Arlington, Texas — If schedules would have held true, Thursday’s Cotton Bowl matchup with Michigan State and Alabama would have been the first of at least three over the next three years between the Spartans and Crimson Tide.
But a home-and-home series that was scheduled to begin next fall with Michigan State playing at Alabama was canceled back in 2013 because Alabama wanted the games to be played at neutral sites.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said Tuesday at Cotton Bowl media day it was a business decision and had nothing to do with him not wanting to return to coach at Spartan Stadium.
“It was certainly nothing personal,” Saban said.
Alabama would have played at Michigan State in 2017, but the fact Alabama could do better with a neutral-site game is the reason it requested MSU go along with the idea to move the game. However, Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis wanted big-name teams playing in Spartan Stadium and allowed Alabama out of the contract.
“First of all, these are not all my decisions,” Saban said on Tuesday. “I think philosophically we wanted to play for business reasons. We have played in neutral-site games to start the season. And when you play a home-and-home — which we played Penn State a few years ago in a home-and-home. From a business perspective, when you play at home, you do really well. When you play away, you don’t do very well. When you play a neutral site game every year, you do well every year from a business standpoint.
“These games have served our program well, the neutral-site games. They’ve received a lot of national attention, and we’ve always played really good opponents. And we wanted to try to play the (Michigan State) series, instead of home and home, at neutral sites. We had other opportunities to play other teams at neutral sites. From a business perspective, our administration chose to do that.”
It would have been Saban’s first return to Spartan Stadium since coaching Michigan State from 1995-99.
“Not that it wouldn’t have been a great series, I think it would have been,” Saban said. “It’s more philosophical of are we going to play home-and-home series, or are we going to try to play in these neutral-site games?”
Spartans getting through injuries
Injuries hit Michigan State hard this season, some a bit more than others.
Redshirt freshman cornerback Vayante Copeland fractured a vertebra in his neck in the second week of the season and sophomore left tackle Dennis Finley broke his leg in the Big Ten opener against Purdue, his first career start.
Both are with the Spartans this week as they prepare to take on Alabama in the Cotton Bowl on Thursday, and both are moving ahead in getting back on the field as soon as possible.
Copeland said on Tuesday he expects to be cleared in January and plans to take part in spring practice.
“It’s been good,” Copeland said. “It’s been kind of a long process, but at the same time I’m all right. I’m trying to get my neck stronger and been dealing with MRIs and that type of thing and different doctors telling me this and that. But everything is going well.”
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio was a bit more cautious on when Copeland might get back on the field and said they “want to see in the future” if Copeland is able to compete.
Finley would have been the clear choice to replace Jack Conklin, who might opt to leave a year early for the NFL draft. But the injury has put him behind.
He hopes to at least be doing some sort of work by the spring, but isn’t sure if he’ll be ready by preseason camp.
The biggest hero on the field for media Tuesday was probably Jalen Watts-Jackson. The redshirt freshman returned a botched punt for a touchdown to beat Michigan on the final play of the game but broke and dislocated his hip on the play.
He said he’s ahead of schedule in his rehab.
“I’m walking earlier than I was supposed to be,” Watts-Jackson said. “I was supposed to be walking midway through January and I started walking two weeks ago and have a lot of range of motion back. I don’t want to set a specific date (when I’ll be back), but I’m pretty confident in the healing process.”
Henry says spread meaningless
The Spartans have been asked plenty about playing with a chip on their shoulders, once again entering a big game as the underdog.
Alabama is a 10-point favorite, a number that hasn’t fluctuated much over the past few days. And while the Spartans have brushed off the notion they can’t win, the large spread means just as little to the Crimson Tide.
“I can’t speak on their behalf, but we know a 10-point favorite doesn’t mean a thing,” Alabama running back Derrick Henry said. “That’s just talk. And they’re a great team. They are capable of coming out and making plays and doing a great job. So we have to make sure that we’re executing right, offense and defense and special teams, so we put ourselves in a good position to win the game. We know they’re a great team and will come out and play.”
Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun was asked on Tuesday if he had $10 for every time he was asked about Henry, how much money would he have?
“Me and Jay Z would be best friends by this time, honestly,” Calhoun joked. “We’d both be sitting in the penthouse talking to Beyonce right now.”