The Alabama Crimson Tide and the Michigan State Spartans will be spending New Year's Day in Orlando, Florida, as the teams will collide in the 2011 Capital One Bowl.
"It is going to be exciting for us to go to Orlando and play in a New Year's Day bowl game," said Alabama junior running back Mark Ingram, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner and a Michigan native. "I grew up a Michigan State fan, so it will be very exciting for me and my family just to go out, play in the game and for them to watch it. But they (Michigan State) are the other team now."
Alabama has played in more bowl games (58) and earned more bowl wins (31) than any school in college football history. The Crimson Tide, which has posted a 31-23-3 all-time bowl record, is making its fourth consecutive bowl appearance under head coach Nick Saban and the seventh straight for the school. Saban is 2-1 in bowl games at Alabama, including a triumph over Texas in the 2010 BCS National Championship Game.
With many key contributors back from last season's title team, Alabama was again expected to challenge for the ultimate prize this year. The team clearly fell short of expectations, losing three games during the regular season. In the finale against rival Auburn, the Tide jumped out to a commanding lead, only to watch the Tigers dominate the second half and win by a 28-27 final.
"We're pleased with the progress that this team made," said Saban after the loss to Auburn. "We're not always pleased. Are we satisfied with the results that we got, especially in this game, which means so much to so many people? I'm responsible for the fact that we didn't finish the way we needed to."
As for Michigan State, which won a school-record 11 games in 2010 and a share of its first Big Ten Championship since 1990, it is making its fourth straight bowl appearance for the first time since 1987-90, matching the longest bowl streak in school history. Big Ten Coach of the Year Mark Dantonio becomes the first coach in MSU's annals to earn a postseason bowl bid in each of his first four seasons. After such a magical regular season, it seems a bit unfair that Michigan State was left out of the BCS picture, as the Spartans lost a tie- breaker to Wisconsin for the conference's automatic BCS bid and failed to receive an at-large nod.
"For four years, we talked about what it takes to become a champion, and now that the program has arrived at that point, we must try to take the next step," said Dantonio, who has chosen to focus on the positives. "At 11-1, we're not satisfied. Our focus is on winning our last football game - the bowl game. It's important for our seniors - the winningest four-year class in Spartan history - to add a bowl victory to their impressive list of accomplishments."
Michigan State is making its 21st postseason bowl appearance overall, including its third trip to the Capital One Bowl, formerly known as the Florida Citrus and Tangerine Bowls. The Spartans are 7-13 all-time in bowl games, including a 1-1 record in this bowl.
Surprisingly, Alabama and Michigan State have never met on the football field, and adding intrigue to this bowl showdown is the fact that Saban was the head coach at MSU from 1995-99.
Heading into this season, Alabama was expected to be one of the top running teams in the nation with Ingram back in the fold. Unfortunately, the star tailback missed some action early on and was limited at times due to injury, so his 816 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns are a far cry from last season's numbers. Fellow tailback Trent Richardson has posted 658 rushing yards and five scores for the Tide, who are generating 34.6 ppg and 435.6 total ypg.
During the run to the national title a year ago, Alabama's Greg McElroy was asked to do little more than manage the game. This season, the signal caller emerged as an accomplished passer. Through 12 games, he has connected on 70.6 percent of his tosses for 2,767 yards and 19 scores with only five interceptions. It certainly helps to have Julio Jones on the outside, as the star receiver has 75 catches for 1,084 yards and seven touchdowns, outpacing his teammates by a landslide in all three categories.
Despite the three losses suffered this season, Alabama is still one of the top defensive teams in the nation. Foes are scoring just 14.1 ppg against the Crimson Tide, which is yielding a mere 296.0 total ypg. Running against Alabama is difficult, as the team has surrendered just six rushing touchdowns through 12 games. Also, the Tide is permitting only 3.6 yards per rushing attempt. As for the pass defense, the positive plays have greatly outweighed the negative, as Alabama has 21 interceptions to go along with 22 sacks.
There is some negative news to report for the Tide defense, however, as leading tackler Mark Barron will miss this bowl game because of a chest injury. He has registered 75 stops to go along with two sacks and three interceptions, production that will clearly be missed. Fortunately, Courtney Upshaw (11.5 TFLs) and Robert Lester (seven interceptions) are still in place.
There is no doubt that Michigan State has the firepower necessary to challenge that tough Alabama defense. The Spartans are generating 31.3 ppg and 406.7 total ypg thanks to tremendous balance, as they have run for 25 scores while notching 22 passing touchdowns.
Kirk Cousins is the starting quarterback of the Spartans and he has completed 67.5 percent of his attempts for 2,705 yards with 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions. B.J. Cunningham is tops on the roster with 50 catches and nine touchdowns, but he broke his foot on December 18th during practice and will miss this bowl game.
"B.J. Cunningham is a great competitor and he's extremely disappointed to be out for the Capital One Bowl," Dantonio said. "Fortunately, wide receiver is a position of strength for this football team, so B.J.'s injury will provide opportunities for others to step forward and make plays for us offensively."
Mark Dell leads the Spartans with 761 receiving yards and he will have to pick up some of the slack in the absence of Cunningham. As for the MSU ground attack, Edwin Baker has rushed for 1,187 yards and 13 touchdowns, outstanding numbers that could earn the tailback All-Big Ten recognition.
The Michigan State defense isn't quite as strong as Alabama's unit, but Dantonio's group has certainly been good enough to help the team win 11 of 12 games. Opponents are scoring 20.1 ppg against the Spartans, who are allowing 337.8 total ypg. The team is yielding just 121.9 rushing ypg at a clip of only 3.6 yards per carry, but the pass defense hasn't been as strong. Still, it should be pointed out that the Spartans have come up with 17 interceptions and 24 total takeaways, a key to their success.
Expect this game to be one of the most physical of the bowl season. Give a narrow edge to Alabama, as it is hard to believe that a Nick Saban-led team can lose four games in a season with the amount of talent on the Tide roster.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Alabama 27, Michigan State 21