What if the answer to how Michigan State can win the Big Ten championship game is hiding in the most unexpected of places—with the coach that jilted it?
Though Baton Rouge, Louisiana is often recognized as the hotbed of Nick Saban haters, don’t overlook East Lansing, Michigan, a town Saban left in the dust on his way to LSU.
Saban coached at Michigan State from 1995-99 and took a program that hadn’t hit double-digit wins since 1965 to a 10-2 record in his final season.
The angst over Saban began when he left the Spartans abruptly in mid-December of 1999, before the team had a chance to prepare for its Citrus Bowl matchup with Florida.
As Ivan Maisel, then with Sports Illustrated, put it at the time, “It didn’t take Nick Saban long to decide he’d rather be the kingpin of Louisiana than continue to play second fiddle in Michigan.”
But hold on Sparty, before you turn the crank on Saban-bashing, what if he’s the guy who can shine some light on beating Urban Meyer in a conference championship game?
Saban is the coach who cracked the code in the 2009 SEC title game when No. 2 Alabama knocked off No. 1 Florida 32-13. It was the beginning of the beginning for Saban, and the beginning of the end for Meyer.
So, what was Saban’s formula and what can Michigan State learn from a game played four seasons ago?
You Look Like Someone I Used to Know
What’s intriguing about comparing the 2009 SEC championship to the 2013 Big Ten title tilt is how similar the two favorites and two underdogs are statistically.
First up, take a look at how Meyer’s 2009 Gators stack up with his 2013 Buckeyes:
|2009 Florida||FBS Rank||2013 Ohio St||FBS Rank|
|Scoring Offense||35.9 points||10||48.2 points||3|
|Rushing Offense||221.7 yards||10||321.2 yards||2|
|Passing Offense||236.1 yards||41||209.3 yards||85|
|Scoring Defense||12.4 points||4||20.3 points||18|
|Rushing Defense||100.4 yards||12||100||5|
College Football Statistics
Here you’ve got two high-scoring offenses which rely more heavily on the run, paired with defenses which have shut down the run and limited scoring.
The biggest difference is that the Ohio State team is more one-dimensional on offense and has struggled to contain opponents' passing attacks.
Overall, the two squads have similar DNA and the same record coming into the conference championship: 12-0.
Next, here’s the 2009 Crimson Tide and the 2013 Spartans:
|2009 Alabama||FBS Rank||2013 Michigan St||FBS Rank|
|Scoring Offense||32.1 points||21||29.4 points||63|
|Rushing Offense||215 yards||12||186.1 yards||47|
|Passing Offense||187.9 yards||92||194 yards||97|
|Scoring Defense||11.7 points||2||11.8 points||4|
|Rushing Defense||79.36 yards||2||64.7 yards||1|
|Passing Defense||166 yards||10||172.9 yards||9|
College Football Statistics
Surprisingly, the similarities between the ’09 Tide and the ’13 Spartans are more pronounced than the two Meyer-coached teams.
In this case you’ve got two teams that score 30 points per game, are decent at running the ball, aren’t highly effective in the passing game and are paired with top-ranked defenses.
The only significant difference is that Alabama’s offense was more productive.
The point of this analysis is clear: Given the similarities, Saban’s approach in 2009 may well hold the answers for how Mark Dantonio can win in 2013.
How to Stop Meyer’s Offense
The key to Alabama’s 2009 win over Florida was its defense. The Crimson Tide shut down the Gators’ rushing game and limited them to roughly one-third of their average scoring.
To illustrate, Florida had averaged 221 rushing yards and 36 points per game in 2009, but managed only a paltry 88 yards and 13 points against Alabama.
Though Gator quarterback and top rusher Tim Tebow managed 63 yards of rushing in the game, the rest of the backs contributed a mere 25 yards.
This is significant because in 2009 Florida’s rushing foundation was built on several guys, rather than one prolific back. To demonstrate, the Gators ranked No. 10 in rushing yards but didn’t have a 1000-yard rusher.
Here’s a breakdown of Florida’s top rushers and how they fared against Alabama.
|Total Yards||Yards Per Game||Yards vs. Alabama|
College Football Statistics
These results are extraordinary given the amount of looks Meyer’s offense showed and the mind-blowing number of options requiring coverage.
For an insight as to how Saban managed to shut down Florida, take a look at what he had to say in the pregame press conference.
[Florida’s offense] makes it very important to play very disciplined team defense in terms of everybody keying, being in the right spot and making sure you keep the right sideboards on the defense.
In 2013, Meyer and Ohio State do have a 1,000-yard rusher in Carlos Hyde, but—like Florida in 2009—it also has a group of rushers who have contributed more than 200 yards each this season.
The message to Michigan State is clear: Though Carlos Hyde must be contained, it’s equally important that weapons like Braxton Miller, Jordan Hall, Ezekiel Elliott and Dontre Wilson are shut down.
To do this the Spartans' stellar defense, ranked No. 1 in stopping the run, will have to remain disciplined and focused for the entire 60 minutes.
How to Stop Braxton Miller
The other common thread between Meyer’s 2009 team and the group in 2013 is a dual-threat quarterback.
Here’s a look at Tebow’s numbers versus those Miller has earned this season.
College Football Statistics
Other than Tebow being the better pure passer, the two are very similar in production, especially since Tebow’s numbers are through 14 games while Miller’s are through 10.
In the 2009 SEC title game Tebow completed 20-of-35 passes (57 percent) for 247 yards, one touchdown and one interception. As mentioned above, he managed 63 yards of rushing and zero scores on the ground.
It’s worth noting that Tebow’s single-game passer rating (120.14) was his third-lowest of the season and his completion percentage was his fourth-lowest of the year.
As to how Alabama managed to deal with Tebow, check out what Saban had to say in the pregame press conference.
I think it’s going to be really important that we can pressure the quarterback, and when I say pressure the quarterback in this game it means a lot of different things. It means make him throw the ball from the pocket, because there were two or three occasions last year [the 2008 SEC championship] where he [Tebow] ran for first downs on third down situations, because we got out of our pass rush lanes or we got pushed by the quarterback, or whatever.
So, affecting the quarterback doesn’t mean just sacking him. It means making it hard for him to throw, based on the pressure that you have pushing the pocket and the contain elements of what you are doing.
I think that’s going to be a critical factor in the game, very critical.
Michigan State must force Miller—a guy who doesn’t have the skills as a passer that Tebow had—to throw the ball from the pocket.
How to Score Points
What’s intriguing about Alabama’s win over Florida is that it didn’t do anything extraordinarily well on the offensive side of the ball.
It merely did what it had done that entire season, but it did it against a top-ranked defense.
To illustrate, check out Alabama’s yearly averages in 2009 versus what it managed against Florida.
|Scoring Offense||32.1 points||32 points|
|Rushing Offense||215 yards||251 yards|
|Passing Offense||187.9 yards||239 yards|
|Mark Ingram||118 yards||113 yards|
|Trent Richardson||53.5 yards||80 yards|
College Football Statistics/ESPN
The message is clear: There is no need for Michigan State to press and try to do something miraculous. The Spartans need to rely on their blistering defense and then do what they’ve done all year on offense.
It won’t be a barn burner and it won’t be sexy, but it could result in a win.
Hope Ohio State’s Defense Will Help
Here’s what Meyer said surprised him most about the Gators’ 2009 loss in the postgame press conference.
It came down to missed tackles…and those are very uncharacteristic of…you know, good defenses to give up big plays.
Meyer’s analysis of how Florida lost to Alabama ties directly in with how Michigan State could beat Ohio State: With some help from the Buckeyes’ struggling defense.
First up there’s the issue of missed tackles, a deficiency glaringly obvious in last week's close call versus Michigan. Here’s how Ross Fulton of Eleven Warriors saw it:
Buckeye defenders were also undisciplined in their tackling, representing a significant step backward. Would be tacklers frequently failed to break down and/or attempted to tackle with their head down, leading to missed tackles. The Buckeyes only stopped the Michigan passing game when they pressured Gardner. But Buckeye defenders would get in the backfield only to miss tackles, inevitably leading to completions off Gardner scrambles.
Next, there is the tendency to give up big plays. What Meyer was referring to in the 2009 presser was a 69-yard gain on a screen pass that led to a Crimson Tide touchdown late in the second quarter. This made the score 19-10 Alabama with three minutes remaining in the half.
How does this apply to the 2013 Buckeyes?
Well, Ohio State ranks No. 102 in the FBS in allowing plays of more than 60 yards from scrimmage, giving up six such plays in 2013.
In may be that the Buckeyes' defense is one of Michigan State’s biggest assets on Saturday.
The final golden nugget of advice from one conference underdog to the next is Saban’s mental approach to the game.
In the press conference after winning the 2009 SEC title, here’s how he described what it took:
It’s going to take an undying, relentless, not to be denied attitude to be able to be a champion and I think we learned that last year and I think that’s how we played in this game and I think that’s why we won the game, as a team.
Is it a message in a bottle from Saban to his former team in East Lansing?