The Capital One Bowl promises to be one of the most competitive bowl games of the season this year when the Michigan State Spartans meet the Alabama Crimson Tide in Orlando on January 1st.
For the Crimson Tide, this has to be a disappointing conclusion to a season in which anything less than a BCS bowl berth was going to be considered a failure. Alabama, who started the season at the No. 1 ranking, could not win the close games this season, losing three games to SEC opponents South Carolina, LSU and Auburn.
Michigan State, on the other hand, was surprised by a season that found the Spartans in a three-way tie atop the Big Ten with the Ohio State Buckeyes and Wisconsin Badgers. Unfortunately for the Spartans, Wisconsin and Ohio State were chosen as representatives from the Big Ten in the BCS bowl games (the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl). Still, considering Michigan State started the season unranked, the season must be considered a great success and the Capital One Bowl a terrific achievement.
Here are 10 things to know about the first bowl game of 2011:
The Capital One Bowl in Orlando historically features two of the best teams in college football. The game features the SEC No. 2 team pitted against the No. 2 team from the Big Ten. Often, the Capital One Bowl is a more intriguing bowl game than some of the BCS bowl games, which may feature the champion of a weaker conference such as the ACC or Big East.
Despite recent failures to win the National Championship, the Big Ten has outperformed the SEC in the Capital One Bowl over the last decade. Particularly over the last six games, the Big Ten is 5-1 against the SEC. The one loss, however, belonged to Michigan State against Georgia in 2009.
History tells us it should be a close game. Out of the last eight Capital One Bowl games played, six have been decided by a touchdown or less. Michigan State has the advantage of recent historical success of the Big Ten, but that means nothing in the context of one game.
In the Spartans' lone loss this season against the Iowa Hawkeyes, much of the accountability for the loss had to fall on Cousins. Despite an otherwise stellar season, Cousins really struggled to move the ball against the Hawkeyes, who had the seventh-ranked defense in college football this season.
In that game, Cousins really struggled with turnovers. He threw a season-high three interceptions to just one touchdown pass. His 198 passing yards were the fewest on the season when he attempted 25 or more passes.
Alabama provides the similar stout defense, which caused so much trouble for Cousins in the game against Iowa. The fifth-ranked Crimson Tide defense could easily match the three interceptions Iowa had against Cousins in the regular season game.
Last year, the Alabama Crimson Tide won the BCS National Championship game against the Texas Longhorns, but it was hardly because of Greg McElroy.
In that game McElroy had one of the worst ever performances from a winning quarterback in a National Championship game, throwing for just 58 yards and completing just six passes. McElroy later explained that he was playing with two cracked ribs, but if he was truly that ineffective due to injury, Nick Saban would have benched him.
Regardless, questions linger concerning McElroy's ability to play big in a big game.
According to the numbers, Michigan State had the better season. The Spartans lost just one game and won 11 this season compared to the Alabama Crimson Tide, who finished the season with their third loss against No. 2 Auburn.
The final BCS rankings told a similar story. Michigan State finished the season at No. 9 in the BCS rankings and No. 7 in AP and Coaches Poll. Despite three losses, Alabama finished at No. 16 in the BCS rankings and No. 15 and No. 18 in the AP and Coaches Poll, respectively.
At first glance, the respective records of each team would suggest that Michigan State should be a heavy favorite. However, the numbers don't tell the whole truth because...
The strength of schedule, however, looks far more difficult for Alabama. Michigan State's lone loss came to a No. 18 Iowa team which had one of the top defenses in the country. Additionally, the Spartans defeated two ranked opponents in Wisconsin and Michigan. Michigan and Iowa, though, finished the season each with five losses.
Alabama, on the other hand, had all three of its losses against ranked opponents. The three losses came at the hands of LSU, South Carolina and Auburn, all teams that have continued their success throughout the season. Also, with four wins against ranked opponents, Alabama has experienced playing against tough teams this season.
That experience could provide them a major advantage over a Michigan State team which has not played as many games against highly ranked opposition.
The Alabama Crimson Tide came into this season with the greatest of expectations. The Crimson Tide entered the first game against San Jose State with a swagger and expectation of going undefeated on the season. As the defending National Champs with a majority of the offense returning, there was no reason to think that Alabama couldn't repeat as National Champions.
Despite an early season injury to 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, Alabama steamrolled opponents including three ranked teams within the first five games. A road loss to South Carolina in the sixth game of the year dimmed title hopes, but did not eliminate the possibility of returning to the BCS National Championship game. A second three point loss at LSU would completely destroy any remaining ambitions to defend their title.
Alabama knows it is better than a three loss team. The Crimson Tide lost by only one point to Auburn and had them on the ropes in the first half, scoring the first 24 points of that game. Alabama is going to want to prove to the college football world that this team is not as bad as its ranking would suggest.
In more ways than one, Michigan State has been a true Cinderella story this season, except in the end the Spartans don't get to go to the ball. Michigan State surpassed all expectations this season by finishing 11-1 and overcoming a significant health scare to their head coach Mark D'Antonio.
Michigan State finished the year tied with Ohio State and Wisconsin in a three-way tie atop the Big Ten conference standings. Without a conference championship game, the three teams each took a piece of the title.
Stepsisters Ohio State and Wisconsin are getting their chance to go to the ball. The Wisconsin Badgers travel to Pasadena to play in the Rose Bowl against the undefeated TCU Horned Frogs. The Ohio State Buckeyes are fortunate to play the Arkansas Razorbacks in the Sugar Bowl down in New Orleans.
Left out of the BCS picture, Michigan State can't be happy that it was not invited to play in a BCS bowl game despite identical records and similar schedules to Wisconsin and Ohio State.
In many respects, Alabama is the much better team on paper. Despite the worse record, the Crimson Tide have statistically outperformed their counterpart Michigan State.
Offensively, Alabama is 28th in passing yards with over 260 yards through the air per game. Michigan State is just 44th in the NCAA in passing yards per game with 237.8. The running games of each team tell similar stories as Alabama is 36th in college football in rushing yards per game, while Michigan State is just a few spots behind at 39th.
Defense is where we see the largest discrepancy between the teams. The Crimson Tide defense ranks fifth in all of college football allowing just 14.1 points per game. The Spartans defense has allowed six more points per game and ranks 21st in college football.
Overall, statistics may show that Alabama is the better team, but as the records indicate great statistics do not always result in victories.
When two goliaths meet in college football, it generally falls to the playmakers to decide the game. The Capital One Bowl won't be won in the trenches, but will be decided by how the top performers for each team step up.
Michigan State and Alabama are two of the top teams in the country and consequently have some of the top playmakers in all of college football.
For the Spartans, the player to watch is Edwin Baker. One of the top sophomores in the country, Baker has been stellar for the Spartans this season. He has averaged over six yards per carry for the year and has rushed for more than 100 yards in a game five teams this season. Baker also has a superb backup in Le'Veon Bell who has seen his work and production decrease significantly over the last six games.
The playmakers for the Crimson Tide are some of the best in college football. At wide receiver, Julio Jones cannot be covered at times using his 6'4'', 220 pound frame to simply overpower helpless defensive backs. Last week, Jones torched the Auburn defense for 199 receiving yards and a touchdown.
If Jones wasn't enough, the rushing tandem of Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson is one of scariest backfields in the country. Ingram provides a size and speed combination that will make him a surefire top pick in the NFL Draft come June. Richardson has been a terrific backup and has two 100-yard rushing performances this season as well.
Overall, it seems that Alabama just has too many playmakers for Michigan State to game plan for.
Alabama will win this one by more than two touchdowns.
Nothing should be taken away from Michigan State's season. Going 11-1 is a terrific feat that the Spartans should be proud to accomplish. However, their wins have been less than impressive, with nailbiting victories against Purdue and Penn State. The loss to Iowa demonstrated how Michigan State's offense really struggles against top defenses.
Alabama looks like a much better team on paper. Additionally, betting against Nick Saban in a bowl game is never a wise decision. Saban is one of the top, if not the best, head coaches in college football today. He will have his team ready and will not let Alabama take its fourth loss in what has already been a disappointing season.
Final Prediction: Alabama 34, Michigan State 14