staff, December 31, 2015

The summit of college football is within sight for Michigan State: The national title.

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The program claims six championships, three of which are consensus titles after being declared the national champion by the AP and Coaches' Poll in 1952, the Coaches' Poll in 1965, and the National Football Foundation in 1966.

To add to that collection of hardware, Michigan State first must beat Alabama tonight in the Cotton Bowl in one of two playoff games. Beat the Crimson Tide, and the Spartans will take on the winner of the Clemson-Oklahoma Orange Bowl in the national title game.

Here are five keys for Michigan State beating Alabama.

1. Throw deep. The Spartans will be facing perhaps the nation's top front seven. The Bama defense is No. 1 in the nation vs. the run (74.0 ypg) as opponents average 2.4 yards per carry and have just six rushing TDs. So, rushing yards could be tough to come by. To loosen that defense, MSU QB Connor Cook needs to hit some passes down field. And, he may have some success vs. a Tide secondary that is the most vulnerable aspect of the Alabama defense. We all know he has the arm and the accuracy. Will he have the time?

2. Slow Derrick Henry. Easier said than done, right? Has anyone done it yet? The Alabama Heisman winner paces the nation with 1,986 rushing yards for a Bama rushing game that is No. 28 in the nation (208.2 ypg). But have a little faith as Michigan State has a salty front seven that backstops a defense that is No. 9 in the nation vs. the run (113.1 ypg). The 6-3, 242-pound Henry is a battering ram who wears down defenses. MSU must stay disciplined and wrap up, because Bama is going to keep feeding the ball to Henry even if he gets off to a slow start.

3. Make Jake Coker win the game. The Alabama signal-caller is good, but he isn't special. If Michigan State can put the game in his hands (to do that, see above) the Spartans will have a strong chance for victory. If Coker has to throw the ball more than 25 times, the chances for a Michigan State victor will rise despite a Spartans secondary that is vulnerable.

4. Get a lead. Every team wants to play with the lead. It's logical. "Thanks, Tom, for pointing out the obvious," you say. I hear that all the time. But here's why it's especially critical tonight: When you have the lead, you can typically dictate more easily what it is you want to do on offense. But getting a lead let's allow Michigan State to stay committed to running the ball. If the Spartans get too one-dimensional (pass, pass, pass), they probably get into trouble with negative plays (sacks, turnovers). And that would be ruinous.

5. Unconventional TD. The Spartans probably will need to score one to pull the upset vs. Alabama. When the game is over, come back and see if I was right. Can the defense come up with a pick six? How about a punt or kickoff return for a TD? Michigan State's best hope is for a defensive score as the Spartans' return game has lacked an explosive element.