Alabama’s domination of Michigan State restores order to college football –

ARLINGTON, Texas – Order was restored. That’s the dainty way to put it.

For Michigan State, the flogging was so public you wanted to avert your eyes. For Alabama … well, it’s hard to overstate the impact of its 38-0 College Football Playoff semifinal win in the Cotton Bowl that set things straight.

Well, as straight as they can be when a 2,000-yard Heisman winner (Derrick Henry) is pretty much an afterthought.

As straight as they can be when the senior quarterback who started his first game three months ago (Jacob Coker) has a career day.

As straight as they can be when a once defrocked offensive coordinator suddenly looks (again) like one of the hottest coaching candidates around.

Lane Kiffin put together a game plan that surprised Michigan State and should put the smooth, smirking assistant back in head coaching consideration.

“They had month to get ready for a Heisman Trophy winner,” Kiffin said of Michigan State. “It’s just natural as a coordinator. All the attention is going to be stopping [Henry]. They’re a run-stopping defense anyway. We knew that’s what they were going to do.”

And so Kiffin, Coker and freshman receiver Calvin Ridley took over. Without much of the usual input from Henry, they attacked the Spartans a different way. Coker went for a career-high 286 yards. Ridley caught eight balls for 138 yards, becoming the best freshman receiver in school history, surpassing Amari Cooper.

Michigan State wanted to play in a phone booth. Alabama wanted to play on an airstrip. When the Spartans loaded up the box trying to stop Henry, Kiffin simply didn’t use him. Henry didn’t touch the ball until the game’s seventh play and only seven times after halftime.

His 75 yards were his fewest this season against an opponent in which he wasn’t pulled early.

“I don’t think anyone was going to run the ball consistently on that defense,” Kiffin said.

Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey went further: “It’s crazy to see he wasn’t getting the ball that much. They weren’t really trying to get him the ball.”

Instead, Coker was gradually eased into a controlled passing game that featured completions of 50, 41 and 26 yards. The Florida State transfer misfired on only five of 30 throws.

“It is,” receiver Ardarius Stewart began, “the most complete game we played this year.”

The most complete because it’s now OK to speak openly about this defense possibly being the best of the Saban era at Alabama. It starts with a defensive line that features a rotation of 11 players.


Most teams have eight if they’re lucky. The group is so deep that leading sacker Jonathan Allen doesn’t start. Allen added a couple of sacks Thursday to bring his team-leading total to 12. Alabama continues to lead the country with 50.

That defense posted its second shutout this season and for the 12th time in 14 games held the opponent less than 100 rushing yards. Way under. Michigan State had 29 yards on the ground.

It was the Spartans’ worst loss since a 49-7 thrashing by Alabama five years ago in the Capital One Bowl.

Yes, order was restored: Alabama has won more games here this season at AT&T Stadium (two, counting the opener against Wisconsin) than the Dallas Cowboys (one). Order was restored: Twelve of the Tide’s 13 wins this season have come by at least 13 points.

Order — and pride — was restored. Almost a year ago to the day, the Tide were in the process of blowing a 21-6 lead against Ohio State in a CFP semifinal. They had to live with the ignominy of that 42-35 loss until Thursday night.

“I think the players learned a lot from what happened in the game last year,” Nick Saban said. “I was not always pleased with the way we prepared for the game. Maybe we were a little bit too complacent.”

Not this time. The players set their own curfews. Coker was diligently working in practice on short outs and bubble screens that would loosen up the Michigan State defense until he could go downfield.

It was audacious in a way. Henry had bulldozed pretty much every opponent in his path this season. Early in the game, he became the first SEC runner to surpass 2,000 yards.

A slow-moving game broke open when Coker spotted Ridley behind a Spartans safety in the second quarter. The 50-yard catch set up Henry’s 24th touchdown run this season.

The way the defense was playing, a quick 10-0 lead at halftime looked insurmountable.

“I’m glad he’s on our side,” Coker said of his offensive coordinator.

While the Tide have bounced back from last season’s disgrace, Kiffin has remade himself into a valuable commodity again. He has taken two different senior quarterbacks with different skills — Blake Sims and Coker — and made them winners.

With Saban’s blessing.

“There’s a misconception about him that he’s about slowing down,” Kiffin said of his stern boss. “He’s always pressing. He said in our meeting this morning, ‘Let’s make sure if we’re fortunate to get up, keep the throttle down. Go after them.'”

Nick Saban celebrates as Alabama dominated Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl. (USATSI)
Nick Saban celebrates as Alabama dominated Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl. (USATSI)

It was a winning scenario for Alabama that seemed a longshot: Put the game was in Coker’s hands. Minimize Henry. But in his past four games, Coker has completed 75 percent of his passes.

“In my eyes, I’m not shocked by it,” receiver Robert Mullaney said. “I see that every day in practice.”

Order was also restored because the SEC’s manhood (and womanhood) is back on the top shelf with the conference playing for its eighth title in 10 years. And while we’re going there, might as well mention for the third time in five years two teams from the Deep South will meet for the national championship.

Two teams from the hotbed of college football meet in the desert heat 12 days from now in Glendale, Arizona. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney vs. his alma mater. Saban vs. history. Alabama’s coach is 60 minutes away from his fifth national championship, which would put him one behind — gulp — Bear Bryant.

“We were knocked down; we were knocked out,” Kiffin said of the road back to a championship. “Were we going to sit down? It took us a full year to get back here. We want to make sure we didn’t have that feeling again.”


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