Alabama’s meeting with Florida in the Southeastern Conference title game was the first session between head coach Nick Saban and one of his former assistants, Jim McElwain. Saban emerged victorious 29-15, capturing his fourth conference title at Alabama. His focus now turns to his former Big Ten pupil, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio.
The 2011 Captial One Bowl (2010 season) was the last time Alabama faced Michigan State. Saban and the Crimson Tide handed the Spartans a 49-7 loss to end its season at 10-3.
Dantonio has guided Michigan State to 10-win seasons in four of the last five years since 2010. It has not been pretty, but the Spartans have found ways to pull out victories. Close wins over Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa (Big Ten Championship) have grown its confidence as a team. Michigan State entered the College Football Playoff as the No. 4 seed at 12-1.
Dantonio, like Saban, built Michigan State on toughness, senior leadership and execution. Las Vegas is singing “Roll Tide,” but there are five Spartan players to watch for in Dallas.
5. Riley Bullough, Junior- Linebacker
Bullough anchors a defensive unit that is seventh nationally against the run (113.1 ypg) and allows 20.5 points per game.
He leads the team in total tackles (95) and has seven tackles for loss with four sacks. Joining Bullough on Michigan State’s front seven is defensive lineman Shilique Calhoun. The senior leads the group in tackles for loss (14.5) and sacks with 10.5.
4. Montae Nicholson, Sophomore- Defensive back
Nicholson stands as the Darqueze Dennard that Michigan State had in recent seasons. He is third on the team in tackles (76) and has 2.5 tackles for loss, two pass breakups and a forced fumble. Nicholson is tied for the team lead in interceptions with three for 60 return yards. Twelve of the Spartans’ 15 interceptions came from its secondary.
3. LJ Scott, Freshman- Running back
Scott delivered Michigan State a Big Ten Conference title ring and College Football Playoff appearance, when he scored the go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter against Iowa.
Scott’s second effort from one-yard out lifted the Spartans over the Hawkeyes 16-13. He finished the contest with 73 rushing yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. Scott leads the bunch in rushing with 691 yards and 11 scores (140 attempts).
2. Aaron Burbridge, Senior- Wide Receiver
Burbridge, 6-foot-1, 208 pounds, possesses exceptional footwork, hands and route running abilities. He leads the team in receptions (80), yards (1,219) and touchdowns with seven. Wide out Macgarrett Kings, Jr. falls second to Burbridge with 30 catches for 492 yards and five touchdowns.
Tight end Josiah Price is a match-up nightmare in the red zone for opposing defense with six touchdown receptions.
1. Connor Cook, Senior- Quarterback
Cook is expected to be fully healthy when Michigan State faces Alabama on Dec. 31. He injured his throwing shoulder against Maryland back on Nov. 14; however, Cook is among multiple quarterbacks that are steadily rising on NFL Draft boards. He has completed 56.9 percent of his passes for 2,921 yards with 24 touchdowns to five interceptions. Cook has navigated Michigan State to 10 wins all three seasons as a starter (2013-present), with a conference title this year.