The Alabama team that just played in Cotton Bowl can't be defeated
No matter how well Clemson played in the Orange Bowl, and the Tigers looked awfully good in a 37-17 victory over Oklahoma, the Alabama program we saw Thursday that manhandled Michigan State 38-0 in the Cotton Bowl isn’t going to lose.
The Crimson Tide dominated every phase of the game, as Jake Coker answered the critics with the best performance of his career, the defense made fifth-year senior Connor Cook look like a walk-on freshman and Cyrus Jones highlighted the special-teams effort with a punt-return touchdown. After losing to Ohio State — another Big Ten underdog — a year ago, this time ‘Bama lived up to its reputation as the SEC bully.
The Tide have been established as early 7-point favorites in the College Football Playoff National Championship against Clemson, which will be played Jan. 11.
“I think last year when we came to this game, we were just happy to take part in the game,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said after the win. “I think this year we wanted to sort of take the game and really thought our guys had a vision of what they wanted, and everybody paid the price for what they had to do in preparation.”
If the Crimson Tide team that showed up in Arlington is the same one that steps off the plane in Glendale, Saban will capture his fourth national title in nine seasons.
The Spartans came into this matchup with the No. 9 rushing defense in the nation, so there was reason to believe they could at least slow down Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry.
Columnists across the country — including yours truly — had questioned whether Coker could win a game through the air if Henry was relatively contained on the ground, and he did just that. The Mobile native put together a near-flawless peformance, completing 25-of-30 passes for 286 yards with 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions against a Michigan State pass defense that didn’t have an answer for receiver Calvin Ridley.
The true freshman swung what had been a scoreless taffy pull midway through the second quarter with a 50-yard catch to the shadow of the goal line, setting up a 1-yard scoring dive from Henry.
Ridley finished the game with 8 receptions for 138 yards and 2 TDs, the first a 6-yarder that needed to be overturned on replay — the call on the field was incomplete — it was so fantastic and the second a 50-yarder when he simply blew by Sparty’s secondary. But the story of the night was Coker, who spread the ball around in order to move the chains and then targeted Ridley when it was time for a dagger.
— Sportz Now (@SportzNow1) January 1, 2016
It may have taken Coker five long years to go from three-star recruit to championship-caliber quarterback, but his teammates proved to have a lot more faith in him than the “experts” up in the press box.
“He’s a great quarterback,” wideout ArDarius Stewart said of Coker. “He’s a great leader and he can make things happen when we need them.”
While Henry was indeed kept in check, totaling just 75 yards on his 20 carries, it was Coker who played like a potential first-round draft pick, not the more-heralded Cook.
This … isn’t … Sparta!
Even the most casual of football fans figured it was going to be tough sledding for Michigan State facing this Alabama defense, which was No. 1 nationally against the run, No. 19 against the pass and No. 2 overall.
As expected, the Crimson Tide eliminated the enemy ground game, as the Spartans rushed for an anemic 29 yards on 26 attempts. Madre London got shackled to the tune of 11 yards on 5 carries, and he actually had the best numbers of the four backs that ran the rock — LJ Scott (6 carries, 8 yards), Gerald Holmes and Delton Williams (2 carries, 6 yards each) were equally ineffective.
Then there was Cook, who is soon to be rolling in NFL riches while Coker simply hopes for an invitation to training camp, unable to make up the difference with his right arm.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder was 19-of-39 for 210 yards with zero TDs and a pair of INTs, plus he was sacked four times by a relentless pass rush — he had only been sacked 14 times all year long. Receiver Aaron Burbridge, who like Cook was an all-Big Ten selection, was held to 39 yards and never broke free for more than 18 on any of his 5 catches.
The beginning of the end came with 23 seconds left in the second quarter trailing 10-0, as Jones picked off an ill-advised throw from Cook at the 1-yard line and robbed Sparty of an opportunity to make it a one-score affair at intermission.
“This is no surprise,” defensive end Jonathan Allen said. “We had great practices every day. We worked our butts off, and this is what you get when you work hard.”
Cook and Co. went three-and-out on their first three possessions of the second half, while ‘Bama got two Ridley touchdown grabs and a Jones 57-yard punt return to make it a 31-0 laugher in the third quarter.
Cyrus Jones provides a backbreaking punt return TD pic.twitter.com/aqG3zcb0GA
— The Cauldron (@TheCauldron) January 1, 2016
Clemson will come out of the tunnel at University of Phoenix Stadium the only undefeated team in the land and having just belittled an Oklahoma program that many prognosticators picked to win it all.
However, Alabama boatraced the Big Ten champions — Michigan State, Iowa and defending-champion Ohio State finished in the top seven of the College Football Playoff rankings, you’ll remember — on a neutral field and flat-out owned all three phases of the game. The offense looked explosive, the defense appeared impenetrable and the special teams proved capable of supplying some additional fireworks if necessary.
If this is the same Crimson Tide squad Saban fields in a week and a half, which is far from probable but certainly possible, then go ahead and fit him for another ring now.