The Spartans at times this season did not look quite like the national contender they were expected to be, but they should be able to show the Crimson Tide their best version in the Cotton Bowl, thanks to nearly a month off to heal and rest after a season full of injuries.
Michigan State thrives on being the underdog, but coach Mark Dantonio’s team should have plenty of reason to think it can beat Alabama on Thursday.
We’re here to present five.
1. Connor Cook
The Big Ten Quarterback of the Year says he is healthy after nearly a month off to rest his injured right shoulder.
And the Spartans better hope that is true: Although they beat Ohio State without Cook, Michigan State got an assist from the weather and some curious Buckeye play-calling. And even then it took a last-second field goal to pull it off.
Cook sliced up Penn State in the regular-season finale but completed only 50 percent of his passes in the Big Ten championship game against Iowa, another game the Spartans eked out in the final minute. Cook made some key throws in that contest but will likely need to be more efficient against a more talented Alabama defense.
Cook is not only talented, he’s a three-year starter who has seen just about everything during his college career. His unwavering confidence could be crucial in a game that figures to have a lot of twists and turns.
2. Run defense
Alabama has arguably the best running back and offensive line in the country. Great.
Don’t expect the Spartans to be overly impressed. Michigan State has already shut down one team (the Buckeyes) that would have liked to have made similar claims.
They held Ohio State to 86 yards, and though Ezekiel Elliott famously called for more carries afterward, the fact remains that he averaged only 2.8 yards with the ones he got.
Michigan State also stopped a strong Iowa running game cold in the Big Ten championship game, yielding 52 yards on 24 carries. That was the sixth time MSU allowed fewer than 100 yards rushing on the season.
The Spartans back a stout defensive line with active linebackers who play fundamentally sound and love to attack the line of scrimmage. They’ve probably seen the ways Alabama wants to attack them on the ground every day in the preseason and spring practice.
3. Receivers who can win individual matchups
Cook is certainly not a one-man show in the Spartans’ passing game. Michigan State also relies heavily on a deep receiving corps headlined by Big Ten Receiver of the Year Aaron Burbridge.
A senior who played more of a supporting role prior to this season, Burbridge has caught 80 passes for 1,219 yards and seven touchdowns. He caught nine passes for 132 yards against Michigan, when he was often matched up against outstanding Wolverines cornerback Jourdan Lewis, and he won’t shy away from the big stage.
R.J. Shelton and Macgarrett Kings Jr. have had outstanding seasons as well, combining for 79 catches and nearly 1,000 yards. All three have the utmost trust of Cook, who often throws them open or gives them a chance to win one-on-one matchups even against tight coverage. More often than not, they’ve made this approach pay off throughout the season.
4. A healthy offensive line
Michigan State’s rushing numbers are nothing special this season. The Spartans averaged 160.7 yards per game, good for only No. 79 nationally and eighth in the Big Ten despite the presence of four big, strong, talented tailbacks who took turns as the bell cow during the season.
But injuries were a problem at multiple positions on the line for most of the season. When the Spartans were able to get back to something resembling their expected starting lineup, the results began to pick up, too. Starting with a 203-yard performance against Ohio State and continuing with 188 yards against Penn State and then 174 against Iowa.
Even with a hodgepodge lineup, the Spartans did a pretty good job of protecting the quarterback, so having more time to heal and work on cohesion should yield a strong unit ready to take the field against the Crimson Tide.
5. A healthier secondary
Michigan State’s descent from one of the best secondaries in the country to one of the shakiest units in the Big Ten began in the offseason with the loss of two starters to the NFL. And it was hastened by long-term injuries that knocked out two more players early in the season.
The Spartans took their lumps with lots of lineup fluctuation during the regular season, but very much like the offensive line, this is a group that should look more like it had always been intended when Michigan State lines up across the field from Alabama.
Getting back safety RJ Williamson, a returning starter who had a great start to the season before suffering a torn bicep, could be huge. It not only provides a veteran in the back end of the defense, but allows the coaching staff to play talented junior Demetrious Cox wherever he is needed most.