TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It may have been the breaking point.
Following another third-down failure against the University of Alabama defense last week, Michigan State senior quarterback Connor Cook was shown on the big screen at AT&T Stadium walking to the sideline, and everyone could easily read his lips.
“They’re [expletive] everywhere!” he said, which was both telling and accurate as the swarming Crimson Tide went on to enjoy a decisive 38-0 victory.
Not only was it the largest shutout ever in the Cotton Bowl, but it was just the second in recent history when so much was on the line. The other was when Alabama smothered LSU in the BCS National Championship Game at the end of the 2011 season, 21-0.
That’s what has Crimson Tide fans particularly excited about this team’s chances against Clemson in Monday’s College Football Playoff National Championship (7:30 p.m. CT, ESPN): They’ve witnessed this before.
Once again, Alabama is playing like it’s on a mission, just like it was when defeating LSU and Notre Dame to win back-to-back national titles in 2011-12. Neither game was close.
“The older guys on this team who were there in 2012 know the focus that it takes,” senior center Ryan Kelly said. “It’s a new week this week, but we’re going about it the same way we went about it against Michigan State. I think our team is really locked in.”
So does everyone else. You can see it when junior defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson stands over a podium for a press conference and looks like he’s trying not to break it in half.
You can hear it when head coach Nick Saban’s asked how much advance work the coaching staff put in on Clemson and he responds, “We don’t look ahead, man. We were trying to beat Michigan State.”
Perhaps most importantly, it's something those around the program can feel, and when you combine that with Alabama’s talent and coaching, you’re talking about a combination that’s extremely difficult to defeat.
After all, there’s a reason why Saban has never lost when national title is on the line.
“Pete Carroll used to say that anyone can do it one time, but if you’re going to have a championship program, you have to do it again and again and again,” offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said. “That’s the real sign.
“Here we’re in the middle of a dynasty because of the process with different players and different coaches. He’s had a number of coaching changes. It all goes back to Coach Saban and his philosophy, and the players buy into it.”
Have they ever this season, which was on display in the semifinal.
While Michigan State tried to out-Alabama Alabama, the Crimson Tide instead out-Spartaned the Spartans. In other words, Alabama simply did all of the things that Michigan State was known for doing well better than the Spartans.
The Spartans spent most of the game with negative rushing yards and finished with only 29 yards on 26 carries. After having just 12 giveaways in their previous 13 games, they lost the turnover battle.
MSU even got outplayed on special teams.
“You never expect that against a good team like that,” said junior linebacker Ryan Anderson, who had the first of Alabama’s four sacks. “That’s one of the best four teams in the country.”
Senior quarterback Jake Coker had a career day by completing 25 of 30 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns to freshman wide receiver Calvin Ridley, who posted eight receptions for 138 yards.
The game was so lopsided that Alabama pulled its starters midway through the fourth quarter and still pulled off the shutout.
“The focus that they had for this game was completely different than what we’ve ever had before,” Saban said during his postgame press conference. “I think it paid off for them and we’re looking forward to trying to do the same in the next game.”
Michigan State ran into probably the best defense around, which looked as good as advertised. The Spartans reached the red zone just once. They managed just 1.1 yards per carry and essentially had a completion (19) for every Alabama tackle for a loss (six), turnover (three), broken-up pass (eight) and hurry (one) combined (18).
“We come into every game with a mindset of dominating,” senior cornerback Cyrus Jones said. “We don’t come in just trying to get by, we came in and wanted to stick it to them.”
The perfect example was the 867-pound backfield with defensive linemen Jarran Reed and A’Shawn Robinson both in at fullback for Derrick Henry’s one-yard touchdown plunge. Alabama wasn’t taking any chances, subtlety be damned.
Things got only more lopsided as the game progressed even though the Crimson Tide pretty much held the Heisman Trophy winner in reserve.
“You could kind of sense their frustration a little bit,” Jones said. “I could see it in their faces and it definitely gave us a little bit more hunger to keep going after them knowing that they’re getting affected by what we’re doing.”
By the time Jones made the score 24-0 with his 57-yard punt return for a touchdown, Spartans fans were having flashbacks of the previous time the two teams met: the Crimson Tide’s 49-7 victory in the Capital One Bowl at the end of the 2010 season.
That beatdown only sparked Alabama’s back-to-back championship runs in 2011 and 2012.
Yes, it all seems so familiar.
“We're two different teams, but for the most part, the focus is the same as when we went to Miami to play Notre Dame,” senior linebacker Reggie Ragland said. “We knew that we had a chip on our shoulder this year, and then losing to Ole Miss, we knew we had to get the job done.
“It's just one game left. Either win it all or don't.”
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.