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Cotton Bowl Preview: Alabama Crimson Tide vs. Michigan State Spartans, Start Time, How to Watch

This better a be a good game — I'm cancelling New Year's plans to watch it.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

1Following their team's immolation of your team, ‘Bama fans have a natural tendency to up their already sugary southern politeness into cloying encouragement. It's as if they feel guilty for being so damn good. In walking out of the stadium where inside lies the charred remains of your team, a ‘Bama fan will spot someone sporting rival colors (exceptions being Auburn colors), sidle up to them, and throw an always seemingly-bigger-than-yours arm around your sunken shoulders. Then they'll say something silly like "Gosh almighty, I was sweating bullets until the final whistle!" (The score was 38-10.) Or something even more eye-roll inducing like "Sure am glad time ran out, otherwise ya'll would've made a run at us!" (This after their latest one-sided affair.)

It comes from a good place, but it's akin to the frighteningly fit kid in 6th grade P.E. doubling back to help the class fatty finish laps: to you it may seem like a friendly gesture, but to the rest of us it just looks like you're strutting. This anecdote is a forewarning for Michigan State fans. After it's over, do not be riled when the charming people with funky accents approach you, start massaging your shoulders and tell—despite the lopsided score—of how the Spartans almost had us! This is merely their way of coping with dominance.

I don't think Michigan State is going to win today. It might, sure: by no means is my prediction a factuality. But Michigan State appears akin to a small-town prep powerhouse: somewhat devoid of stars, but non-stop with the try-hardiness. This can work for a while. But on this level and up, these teams rarely win the whole shebang. They make for cute stories until reality comes crashing down in the form of a bulbous crimson asteroid.

2Stylistically, our participants' preferred versions of pigskin center on unremitting, headlong ball-pounding into the teeth of opposing defenses. It's a passé way of play; and seeing not one, but two (!) teams simultaneously employ this endangered strategy will be a treat. It's like watching a kakapo or something rollicking with an Amur leopard or something. Of course, the question soon becomes who can better prevent the other team from executing their moribund attack. Smart money is on Alabama. Ya'll, the Tide have stopped so many teams from running effectively this season. And some of those teams have veritable stars for running backs! Leonard Fournettes, and Nick Chubbs! Meanwhile, Michigan State features a three-headed(ish) attack(ish): true frosh LJ Scott is the main man (691 yards, 11 scores), while Gerald Holmes and Madre London (1,023 combined yards, 11 combined touchdowns) provide relief/support/whatever. So they're kind of good?

Meanwhile: Alabama's bulwark of a defense has been over here allowing seventy-damn-four rushing yards per game. 74! Siete-cuatro. Through 13 whole football games! Guarantees and sports don't generally mix well, but here's to gainful runs being at an absolute premium for the Spartans' runners this evening. Should any of those jokers come close to cracking a century figure, they should get a gold sticker or something.

3Conversely, don't count on Derrick Henry running amok in Arlington. If there's one thing MSU does almost as well as ‘Bama, it's stopping good-runners from running good. Henry's a verily good-runner, best in the States even (he won a big bronze trophy for being such: the Doak Walker Award). But although it's not seventy-damn-four, Michigan State has allowed an admirably low average of rushing yards also this season: 113. Henry and his band of blockers—fronted by the nation's best center, Ryan Kelly—have enjoyed their successes against some pretty stout defenses both talent- and numbers-wise: Wisconsin, Florida, Arkansas and LSU all reside within the top-20 of the nation's best run Ds (Ole Miss isn't far behind at no. 27). But in combining both statistics and top-end talent, Michigan State could be the best assemblage of defenders lining opposite the Tide all season, especially along the front.

I'm sure Henry will put up a respectable line—he's too damn good and strong not too—but if there's a breakout game to be had from the ‘Bama backfield on this night, it just may be from Kenyan Drake, he of über-utility.

Photo: John David Mercer -- USA TODAY Sports

4The suggestion that teams should try taking advantage of ‘Bama through the air is pretty played out. I mean, I get why folks continue to do it—how the hell else can you score on them?—but still. It's been the lone offensive tip for every opponent thus far. These aren't necessarily slouches on the back end: the Tide intercepted more passes than anyone in the SEC this season. This without mention of the pass rush: a swarm so ferocious and swift that its notched more sackings of quarterbacks than any other college football playing-team on the planet. That said, how many instances of air-testing can we cite for Alabama? I mean, yeah, one really. And they lost that game. So sure Connor Cook, drop back and see what happens. And perhaps on the receiving end of one or some of Cook's deep balls will be Aaron Burbridge, Big 10 Receiver of the Year and collector of 1,219 receiving yards on the season. Theoretically, an air raid would help immensely in securing a victory for Sparty. It's been done before, I guess.

5Earlier this week, classic American excess was manifest in the bowl gifts provided to Alabama and Michigan State players. (Of course it was in Texas.) The over-the-top haul included not one, but a pair of watches: a $400 Apple Watch, and a classic yet stylish offering from Fossil. Despite its immense functionality and luminance, the Apple Watch is still just a damn watch. You wear it on your wrist, just as you would that no frills, tick-tocking Fossil. So I ask, what was the point? Did the Cotton Bowl committee decide their best possible gift to be a rare taste in Texan-style rapacity? Are they daring players to pawn/eBay-off their swag? Should the players wear both watches simultaneously? One to talk on the phone, and one to actually tell them the time? Do they wear both on one wrist? One on each wrist? So many questions. Anyhoo, the rest of the presents were a bit more practical: an Amazon Fire stick and a backpack. Unsurprisingly, the Cotton Bowl was the only bowl choosing not to disclose its bowl gift offerings. Players spilled the news, as young people do, probably to the chagrin of embarrassed Cotton Bowl execs.

Finding out players' bowl gifts remains the best part of bowl season.

6This space is usually reserved for highlighting three separate standouts to watch. It's for good reason: it's easily digestible, and most folks just want quick hitters on stars to-be of a game (usually offensive skill guys). But today I want to shine light on like, eight players, so I figured I'd compile them all here (and also this since this is a playoff game, I figured I'd make it special). Anyway, this evening I'd like for you to focus on the fatties. Of football's many—many—hackneyed sayings, one that generally rings truest is the oft repeated "the game is won and lost in the trenches." This game here will be entirely won on the backs of someone's—again, probably Alabama's—offensive or defensive front. Skill-player talent abounds in this game, sure. But Alabama's takeaways, and Henry's Heisman, and Cook's 2K-plus passing yards have been resultant of good—no, great—play from the bigguns up front.

Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun has 10.5 sacks this season. He's really good. He faces tonight one of the best tackles he's seen all season in Cam Robinson. A few spots adjacent to that tussle will be the Rimington Winner, Kelly, doing battle with MSU's standout sophomore Malik McDowell (all 6'6 275 pounds of him). Kelly's seen some studs this year—Robert Nkemdiche immediately springs to mind—but McDowell may be the most impressive specimen he's faced to date. Michigan State's offensive line—standout Jack Conklin in particular—has done a rather serviceable job in protecting Cook and clearing space for Scott and co. to maneuver through. However. A'Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed and Darren Lake—none of which being under 300 pounds—form one of the best starting fronts to do it in recent history; the guys behind them may be the best backups to do it in recent history, also (remember, 74 yards!). You're probably used to following the ball in watching games. Tonight, follow the lard.

PREDICTION

I offered my prediction for this one something like six spots ago, but I'll reiterate here: Alabama is going to win. This isn't a novel idea: everyone is picking ‘Bama to win. But. In all the predictions I've seen, there's always a spiel on how Michigan State will keep things close. I disagree! I'm not sure this one finishes all that close. For a half it might be tight, sure. However, Alabama's defense is the real effing deal. And how Michigan State will manage to find the end zone is a mystery to me. Alabama 24, Michigan State 12