Derrick Henry vs. MSU defense
The Heisman Trophy winner is the key to the Alabama offense, carrying 339 times for 1,986 yards this season, the most in a single season in the SEC. The junior has failed to reach the 100-yard mark just four times this season and has gone for more than 200 yards in a game four times, including a 271-yard outing against Auburn. His 23 touchdowns are an Alabama record and he averages 152.8 yards a game while running behind and offensive line that was judged best in the nation by winning the Joe Moore Award. The challenge for Michigan State is clear: Find a way to slow down the 6-foot-3, 242-pound punisher. The Spartans have had their share of success this season, ranking ninth in the nation in rushing defense by allowing 113.1 yards a game and allowing just two backs to reach the 100-yard mark in a game this season. In the game against Ohio State, MSU limited the Buckeyes to 86 total rushing yards and held Ezekiel Elliott to 33 yards on 12 carries.
MSU offensive line vs. Alabama front seven
The Spartans entered the season expecting to have one of the best offensive lines in the nation, but injuries hit by the second week and didn’t stop until there were a few weeks left in the season. That was enough time, however, for the unit to come back together and give a glimpse of how good it could be. They helped produce 203 rushing yards in the win over Ohio State, have given up just 17 sacks this season and ended up a finalist for the Joe Moore Award won by Alabama. They will have their hands full, however, against what is likely the most deep and talented front they have seen in Alabama. The Crimson Tide lead the nation in rushing defense, allowing just 74 yards a game, and lead the country with 46 total sacks. End A’Shawn Robinson is a beast and was named an All-American while end Jonathan Allen has 10 sacks. Linebacker Reggie Ragland was a consensus All-American and led the team with 90 tackles.
Connor Cook vs. Alabama secondary
Cook has been battling an injury to his right shoulder, but time off after the Big Ten Championship game has been vital to him nearing 100 percent. Time will tell if the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award winner will be able to take a hit to the shoulder, but if he can he’ll likely put plenty of stress on the back end of the Crimson Tide defense. The fifth-year senior has won more games (34-4) than any other Michigan State quarterback and has the luxury of throwing to senior wide receiver Aaron Burbridge, who leads the Big Ten with 80 catches for 1,219 yards. If there is a weakness to the Alabama defense it’s the secondary. But the Crimson Tide have 16 interceptions this season and safety Eddie Jackson, who leads the way with five, was named a second-team All-American by Walter Camp and third-team by the Associated Press.
Edge: Michigan State
Michigan State secondary vs. Jake Coker
The defensive backfield has had its share of ups and downs this season for Michigan State, beginning in the second week of the season when redshirt freshman CB Vayante Copeland was lost to a fractured vertebrae in his neck. It was a revolving door from that point with seven different starting lineups that have featured three true freshmen at various points. But the secondary has solidified over the last few weeks and will get fifth-year senior safety RJ Williamson back for the Cotton Bowl. Coker, the transfer from Florida State, has been the ultimate game manager for the Crimson Tide, benefiting from a strong offensive line and the best running back in the nation. But he has playmakers on the outside, including freshman receiver Calvin Ridley, who leads the team with 75 catches for 893 yards. If Alabama is to come away with the win, Coker almost certainly will have to take shots downfield against the Michigan State back end.
Edge: Michigan State
Saban vs. Dantonio
Or more aptly, this could be the Alabama staff against the Michigan State staff. The idea that there will be an edge to one head coach or the other because of their history together seems a bit overblown, but how each staff reacts to situations in the game will be especially critical. The Spartans will have to decide if they can commit to balance even if they have trouble running the ball against the strong Alabama front and the Crimson Tide must be able to loosen up a Michigan State defense that will be keying on stopping Henry. Each will be required to make adjustments throughout the game, and the staff that can adapt the best will likely be the one that is headed to the national championship game.