Imagine what the story lines would have been today if this game had swung the other way.
Alabama … fading.
Nick Saban … losing it.
SEC … just another pretty good conference, not one that will ever conquer nations again.
Instead, all seems right with the world again in the state of Alabama, and the rest of the nation is thinking, “Oh no. They’re Alabama again.”
The Crimson Tide, stung by a collapse to Ohio State in the semifinals last season, kick-sixed out of a potential championship season by Auburn the year before, returned Thursday night with a familiar wrecking-ball look to it. Alabama whacked Michigan State 38-0 in the Cotton Bowl, the kind of four-quarter assault that the powers of college football and certainly television executives never envisioned, or sought, when they created the College Football Playoff.
The band played, “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Fans chanted, “SEC, SEC.”
Just like the old days. You know, in 2012, when Alabama last won a title.
Alabama will go on to face Clemson in an SEC vs. ACC championship game that the South will eat up. Michigan State will return to East Lansing, wondering whatever happened to its dream season. It was a nice Sparty Party while it lasted, but Team Green spent most of the second half looking really green, as in the hanging-over-the-side-of-a-rocking-boat kind of way.
The Alabama defense, dominant all season, pitched a shutout and has allowed only seven points in eight quarters of the postseason (including the SEC championship win over Florida).
“I think the players learned a lot from what happened in the playoffs last year,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “I wasn’t always pleased with the way we prepared for that game. We were a little too complacent and I take responsibility for that. Maybe they weren’t ready to handle it, a playoff vs. a bowl or whatever. But this year’s team was totally focused on the game. I let them decide what the curfews were. It wasn’t a bowl game, ‘Go have a good time.’ It was, ‘We want to go play a good game.’”
The Tide wasn’t good, it was great, particularly on defense. Yes, Georgia fans, it was another good day for the new head coach of your program, as Kirby Smart’s Alabama defense held the Spartans to 239 total yards, 29 rushing yards, had four sacks and intercepted two passes.
When asked if he would’ve expected a shutout, Smart said, “No, I did not see that coming. We had some really good practices and I thought our kids really played well. I can’t say that I expected that to happen.”
Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook was talking during the week about watching film of the Alabama defense.
“It’s like watching an NFL defense,” he said.
It follows that what Cook and the Spartans saw in the first half must’ve looked like old film. The Alabama defense held Michigan State to 124 total yards (minus-9 rushing) on its six first-half possessions, sacked Cook three times and forced one turnover – a key interception by Cyrus Jones as Cook underthrew Aaron Burbridge just outside the end zone from the 12-yard line.
Alabama’s defense has spent all season trying to make up for its final performance of the 2014 season, a 42-35 loss to Ohio State in the national semifinal. The Buckeyes, who went on to win the national title, had 537 yards in offense, converted 10 of 18 third-down situations and Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 230 yards (11.5 per carry) and two touchdowns.
Asked if he took that personally, Smart said the other day, “I would say we all did as a unit. I don’t ever personalize things like that because you can go up and down like a yo-yo. We didn’t finish well. Obviously as a unit we used that as motivation this year.”
Alabama went on to have the nation’s top defenses this season (first in rushing defense, second in total defense, third in scoring defense, fifth in third-down defense) and smothered Florida in the SEC championship game, winning 29-15. The defense actually was pitching a shutout, with the Gators’ only touchdown coming on a punt return, until Florida finally reached the end zone with five minutes left.
With the defense’s bludgeonings continuing Thursday, it didn’t figure Alabama would need to score a lot of points to win this. The Tide’s offense struggled early, but Jake Coker completed an 11-yard pass to the Alabama 49 on third-and-7, and then on first down offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin dialed up play-action and Coker dropped in a perfect pass to Calvin Ridley on a post for a 50-yard gain to the one. That set up Derrick Henry’s first touchdown for a 7-0 lead.
Before the half was over, Coker, who quietly morphed into a really good quarterback while everybody was mesmerized by Henry and the Alabama defense, completed a 41-yarder to tight end O.J. Howard to set up a 47-yard field goal, making it 10-0.
As a general rule, 10-point halftime leads don’t seem insurmountable. But any chance Michigan State had of a comeback would be based on suddenly backing up the Alabama defense, and that just wasn’t going to happen.
Instead, the game turned ugly. The Tide went on a 21-0 run in the fourth quarter to blow it open at 31-0. Coker threw a pair of touchdown passes to Ridley, measuring 6 and 50 yards. Jones returned a punt 57 yards for another score.
The fourth quarter would be a wasted exercise. Alabama had done enough damage to end the suspense early.
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