Cotton Bowl Classic: Michigan State Spartans vs. Alabama Crimson Tide

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic: Michigan State Spartans vs. Alabama Crimson Tide

Date: Dec. 31, 4 or 8 p.m. ET on ESPN

Location: Arlington, Texas | AT&T Stadium

No. 3 Michigan State Spartans

Best moment: Michael Geiger's windmill celebration after hitting a 41-yard field goal to beat undefeated Ohio State is a vision that will be remembered in East Lansing for a long time. The Spartans’ 17-14 win in Columbus without quarterback Connor Cook was a Mark Dantonio masterpiece and removed the team’s biggest hurdle for another trip to the Big Ten title game.

Lowest moment: The Spartans had a taste of heartbreak via a last-minute touchdown at Nebraska. The Cornhuskers ruined Michigan State’s perfect season by driving 91 yards for a controversial score in the final minute. The loss didn’t end up making a difference in the long run, but it stung nonetheless.

Key player: Cook carried his team through a slew of injuries in the middle of the season before succumbing to a shoulder issue of his own. His arm, an important dimension to the Spartans' offense, should be at full strength after a couple weeks’ rest.

Motivation level: The Spartans never have trouble finding a reason to be fired up. They’ve talked all season about “reaching higher.” After beating Iowa in the Big Ten title game to earn a ticket to the College Football Playoff, the chance to do so has finally arrived. No matter what happens on New Year's Eve, it’s safe to assume motivation won’t be an issue.

-- Dan Murphy

No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide

Best moment: The game started with all the hype imaginable. But as soon as the ball was kicked off, Alabama took complete control on the road at then-No. 8 Georgia. The Crimson Tide defense was stifling, limiting Georgia running back Nick Chubb to 63 yards until a long touchdown run in garbage time. The Alabama offense, meanwhile, came into its own with Jake Coker settling in at quarterback and running back Derrick Henry officially entering the Heisman race with 148 yards rushing. The 28-point win showed Alabama was back and arguably began the process of Mark Richt’s dismissal at Georgia.

Lowest moment: The pass literally bounced off a player’s head, settled into an opponent’s hands and ended in a trip to the end zone for Ole Miss. One wacky touchdown and five turnovers nearly derailed Alabama’s season when it lost by one touchdown at home to the Rebels in September. The Tide defense gave up 430 yards and 43 points, and the offense was out of sorts all night, undoing its 503 total yards with three interceptions.

Key player: Outside of a quarterback, is there a player more important to his team’s success than Henry? Where would Alabama be without him? The offense would certainly be a mess. His primary backup, Kenyan Drake, is injured. His second and third backups are freshmen. His quarterback isn’t a world-beater and his offensive line has been inconsistent. Yet the junior from Yulee, Florida, has earned the tag of the Heisman frontrunner with four 200-yard rushing games and a school-record 22 rushing touchdowns.

Motivation level: For some reason, people forget that Alabama won the SEC title last season. During the offseason, all we heard was how the Tide had gone two years without a national title. After losing to Ole Miss earlier this season, we heard how Nick Saban’s dynasty might be dead. And if you think for a minute the players didn’t hear that, you’re wrong. This team has a chip on its shoulder and is eager to prove it belongs back on top of all of college football.

-- Alex Scarborough