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Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic preview: No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 Michigan State

It’s game day: No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Michigan State battle in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic at 8 p.m. ET.

By the time Dallas is ready to sing "Auld Lang Syne," one of these two teams will be bound for the national championship game. Who will it be? ESPN.com’s Alex Scarborough and Dan Murphy discuss:

How Alabama wins: Run, run, run. Then hit them with the play-action pass. That’s the formula for Alabama’s offense. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin must commit to giving Derrick Henry the football early, drawing in the Michigan State secondary, which will open up the option for Jake Coker to fake the handoff and find Calvin Ridley over the top.

That said, getting other players involved is a must in a game of this magnitude and given the time Michigan State’s staff has had to prepare. Kenyan Drake could be a nice change-of-pace back, ArDarius Stewart could get some yards after the catch and there’s always the threat of O.J. Howard to come out of hiding after a career marked by so many games where his number wasn’t called.

On defense, the game plan is just as straightforward: Have the front seven shut down the Michigan State running game and commit the secondary to guarding against the deep ball. Connor Cook can make all the throws, and there’s no coverage he hasn’t seen before as Michigan State’s starting quarterback of three years. So getting pressure with just four rushers is key. Alabama leads the country in sacks and will need a handful more to make sure Cook doesn’t expose a secondary that’s average in stopping anything over their heads. -- A.S.

How Michigan State wins: The Spartans need to keep their offense on the field. Since losing to Ole Miss in September, Alabama has forced more three-and-outs than any other team in the country. Michigan State doesn’t need to score every time it touches the ball -- and 22-play drives like the one the Spartans ground out to beat Iowa in the Big Ten championship game will be hard to come by -- but picking up a couple of first downs on each drive gives the defense a chance to catch its breath and brace itself for another round with Henry, the Heisman Trophy winner. If Henry has a chance to work up a lather with 20 carries in the first half, he’ll be hard to hang with late in the game.

So how do the Spartans go about picking up these first downs? Avoid going backward when rushing the ball against the Crimson Tide’s defensive front, and give Cook enough time on third down to make accurate throws down the field. The game plan isn’t all that different from what Kiffin wants to do with the Tide on offense: Pound the ball, then try a couple shots over the top to senior wide receiver Aaron Burbridge.

If Cook can create a couple of big plays and the Spartans get themselves in a close game as the clock is winding down, you have to like their chances. Mark Dantonio & Co. have proven many times this season that they know how to win close games. – D.M.

Key matchups

Riley Bullough/Jon Reschke vs. Henry: Bullough sent the initial tweet saying how excited he was to face Henry. Reschke followed, saying he couldn’t wait either. Well, now they have their chance, and how they fare could be the difference in the game. Corralling Henry and forcing the game into Coker’s hands would be the best possible scenario for Michigan State. If Henry runs wild, on the other hand, it will be a long night. -- A.S.

The two baddest beards in Dallas will get a chance to clash Thursday night. Michigan State center Jack Allen and Alabama defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson are the leaders of their respective units, both of which have been dominant when healthy this season. If Robinson and his stud-filled defensive line have their way in the trenches, it could spell trouble for the running game and Cook, who may still be battling through some pain in his shoulder. The Spartans' front is lined with future pros as well, though, so they could give the Tide a stiff test. – D.M.

​X factor

Connor Cook, meet Tim Williams. He’ll be the blur coming after you on every third-and-long. Williams, a junior hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end, is Alabama’s best pure pass-rusher, and he could be the key in keeping Cook from having a clean pocket. -- A.S.

It wouldn’t be a true Big Ten game if the fullback doesn’t make an appearance. Michigan State senior Trevon Pendleton has a history of showing up big on the biggest stages. He can easily get lost in the shuffle when covering the Spartans’ passing attack, and one big play could make a big difference. Pendleton will also spend time trying to pry open some creases in Alabama’s nation-leading rush defense. – D.M.

Final prediction

With the long layoff, who knows? This game could go any number of ways, but the most likely scenario sees Alabama starting slow, the game tied in the single digits at halftime, and then the Tide start to roll thanks to a few long runs by Henry. Cook, without his arm at 100 percent, won’t have enough in the end as Sparty falls 24-13. -- A.S.

Alabama will be the bigger, stronger team, but Michigan State is capable of taking a few punches to the jaw and holding its ground. A heavy dose of Henry will helped the Tide build a safe lead. Cook will lead a fourth-quarter comeback, but the Tide offense will be able to kill enough clock in the closing minutes to hang on for a 30-28 win. – D.M.