 rushing yards, you would have caught the first flight to Vegas to bet the mortgage on double-digit underdog Michigan State. And today you’d be in foreclosure because of the fact disregarded Alabama quarterback Jake Coker went out and played the game of his life.

And because the Tide’s defense is ridiculously dominant.

No. 2 ’Bama is headed to Arizona next week to play for its fourth national championship in seven seasons. The knee-jerk reaction by the nation’s SEC haters will be to discredit Michigan State for having less talented players than Alabama’s. That may be true, but the Spartans got here in large part by beating Ohio State, the core of whose ultra-talented lineup beat the Tide in this same event last season.

That Alabama team is not this Alabama team. That Alabama team had one superhuman receiver who constituted the bulk of its offense and a secondary that never lived up to its talent. That Alabama team clearly took Ohio State too lightly, especially the third-string quarterback, Cardale Jones, making his second career start.

“The focus that [the players] had for this game was completely different than we ever had before, and I think it paid off for them,” coach Nick Saban said afterward. “We’re looking forward to try to do the same thing for the next game.”

Hello, Clemson.

This Alabama team prepared so thoroughly for its semifinal opponent that it not only outmuscled the Spartans; it outsmarted them, too. Kiffin, who coached three bowl games at USC featuring Heisman winners (Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush), pegged exactly what Michigan State would expect … and did the opposite.

Essentially, he took the seemingly loony tact of reducing Henry to a decoy.

“They had a month to prepare for the Heisman Trophy winner,” said Kiffin. “… They’re a run-stopping defense anyway, we’d seen that on tape, that’s what they were going to do.”

So Henry did not even touch the ball on ‘Bama’s first possession. Instead, Coker spent about a quarter-and-a-half dinking and dunking — bubble screens and quick outs, sideline to sideline — in an attempt to loosen up the Spartans’ stout front seven.

“We knew it was going to be difficult for us to run against Michigan State,” said Saban. “… So we knew that we would have to throw the bubbles and the smokes and the outside perimeter stuff to be able to move the ball effectively.

But when the time was right, Coker — who finished 25 of 30 for a career-high 286 yards — struck deep. Repeatedly. A 50-yard bomb to Calvin Ridley. A 41-yard strike to O.J. Howard. Another 50-yarder to Ridley in the end zone.

A relatively tight 10-0 game at halftime became a 31-0 snoozer less than a quarter later.

“[Ridley] is one heck of a player,” Coker said of ’Bama’s stud freshman receiver. “And so are all the other guys out there, man. They just got up and made plays and made me look better than I should have.”

All those points were nice, but the game was essentially over the first time ’Bama reached the end zone. Michigan State earned its spot here, but Michigan State was a run-first, pro-style team trying to out-’Bama ’Bama. That rarely works.

Connor Cook, a 34-win starter, finished his career getting buried beneath a never-ending surge of Tide pass-rushers. ’Bama sacked him four times and intercepted him twice, including a back-breaker just before the half that killed the Spartans’ one decent drive.

Also, Michigan State ran for just 29 yards on 26 attempts.

“First time all year that’s happened to us,” lamented Spartans coach Mark Dantonio. “… Bad things start to happen when things tilt that way.”

’Bama has made bad things happen to its opponents pretty much every week since that now-inexplicable 43-37 loss to Ole Miss more than three months ago. With that never-ending rotation of swarming linemen like Jonathan Allen, A’Shawn Robinson and Dalvin Tomlinson, it’s rendered stars like LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott helpless.

Outside Alabama’s locker room late Thursday, coordinator Kirby Smart likened his 2015 defense to his historically dominant 2011 national championship unit.

“Statistically, that team was probably better with the numbers, but this team has faced more talented offenses,” said the soon-to-be Georgia head coach. “It’s comparable to that team. It’s deep.”

But its biggest test of the season by far awaits in the final game.

No. 1 Clemson, now 14-0, put on its own dominant performance in an Orange Bowl rout of Big 12 champion Oklahoma. The Tigers present one specific challenge this Tide defense has yet to face — an elite, dual-threat quarterback in Deshaun Watson. Prescott would be the closest comparison, but Watson is a more dangerous runner surrounded by more talented weapons.

Where Clemson is similar to Michigan State is in its ferocious front four. It shut out Baker Mayfield and the Sooners in the second half Thursday even without injured All-American end Shaq Lawson.

So it’s back to the drawing board for Kiffin, who this time has 10 days to figure out the ideal way to unleash all his various toys. Will the championship game be a 40-carry kind of night for Henry? Will it be more deep balls to Ridley? Both?

Perhaps more importantly, will the Tide, having now avenged last year’s Ohio State loss, take the same degree of fire to Glendale, Ariz., that it did to Dallas?

“[Saban] said in our meeting this morning, ‘Hey, let’s make sure if we’re fortunate to get up, keep the throttle down,’” said Kiffin. “’Go after them, try to knock them out. It will be a heavyweight fight for 15 rounds.’”

The Jan. 11 game will in fact be Alabama’s 15th round this season. If it keeps the throttle down, and if those D-linemen keep coming at Watson, ’Bama will be hoisting yet another trophy.

And no one will be able to say they didn’t expect it.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel and Facebook. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.