Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, December 31, 2015

Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports
Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

How do you beat Alabama? It hasn't happened very often on Nick Saban?s watch. In fact, the Crimson Tide has lost just seven times since 2011, including that one time against Ohio State last season. So that?s the order of the day for Michigan State: Topple the Tide.

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I talked off the record to some assistant football coaches who stared down Alabama this season to get their insights into how to beat-or at least try to beat -college football?s 10,000-pound gorilla.

Earlier, I gave my five keys to a Michigan State win over Alabama. Now, read in their own words what these coaches told me about Alabama on both sides of the ball.

OFFENSE: How to attack the Alabama offense

It?s no secret what they?re going to do. You have to try to slow down Derrick Henry. He is going to get his yards. Michigan State is built to stop a good ground attack or at least slow it down. Can you slow it down for entire day? I don?t know. You need to be as sound as you can for a 60-minute game because all Henry needs is a little crease to take one the distance. He has proven that all season. They will feed him. They don?t mind giving him the ball 40-plus times if that?s what it takes. Where it become dangerous is you put all those guys in the box to slow down Henry, they have some wideouts in the passing game who can hurt you deep.

(QB Jake) Coker throwing the ball is not their strong suit. But they have gotten better passing the ball as they year has gone on. It?s not just (Calvin) Ridley who is going to provide a big play in the passing game. They have others, too. It has taken them the better part of the season to emerge passing the ball. The other running back broke arm, No. 17 (Kenyan Drake), he is a different type of runner. They will flex him out at times in the slot and they give him the ball on a reverse. Defenses just want to lock into Henry, and you have to do that, but they have some other weapons. It?s just a matter of when they are going to go to those weapons.

Their strength is their persistence. They do a great job of playing team ball. They know they have an outstanding defense. They know that they are going to grind you down on defense. They do a great job of playing great defense on offense, if that makes sense. They grind you down. There are two things they are trying to accomplish. They want to pound you, grind you down with Henry. And they want to hit the explosive play. Calvin Ridley gives them the ability to make explosive things happen down the field.

What will help Michigan State is that Coker isn?t a dual-threat guy. He doesn?t scare you tucking and running it. Michigan State is built to attack what Alabama does best. But you aren?t going to wear down Henry. And I don?t think Michigan State will wear down, either. But do you have enough at the end of the day? The Bama passing game has gotten better but I still wouldn?t call it a strength.

If you can turn them into a drop-back throwing team, it would be a question of if they could operate. But that is so much easier said than done. Coker hasn?t had to prove if he?s a good quarterback.

You have to go back to the Ole Miss game (Alabama lost, 43-37) as a recipe to beat Alabama. You have to come up with turnovers. Ole Miss forced Alabama into turning over the ball. How do you do that? You force their offense into some bad decisions. And you need to steal a possession on special teams. Florida hurt them with a punt return for a score (in the SEC title game). Maybe you can block a kick. You need to steal a possession or get a score that way.

And remember in that Ole Miss game, Coker didn?t start. They started the other guy (Cooper Bateman). They weren?t sure what they were doing. Then they fell behind. There were crazy special teams, turnovers, they fumbled a kickoff, they fumbled a punt, I think. Ole Miss got some short fields to work with. Plus, Ole Miss created some fluky plays on them. The key to that game was they got ahead early. That put pressure on Alabama?s offense to have to score to compete. Alabama has played some low-scoring games, but there never has been that separation on the scoreboard where they ever trailed by much if at all. They never really had to come out of their shell and try to make things happen on offense.

DEFENSE: How to attack the Alabama defense

They always have been pretty salty at stopping the run. I think Saban has come out and said this is his best front that he has had. The thing they do better than they have in the past is get to the quarterback. I think they lead the country in sacks. They always have had big, stout defensive linemen to go along with a linebacking crew that can stop the run. What is different about them is now they are equally adept at getting to the quarterback. And it?s not just one or two guys. They have a bunch of guys who have four or more sacks. Pick your poison that way. They are deep. They will roll eight to 10 guys up front. When a guy gets nicked up, someone equal or better comes in.

I like the linebackers. (Reggie) Ragland is good and so is the other inside backer. When your front is that good at stopping the run and getting to the quarterback, it helps the secondary. They don?t have that big, physical safety that they have had in the past. They have more cover guys. But how rarely are their safeties having to get down into the box and make plays? I don?t think nearly as much as in years past because the front seven is doing such a good job.

Alabama always has been big and hard to run on. But they have recruited more speed up front, more pass-rush specialists up front. So they can get pressure with four guys now better than they ever have done since Saban has been there. They are going to play the same matchup coverages that they have played for years. It will take some time for some routes to open, and that?s where their pass rush can get you and feasted on quarterbacks.

You have to make plays down the field. To do that, you have to protect your quarterback. People have been able to move the ball on Alabama, but you have to be able to punch the ball in when you are in the red zone. That is hard to do. That has been an issue for their offense, too. They have had some issues scoring touchdowns in the red zone. If you can keep them from being explosive, the team that wins in the red zone probably will win.

I think Michigan State matches up as well as you can and (Connor) Cook can do some things against them. I think they will play well vs. Henry early on. But Alabama is all about persistence. They don?t panic if they don?t score early on. An X-factor for them is Cyrus Jones returning punts. He is very dangerous and can break open a close game.