A good defense alone isn’t going to cut it.
Neither is relying solely on a quality running game.
If you can’t move the ball through the air against Alabama, you’re toast.
Just ask Georgia, LSU and Florida how their one-dimensional offenses fared. Texas A&M only had nominal success passing after Kyle Allen threw a few interceptions and the game was out of reach.
You want to beat Alabama? Look at what Chad Kelly did earlier this season. Go back to years past and look at Cardale Jones, Bo Wallace, Nick Marshall and Trevor Knight. They hold the key.
Taking down Alabama comes down to getting a great performance out of your quarterback. And the good news for Michigan State is they have one of the best passers in the Big Ten.
Connor Cook might not have looked sharp down the stretch this season, but he wasn’t himself. With the long layoff between the regular season and the playoff -- the Spartans face Alabama on Dec. 31 in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic -- he’s had time to recover from an injured shoulder and rediscover what made him one of the top NFL quarterback prospects in all of college football at the start of the year.
If anyone can test Alabama’s defense, it’s the winner of the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm award.
“This might be arguably the best quarterback that we play against all year long,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said of Cook, who has thrown for 2,921 yards, 24 touchdowns and five interceptions.
Said Crimson Tide middle linebacker Reggie Ragland: “He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the country. You’re not going to rush him. He’s going to do what he has to do and get the ball to his playmakers.”
But rush him Alabama must. Putting its DBs on an island against a quarterback with Cook’s arm strength is a recipe for disaster. Because if there’s one place the defense is susceptible, it’s the deep ball.
Alabama’s 38 completions allowed of 20-plus yards ranks a paltry 66th nationally. Granted, it's tied for the 15th-fewest passing touchdowns allowed, but 13 scores through the air is much better than the FBS-best six the Tide has allowed rushing.
Michigan State co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner sounds focused on the task at hand. “We feel going in that we need to throw the football down the field," he said, "and we need to have success doing so.
"It's very important,” Warner added. “I think it's no different than most of our other games. I think we go into about every game realizing that some people, if we are not able to throw the ball, have to stack the box. If we're not successful at that, I think it makes for a long day.”
While MSU coach Mark Dantonio said, “You have to be able to throw the football in this day and age,” he backed that up with the idea that, “We can’t become something we’re not.”
In other words, Dantonio understands that offensive balance is a priority. Becoming a fun-and-gun outfit overnight isn’t going to happen, no matter how stout Alabama looks against the run.
But committing to the run and winning with it are two different things.
Winning, in all likelihood, will require Cook’s right arm to do the heavy lifting.
He’ll have to evade a defensive line that’s had more sacks than any in college football, and he’ll have to avoid being careless against a secondary that ranks in the top 20 in interceptions. But if he can do that and move the ball downfield, he’ll give Michigan State a chance at taking down Alabama and advancing in the playoff.
Anything less than a great performance will send Sparty packing.