Courtesy of Crimson Magazine
The No. 2 Alabama football team enters Thursday's College Football Playoff semifinal contest against Michigan State as a prohibitive favorite according to the Las Vegas odds, and most of the national analysts are also tending to lean toward Nick Saban's 12-1 and SEC champion Crimson Tide squad as well in the Cotton Bowl.
Of course that hardly means anything at this point in the season, when all four playoff teams are battered and bruised after a long season, but must still find the resolve, focus and motivation to battle for college football's ultimate prize.
Alabama, Michigan State, Clemson and Oklahoma are all certainly worthy of being in the playoffs, and no one can really dispute that, but after such a long layoff for all four squads, it really comes down to which group of players can generate enough cohesiveness and can execute well enough to sustain a two-game run for a national championship.
Those layoffs can be tricky things when trying to predict postseason winners, especially when you have four teams as even as you do this year in the playoffs, in terms of talent, consistency and coaching excellence.
Alabama is a prime example of this, as during the tenure of Saban at UA, the Crimson Tide has been flawless at times in certain postseason games, such as the 2012 national title game against Notre Dame and the 2010 Capital One Bowl against the Spartans.
Of course there have also been lackluster Sugar Bowl efforts against Utah and Oklahoma for varying reasons.
For Alabama this season, it must try to recapture some semblance of rhythm and momentum from the end of its regular season when it was celebrating an SEC title game, before the distractions of the award season.
Mark Dantonio's Spartans are really in the same predicament as they are no doubt trying to capture the feeling they experienced in their last game, when they put together a dramatic late 22-play drive to beat Iowa in the Big Ten title game.
All this being said, Alabama is the better, more complete team, and I will be surprised if the Crimson Tide does not come out with the right approach at AT&T Stadium.
There certainly should be plenty of motivation for an Alabama team which was unable to finish the right way against Ohio State a year ago after building a 21-6 lead, and a program that has gone two-consecutive years without a postseason win or a national title.
There should also be no sense of entitlement or overconfidence for this Alabama team against a very good and physical Michigan State team which probably has been the subject of a little national disrespect, although that level of disrespect is not nearly as significant as the level of grumbling with some of the MSU players relative to that subject. Self-motivation comes in various shapes and forms, however, and if that works for the Spartan Nation, then that's certainly fine.
The Alabama/Michigan State showdown, above all, will obviously come down to execution, and it should be a very competitive game simply due to the fact that both teams are eerily similar in a lot of ways.
I think Alabama could be in for an uncomfortable night if it tries to lean too much on the incredible talents of Derrick Henry as it did in the games against Auburn and Florida, as I think that a fairly stingy MSU run defense will dictate that the Tide will have to be a bit more balanced and that Jake Coker will need to make a few more plays downfield with his arm.
Although MSU quarterback Connor Cook is certainly capable of causing a really good Alabama defense some problems, I think the Tide will be able to make adjustments on that side of the ball fairly quickly to control him, and the Spartan running game, although talented at spots, is fairly pedestrian for the most part.
Unlike that Capital One Bowl, where Alabama mauled the Spartans 49-7, I see this game being fairly close the whole way, but in the end, I think the Tide's overall superiority in talent and speed on both sides of the ball, as well as its edge in the intangible category, will be just enough to propel it over Dantonio's very good team and into the Jan. 11 College Football Playoff Championship.
Alabama 25. Michigan State 17