ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Alabama rolled into the Cotton Bowl determined to wipe away the memories of last season’s College Football Playoff flop and it was no contest.
Jake Coker played the game of his career, hooking up with Calvin Ridley for two touchdowns, as the second-ranked Crimson Tide aired it out to beat No. 3 Michigan State 38-0 Thursday night and advance to the national championship game.
“I think last year when we came to this game I think we were just happy to be in the game,” coach Nick Saban said. “This year we wanted to take the game.”
Alabama (13-1) will face No. 1 Clemson (14-0) on Jan. 11 in Arizona looking for its fourth national title in nine seasons under coach Nick Saban.
“Just got to keep the focus we had in preparation for this game,” Coker said.
The Tide looked like a team with no weaknesses against overmatched Michigan State (12-2). Coker, the promising Florida State transfer who sat the bench most of last season, was nearly perfect. The senior completed 25 for 30 for a career-best 286 yards. The freshman Ridley was brilliant, streaking by defenders on deep throws and outfighting them on jump balls. He caught eight passes for 138 yards.
Jonathan Allen and the ferocious Tide defensive front sacked Connor Cook four times and allowed the Spartans only one trip into the red zone — which ended with Cyrus Jones intercepting a pass at the goal line.
Jones added a high-stepping 57-yard punt return touchdown for the Tide, which hardly even had to use Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry. The big tailback who has carried the Crimson Tide offense most of the season was just a role player against a Spartans defense stacked to stop him. He ran for 75 yards and scored two touchdowns. The last made it 38-0 halfway through the fourth quarter. The celebration at that point was pretty tame on the Alabama sideline. Henry got a chest bump from a lineman and some pats on the helmet before taking a seat next to a fan to cool off.
He was done for the day as if it was a September game against one of those nonconference cupcakes.
The ‘Bama fans were having fun, though, breaking out the “S-E-C!” chant and singing along to “Sweet Home Alabama” with that familiar “Roll Tide Roll!” AT&T Stadium in North Texas — where Alabama started its season by blowing out a Big Ten team (Wisconsin) — had turned into Tuscaloosa west.
“This is a special team that I couldn’t be prouder of,” Coker said.
The only team to make to the College Football Playoff each of its first two seasons will be playing in the final for the first time,
Last season the Crimson Tide couldn’t get past the semifinals, upset by Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl. Heading into another game as a big favorite against the Big Ten champions, the Tide players said all week that the focus was better and their attitude more serious.
They talked about how some players were too concerned about where they would be drafted or partying on Bourbon Street last season. In chilly Dallas there was nothing to do but practice and that was fine by them.
“This is no surprise,” Allen said. “We had great practices every day. We worked our butts off and this is what you get when you work hard.”
Michigan State embraced its role as the underdog and came in expecting to slug it out with the Tide and it smothering defense and hammering Heisman winner. The Spartans offensive line watched video of the 1971 Ali-Frazier fight to prepare for what it expected to be a 15-round heavyweight bout.
Instead it was a knockout.
“If we lost by five points they might be saying some nice things about you, but we wouldn’t feel any better,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said.
The Tide came out trying to loosen up a Michigan State defense that typically sells out to stop the run. Coker threw quick and short to the outside and Henry didn’t touch the ball on Alabama’s first drive and got it twice for seven yards on its second.
The first quarter was nothing but punts.
Alabama finally broke through by going not to Henry but to Ridley, who has stepped into Amari Cooper’s role this season and played a lot like the former All-American. Coker threw a perfect deep ball to Ridley for 50 yards to the 1. Running behind defensive linemen A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed, Henry punched it in for his SEC-record breaking 24th touchdown, and with 5:36 left in the first half it was 7-0 Tide.
It felt like more.
Adam Griffith’s 47-yard field goal made it 10-0.
Michigan State put its only threat of the first half together on its last drive. Finally getting some time, Cook made a couple of beautiful throws to get the Spartans down to the Alabama 12. Michigan State’s chance to go into the half with something positive was snatched by Jones. The Alabama cornerback picked off Cook at the goal line, grabbing a throw that was too low to reach Aaron Burbridge, who had a step in the end zone.