2015 Cotton Bowl Preview

The 2015 Cotton Bowl will decide one of the participants in this year’s College Football Playoff National Championship. The #2 ranked Alabama Crimson Tide will face the #3 ranked Michigan State Spartans in Arlington, Texas. Mark Schofield has looked at the tape and lets us know what to watch for in this year’s Cotton Bowl.

In the New Year’s Eve nightcap, the Michigan State Spartans clash with the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Cotton Bowl, a College Football Playoff semifinal game. This meeting, between the third-ranked Spartans from the Big Ten and second-ranked Crimson Tide from the Southeastern Conference, looks to be a battle of like-minded teams. Both teams like to impose their will in the running game and dominate the line of scrimmage on defense. Michigan State punched their ticket to this playoff game with some thrilling victories in the regular season, including last-second wins over Michigan and Ohio State, capped off with a win over the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Big Ten Championship Game. Alabama earned their place with an impressive stretch run through their SEC schedule and a victory over the Florida Gators in the conference championship game.

When MSU Has The Ball

The Spartans are led offensively by senior signal-caller Connor Cook. The veteran has completed 210 of 369 passes for 2,921 yards and 24 touchdowns this season, against only five interceptions. Cook is a player who can do many things well from the pocket; he throws receivers open with anticipation and is not afraid to challenge narrow throwing windows in the downfield passing game:

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The senior quarterback spreads the football around in the passing game, but his two most-trusted receivers are Aaron Burbridge and R.J. Shelton. Shelton has caught 41 passes for 484 yards and four touchdowns this season. Burbridge, the senior from Farmington Hills, Michigan, leads the team with 80 receptions for 1,219 yards and seven touchdowns. In addition to the above play against Penn State, Cook connected with Burbridge on this huge play on the Spartans’ final drive against Iowa:

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When Michigan State turns to the ground game, freshman LJ Scott sees the bulk of the carries behind a cohesive offensive line. Scott notched 140 runs on the season for 691 yards and 11 touchdowns, and possesses a healthy mix of power, speed, vision and footwork. While his power was on display on the game-winning touchdown against the Hawkeyes, that final drive contained a number of impressive runs from the young RB, including this display of fancy footwork:

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The Spartans’ offensive line is led by a number of upperclassmen, including senior center Jack Allen, senior right guard Donovan Clark, and junior left tackle Jack Conklin.

Alabama boasts one of the toughest defenses in the country, especially against the run. The Crimson Tide are the number one ranked rushing defense in all of the FBS, holding teams to a mere 74.0 yards on the ground this season. Up front they are keyed by a number of impressive defenders, including defensive end A’Shawn Robinson and nose tackle Darren Lake. But their defensive leader is middle linebacker Reggie Ragland:

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The LB displays recognition, play-strength and competitive toughness on this snap. He identifies the hole and charges forward, meeting the lead blocker and shedding him, scraping off the FB to make the tackle. Ragland is a true middle linebacker in the mold of former Crimson Tide linebacker C.J. Mosley, and was named the conference’s defensive player of the year. He is a likely first-round selection in the upcoming NFL player entry draft.

While the Alabama defense is stout against the run, if there is a minor weakness it is in their secondary, where the Crimson Tide rely on a number of younger and inexperienced players including cornerback Marion Humphrey and nickelback Minkah Fitzpatrick, both of whom are true freshmen. But even with this inexperience, the Crimson Tide has still allowed only 184.2 passing yards per game, 17th best in FBS this season.

When Alabama Has The Football

Everyone knows the exploits of Heisman-trophy winner Derrick Henry. The Alabama running back possesses a mix of power and speed that is impressive for a collegiate player. Henry carried the football 339 times for 1,986 yards and 23 touchdowns en route to being awarded the highest honor for a college football player. Down the stretch the coaching staff relied heavily on the RB, giving him 46 carries in the Iron Bowl and another 44 carries against Florida in the SEC Championship Game. Henry responded with 271 yards and a touchdown against the Tigers, and another 189 yards and a score against the Gators.

When the Crimson Tide look to throw they are keyed by senior quarterback Jake Coker. The QB transferred from Florida State and took control of the Alabama offense this season, completing 222 of 338 passes for 2,489 yards and 17 touchdowns with eight interceptions. Coker has two dangerous wideouts in ArDarius Stewart, who caught 54 passes for 600 yards and four touchdowns, and freshman Calvin Ridley:

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The freshman wideout hauled in 75 passes for 893 yards and five touchdowns this season.

Not to be outdone, the Spartans enter this contest with the 26th ranked defense in the country allowing 342.9 yards per game. Much like their counterparts, Michigan State excels against the run, allowing 113.1 yards per game on the ground, good for 9th in the nation. Their defensive front is keyed by defensive end Shilique Calhoun. The fifth-year senior was a second-team All-American Selection and a First-Team All-Big Ten selection, thanks to plays like this:

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That is the bend, athleticism and power people look for in a pass rusher, on display in the Big Ten Championship Game. The DE notched 10.5 sacks this season, to go with 45 total tackles and three passes defended.

Behind him, the Spartans boast an experienced back seven defenders. Senior linebackers Darien Harris and Riley Bullough key the second level and a number of returning starters patrol the secondary, including cornerbacks Arjen Colquhoun and Darian Hicks, as well as safety Demetrious Cox.

Matchup To Watch

This game likely comes down to the battle between the impressive Alabama defensive front and the cohesive Spartans’ offensive line. Pay particular attention to the battle between nose tackle Lake and the interior of the Michigan State offensive line, led by Allen, Clark and guard Brian Allen. If those three linemen can control the point of attack and work to the second level to neutralize Ragland, Michigan State should enjoy success moving the football. but if Lake can occupy blockers and let Ragland and others flow to the football, the Crimson Tide should be able to grind the MSU running game to a halt.

Draft Prospects

This game is full with potential prospects from both teams, including Cook, Burbridge, Jack Allen, Calhoun, Colquhoun and Clark from Michigan State and Henry, Coker, tight end O.J. Howard, Ragland, Robinson and Lake from Alabama, just to name a few. Expect scouts from all 32 teams to be covering this game.


Alabama manages to control the line of scrimmage, and the game. 21-14 Crimson Tide.

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.

Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.

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