The Cotton Bowl hosts the second game of the 2015 College Football Playoffs this season on New Year’s Eve, matching up the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide and the No. 3 Michigan State Spartans in Arlington, Texas. And by the looks of things, not many are giving the Spartans much of a chance of pulling off a victory against the Tide.
In fact, according to the oddsmakers in Las Vegas (as reported by ESPN on December 31), Alabama is a 10-point favorite against Michigan State. Although Spartans fans most likely cannot see how that can be so, given that both teams have only lost a single game each, there are a few categories gaming experts look at that push Alabama into a two-score favored status.
Both teams have resided inside the top 10 most of the regular season, with Alabama losing in Week 3 in a close, high-scoring game against then undefeated Mississippi, while Michigan State went undefeated for eight consecutive games and had to fight their way back into playoff contention, rising through the ranks over the season and winning the Big Ten Championship against and undefeated Iowa to get into the second installment of the College Football Playoffs. Oddly enough, Alabama entered the top 4 (the playoffs teams) in Week 10, vaulting over that same undefeated squad, just a week before the Spartans suffered their only loss to Nebraska.
So why does Alabama have such a decided advantage among the oddsmakers? According to NCAA.com, the Crimson Tide ranks No. 2 in the nation in total defense, allowing only 252 yards per game by their opponents. In comparison, the Spartans rank at No. 23, allowing nearly 343 yards per game. And if there is an old adage that defines football, it is that “defenses win championships.”
To bolster that point: Neither Alabama (despite having the No. 1 ranked rusher and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry at running back) nor Michigan State rank in the top fifty in total offense, which means that their offenses score (the teams are ranked 33rd and 48th, respectively, in scoring offense), their defenses hold the opponents to less points (Alabama ranks third with granting just over 14 points per game; Michigan State ranks 20th, allowing their opponents to score 20.5 points per game).
Still, to counter the Alabama Crimson Tide’s rushing game, Michigan State has a passing tandem that could prove an equalizing force — quarterback Connor Cook and wide receiver Aaron Burbridge. Burbridge is ranked 15th in the nation in receiving yardage (1219 yards for the season, and 7 touchdowns), while Cook has passed for 2,921 yards and 24 touchdowns (ranked 35th overall). The key might be that he has only thrown five interceptions all season.
The Goodyear Cotton Bowl, the 78th contest in the classic game’s series, between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Michigan State Spartans kicks off at 8 p.m. (EST) on December 31 on ESPN. The winner advances to the FBS National Championship Game and will meet the winner of the 2015 Orange Bowl, which was played earlier on New Year’s Eve.