This should be fun—the ghosts of Saban past and present going at one another in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando. The big storyline between now and kickoff will be about Saban reacquainting with Sparty, but how about the fact that these two prestigious programs are just now playing each other for the first time?
Here’s what to look for in the Saban Bowl:
Alabama RB Mark Ingram vs. Michigan State LB Greg Jones
It doesn’t get much better than Ingram, the defending Heisman Trophy winner, versus Jones, a consensus pick for preseason All-American honors and the fifth-leading tackler in the Big Ten.
The mission for the bowling-ball-like, 6’1”, 240-pound Jones seems incredibly simple: See Ingram, destroy Ingram. But if his defensive line can’t keep him clean, Jones will have little chance of getting to the point of attack before Ingram has a chance to get his equally stout frame (5’10”, 215) moving north and south.
If Jones can shed the Alabama offensive linemen, he should easily rack up 10 or more tackles. The question is whether he’s equipped to handle the overall skillset of Ingram, who possesses power, the ability to sift through the wash at the line of scrimmage and the speed to gain the corner. Jones must also be able to direct the defense and identify the many ways and formations in which Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain uses his star back.
Alabama likes to utilize Ingram in both the Wildcat and the screen game, so Jones must be mindful of making the proper read and guarding against false steps.
Alabama Special Teams vs. Michigan State Special Teams
Field position and special teams: The two go hand-in-hand and often can determine the winner of a close game. Alabama is more talented and has more depth than Michigan State, but if the Spartans can continually win the battle of field position and make the Tide drive the length of the field, their chances of pulling the upset increase exponentially.
Michigan State punter Aaron Bates led the Big Ten this season with an average of 45.2 yards per boot, but he’ll have to specialize in pinning Tide return man Marquis Maze to the sideline early and often. Maze averaged nearly 14 yards per return, good for fourth in the SEC, but he has the athleticism and elusiveness to take it the distance from anywhere on the field.
Not that Michigan State has to rely on gimmicks to win this game, but flawless execution on fake kicks is a large reason why the Spartans won 11 games.
First, it was the fake field goal in the waning seconds against Notre Dame; then it was the unreal fake punt call on 4th-and-11 against Northwestern. Two outstanding plays, both of which involved none other than Bates putting the ball in the air. You know Saban will take a good, hard look at the film, but don’t be too surprised if Mark Dantonio goes to his bag of tricks if the situation is right.
Alabama WR Julio Jones vs. Michigan State CB Chris L. Rucker
On paper, this duel looks to be a huge mismatch, and in actuality, it probably will be. But Rucker, Michigan State’s most active corner, wouldn’t be the first defensive back Jones has thoroughly whipped. At an obvious disadvantage in size, Rucker, who is generously listed at 6’2”, 200 pounds on the MSU depth chart, can only hope he’s able to get physical with the much taller, much bigger Jones (6’4”, 220).
Even then, I’m not so sure Rucker has the upper-body strength to jam Jones at the line and force him to adjust his route. No matter where Jones is lined up in the formation—alone on the boundary side or split on the outside of the slot—anticipate Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi rolling a safety to Jones’ side of the formation, in support of Rucker.
Michigan State’s safeties, Trenton Robinson and Marcus Hyde, are both undersized, but they flow to the ball well and have combined for seven interceptions as a pair of standouts in the Spartans’ so-so pass defense (215.8 yards/game; seventh in the Big Ten).
Along with Rucker, who has two picks of his own, the two safeties will have to play a solid game if Narduzzi and the MSU defense are to limit Jones’ touches and force Alabama to rely on other receivers in the passing game.
Michigan State OTs D.J. Young and J’Michael Deane vs. Alabama 3-4 Defense
Sure, both are seniors, but you sort of have to feel for Young and Deane, who will have put in a yeoman-like effort to discern the multiple looks and blitzes that come with the Alabama defensive scheme.
Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart like to bring the heat from every conceivable angle, and it will be crucial that the interior of the MSU front sufficiently extends the line of pre-snap communication to the tackles. Unfortunately for the Spartans, the Tide is loaded with playmakers at varying levels of the defense, and the blitz packages that Smart uses extends to the linebackers and secondary, so Michigan State may be forced to pick its own poison.
Linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont’a Hightower are skilled playmakers against the run and pass, and Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley help round out the unit. Defensive end Marcell Dareus (6’4”, 310) was tailor-made for the 3-4 scheme, and his mixture of strength and agility will make passing downs tough for Michigan State.
Michigan State has been good at balancing its offense all season (415 rushes vs. 344 passes), but if Young and Deane struggle, offensive coordinator Don Treadwell may have to institute more two-tight end sets and ask his backs to assist in the blocking schemes more than usual.
This will play right into the hands of the Tide, which can then focus on walking up safeties Mark Barron and Robert Lester to help support against the run.
Traveling Fanbase vs. BCS Slight
Though the Spartans beat more bowl-eligible teams during a tougher schedule than both Wisconsin and Ohio State, 11-1 Michigan State was left out of the BCS, while the Badgers and Buckeyes had their names called.
It was a slight, yes, especially when you consider an 8-4 Connecticut team is playing in the Fiesta Bowl. But that’s the way the BCS is, fair or unfair. So, how will Michigan State fans respond to the injustice? Will they sulk in East Lansing and opt to watch the game on TV? Or will they suck it up and travel the more than 1,200 miles to Orlando in support of their program?
We already know Alabama fans will be there. They travel as well as anybody, plus it’s not as if the Tide got placed anywhere other than where their 9-3 record suggests they should be. Will the Citrus Bowl be adorned in a sea of crimson, or will a green-clad congregation show up to even things out?
This game, because of its proximity to Tuscaloosa, already has the feel of a semi-home game for Alabama. Let’s hope it’s not made even more so by a passionate, yet no doubt irritated, Michigan State contingency.