No. 15 Alabama Crimson Tide vs. No. 7 Michigan State Spartans
Orlando, Florida, Citrus Bowl
Saturday, January 1st 1:00 PM ET ESPN
Laying the scene
It's mentor vs. mentee as Alabama head coach Nick Saban faces former assistant Mark Dantonio, who worked under Saban when Saban was Michigan State's head coach. The theme of this game is all about proving one's worth. Alabama will want to end their season on a positive note after a disappointing follow-up to their championship campaign of 2009, and Michigan State wants to show that their 11-1 record made them worthy of a better bowl berth than against a 3-loss team in a non-BCS game.
What Alabama has to do to win
Alabama absolutely must control the line of scrimmage on offense. Greg McElroy has developed as a passer, and Julio Jones gives him a great threat to throw too, but the offensive line hasn't been able to open holes consistently for Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. If Alabama can blow Michigan State's defense off the line of scrimmage and let Mark Ingram take over, it'll be a long day for the Michigan State defense. In the passing game, they have to keep a running back in the backfield to help protect McElroy's right side – right tackle is the Alabama offensive line's biggest weakness. On defense, the line has to hold up well and stop the run. Too many teams have seen success running up the right side against Alabama's defense. If Alabama has to deploy more blitzes than normal to collapse Michigan State's offensive line, it's worth the risk. Letting the Spartans get into third-and-short situations will absolutely kill Alabama, so the running game must be stopped.
What Michigan State has to do to win
Look for Michigan State to run the ball to the right side early and often. They don't run-block nearly as well on the left side as they do on the right, and Alabama's weak against stuffing runs to the right, so it's a matchup that favors Michigan State. On defense, the key to the game for Michigan State will be linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon. Their ability to contain Ingram and Richardson will probably be the biggest factor in determining whether Alabama's ground game gets going or not. Jones and Gordon cannot afford to miss tackles, or Alabama will run all over them.
The SEC comes out on top. Alabama's going to be fired up so Greg McElroy can go out on a positive note, and the SEC tends to have the best line play, which is why that league has done so well in bowl games recently. The bottom line comes down to quarterbacks, though. Michigan State's Kirk Cousins is a solid quarterback who can move the chains and exploit defenses' over-commitment to Michigan State's running game, but McElroy is more capable of putting his team on his shoulders and winning regardless of whether the running game is working or not. - Hank Koebler, IV
Hank is a sports journalist attending the University of Missouri's school of journalism.
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