Tom Dienhart Rivals.com College Football Senior Writer
Coming off a 2009 national championship, Alabama opened the season as a consensus No. 1 team.
But the Crimson Tide (9-3) is ending the season in Saturday's Capital One Bowl, capping a disappointing year for a program that had gone 26-2 in the previous two seasons.
While the Crimson Tide may be disappointed to be here, Michigan State should be thrilled. Yes, at 11-1 and as tri-Big Ten champs, the Spartans may have deserved a BCS bowl bid. But to be playing on New Year's Day has to be a surprise for a program coming off a 6-7 season.
Michigan State is making its fourth consecutive bowl appearance, which ties the longest bowl streak in school history. This is Alabama's 58th bowl appearance, an ongoing NCAA record, but its first-ever meeting with Michigan State. The schools have a contract for a two-game series in 2016 and '17.
WHO GETS THE EDGE?
Alabama rush offense vs. Michigan State rush defense: The Tide can be bullish on foes with the 1-2 punch of Mark Ingram (816 yards rushing) and Trent Richardson (658). The Spartans have been tough against the run, allowing only 121.9 yards per game to rank 21st in the nation. Credit LB Greg Jones, an All-America who makes plays all over the field. Sidekick Eric Gordon is stellar, too. Edge: Alabama.
WHEN: Jan. 1, 1 p.m
WHERE: Florida Citrus Bowl, Orlando.
TV:ESPN (Brad Nessler will do play-by-play, with Todd Blackledge as the analyst).
THE LINE: Alabama by 10.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Alabama 5-3, Michigan State 6-1.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Alabama T-19th, Michigan State 44th.
BCS RANKINGS: Alabama 16th, Michigan State 9th.
OFFICIATING CREW: From the Big 12.
COACHES: Alabama - Nick Saban (5-6 in bowls); Michigan State - Mark Dantonio (1-3 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: Both teams are a bit miffed they're in this game. Alabama expected much more from this season, and Michigan State -- as a tri-champ in the Big Ten -- thought it deserved a BCS bid. Alabama coach Nick Saban was Michigan State's head man from 1995-99, forging a 34-24-1 record and four bowl invitations. Saban would have coached the Spartans in this bowl after the 1999 season, but he left to take the LSU job and assistant Bobby Williams led Michigan State to victory over Florida in what was then called the Citrus Bowl. Another interesting story line: Spartans coach Mark Dantonio was Saban's secondary coach at Michigan State.
KEY STATS: Alabama averages 34.6 points; Michigan State averages 31.3. Whichever team's offense can get on track fastest figures to win in this battle of defense-minded coaches.
Alabama pass offense vs. Michigan State pass defense: QB Greg McElroy suffered a concussion in the Iron Bowl but is expected back. He lacks flash but is efficient, hitting 70.6 percent of his passes with 19 touchdowns and just five picks. McElroy also has a big-time wide receiver in Julio Jones, and Ingram and Richardson are excellent receivers out of the backfield. Stopping the pass has been an issue for Michigan State. While the Spartans rank second in the Big Ten with 17 interceptions and have standouts in CBs Chris L. Rucker and Johnny Adams, they have allowed 18 TD passes and give up 215.8 passing yards per game, which ranks 57th nationally. Edge: Alabama.
Michigan State rush offense vs. Alabama rush defense: The Spartans have a solid duo at running back in Edwin Baker (1,187 yards) and Le'Veon Bell (592), and they run behind a line led by T D.J. Young and G Joel Foreman. Still, this isn't an overly productive rushing team (No. 40 in the nation), and running room could be sparse against a tough and athletic Alabama front seven. The Tide rank No. 22 in the nation against the run (123.3 ypg). Edge: Alabama.
Michigan State pass offense vs. Alabama pass defense: In recent seasons, the Spartans have come to rely more on the pass. That has been easy to do with QB Kirk Cousins, who is underrated nationally. He has completed 67.5 percent of his passes, for 2,705 yards, 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He has good targets in Mark Dell and Keshawn Martin, but leading receiver B.J. Cunningham (50 catches, a team-leading nine TDs) will miss the game after breaking a foot in bowl practice. Alabama's pass defense ranks No. 12 in the country (172.7 ypg) and has 21 interceptions. But the unit will miss SS Mark Barron, who is out after tearing a pectoral muscle in the loss to Auburn. In the Tide's three losses, the cornerbacks were shaky. Edge: Michigan State.
Alabama special teams vs. Michigan State special teams: This is a major area of strength for the Spartans. K Dan Conroy is an all-league player who has hit 14 of 15 field-goal attempts, with a long of 50 yards. P Aaron Bates is one of the nation's best, averaging 45.2 yards per boot. Martin can go the distance on kickoff and punt returns. The coverage units have been OK. Marquis Maze (punts) and Richardson (kickoffs) are good return men for Alabama, but the Tide's kickers (Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster) and punter (Cody Mandell) can't match Michigan State's duo. Alabama's punt coverage has been good, but the kickoff coverage has been spotty. Edge: Michigan State.
Alabama coaches vs. Michigan State coaches: Alabama's staff is loaded with some of the game's brightest minds, including offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and offensive line coach Joe Pendry. Dantonio is a solid coach and has a future head coach in offensive coordinator Don Treadwell, who ably assumed command when Dantonio missed time this fall after suffering a heart attack. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is another top assistant. Edge: Alabama.
X-factor: Does either team want to be here? Michigan State feels it deserved a BCS spot after winning a share of its first Big Ten crown since 1990. Alabama's season began with BCS title hopes but crashed into a three-loss disappointment that included a 2-2 record in November. It's a similar scenario to the 2008 season for Alabama, when the Crimson Tide lost a shot at the national title with a loss in the SEC title game and subsequently looked uninterested in a Sugar Bowl loss to Utah.
Michigan State will win if: The Spartans have to be able to run the ball, and the Spartans have the running backs to get it done. It's important that the Spartans keep a strong Tide defense off-balance.
Alabama will win if: If McElroy is clicking with Jones, that will spread the field for Ingram and Richardson. The McElroy-Jones duo developed great chemistry this season, with Jones grabbing 75 passes for 1,084 yards and seven touchdowns.
Olin Buchanan: Alabama 31, Michigan State 21
Tom Dienhart: Alabama 32, Michigan State 24
David Fox: Alabama 24, Michigan State 21
Mike Huguenin: Alabama 27, Michigan State 23
Steve Megargee: Alabama 27, Michigan State 20