Without question, Michigan State-Alabama is the more red meat game of the two CFB Playoff semifinals.

The backdrop is impossible to ignore: Once again, the champions of the two most polarizing conferences in college football lock horns for a spot in the national title game. Last season, Alabama fell to Ohio State in the semifinals. The added injection of intrigue is that both teams got here after losing extremely flukey games, Alabama at home to Ole Miss in a turnover-fest that saw the Tide obtain 29 first downs to only 16 for Ole Miss. They lost five turnovers.

MSU’s loss was to mediocre Nebraska, on what can only be described as an extremely sketchy call on a touchdown pass for the Huskers in the final minute of the game. The Spartans gave up a staggering (for them) 179 on the ground. One could argue, though, that karma water found its level this year, as MSU got a once-in-a-million gift from Michigan, which botched an endgame punt to give the Spartans an unlikely win.

Let’s assess this matchup from a number of angles:

When Alabama has the ball

The Big Ten is the conference of elite run defenses, with five in the national top 15. While Wisconsin gives up fewer rushing yards than MSU, it’s safe to say this is the best run defense the Tide will face all season. Whatever weakness exists on the Spartans’ side defensively is found more through the air, where they’re 69th in the nation in pass efficiency defense (good for 9th-best in the Big Ten) and 72nd in passing yards allowed. Things like that can be somewhat deceiving, though, because good teams are typically ahead (hence them being good teams) and passing yards accumulate.

Jacob Coker hasn’t been asked to win games, but he might find that he needs to a little more in this one. Yes, Derrick Henry needs his carries, but Alabama shouldn’t act as though it’s an automatic that it can wear down the Spartan front seven by the time the fourth quarter arrives. Relying on Henry would be a fool’s errand in this one. The Tide should take a page from Nebraska: Coker has enough Tommy Armstrong, Jr. in him to keep MSU off balance with a mobile passing game, a slew of deep balls (Coker actually is pretty good at those, and his receivers are adept at making plays on a live ball), and the timely use of his legs. Yes, the legs of Jacob Coker … not Henry … may win this one for the Tide. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin just needs to put him in the right spots on the move.

When Michigan State has the ball

Whereas there’s a discernable weakness to attack in MSU’s defense, there is no such thing with Alabama. The Tide are in the top five in both pass efficiency and run defense, and first when it comes to the rushing portion. One major battle they would need to win is field position, and by not turning the ball over. Ole Miss defeated Alabama almost exclusively because the Rebels wrecked that turnover battle. Sometimes, MSU will need to understand that punting the ball away and giving Bama a long field is the best route to go.

MSU should rely on a quick passing game to not let that Bama front seven peel back and get into the backfield. If you go back and look at MSU’s near loss to Michigan (the only defense statistically similar to Alabama’s this year on the Spartans’ schedule), one of the keys to winning was throwing before running, using the pass to set up any run, and not giving away short fields. If you recall last season against Ohio State, Nick Saban and staff were unprepared for Cardale Jones’ ability to make plays with his feet. There simply wasn’t decent film on him — not enough, at any rate, to know his strengths and weaknesses. MSU should be prepared to roll out something Bama couldn’t have caught on film.

Additionally, in its one loss, Bama still only gave up 2.9 yards per rush to 341 passing yards. MSU should be prepared to win this game through the air, and cannot be afraid to take shots downfield like Chad Kelly of Ole Miss did, sometimes to a purely lucky result.

SEC Championship - Alabama v Florida

Special Teams

The one thing that stands out about these teams’ units is that both are borderline awful at punt return defense. Alabama is 99th, allowing nearly 11 yards per return, having given up two touchdowns this season. Michigan State is 107th, allowing over 11 per return. Late in what should be a close, field possession-heavy game, the team that covers up this wart may be the one that wins. Alabama has a significant advantage here, 24th in the country in punt returns, whereas MSU is one of the worst teams in the nation, 120th, averaging under 3 yards per return.

Odd Statistics

Alabama is 63rd in the nation in red zone defense and Michigan State is 72nd. The Spartans allowed 14 more trips into the red zone than the Tide, but when opponents get in, they tend to score.

In Alabama’s loss to Ole Miss, it gained 13 more first downs, 122 more yards rushing, and was 11 for 20 on third downs versus Ole Miss’ 4-14.

In two of Michigan State’s wins this season, the Spartans did not lead for a single second of regulation time. They won two games on the very last play after being tied or behind for the duration.

Prediction: Michigan State 20, Alabama 17

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