DALLAS (AP) So big. So strong. So talented. And so, so many.
Alabama’s defensive line is the most imposing group in college football. The Crimson Tide rolls an 11-man rotation of potential NFL prospects at opposing offenses.
”I think that’s unheard of, usually, in college football,” Michigan State center Jack Allen said Monday.
Run stuffers. Pass rushers. No. 2 Alabama has them all in abundance, from 312-pound All-American A’Shawn Robinson to 230-pound speed demon Tim Williams.
The third-ranked Spartans will counter Thursday night in the College Football Playoff’s Cotton Bowl semifinal with an offensive line that is one of the best in the country when healthy – and now it is. For Michigan State to pull the upset – doesn’t it always seem as if the Spartans are trying to pull an upset? – it will be on Allen and his crew to win a fight in which they will be significantly outnumbered.
”You look at their personnel sheet and you’ve got four starters on the defensive line and you got about eight guys listed below them that all play,” Michigan State co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. ”There’s not any of a drop off, basically.”
No team in the country has been tougher to run against this season than Alabama. The Tide lead the nation in yards allowed per game (74) and per carry (2.38). Alabama held LSU Heisman Trophy contender Leonard Fournette to 31 yards on 19 carries and Arkansas star Alex Collins to 26 yards on 12 attempts.
Once Alabama stuffs the run, they come for your quarterback. The Tide lead the nation with 46 sacks, the most of any Alabama team during Nick Saban’s nine seasons as coach. Under Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, the Crimson Tide have consistently fielded tenacious defenses, helping Alabama win three national championships. But over the last two title-less seasons, the Tide have been more vulnerable.
In the final two games of last season, Auburn and Ohio State gained nearly 1,200 yards against the Tide. Saban and Smart adjusted, tinkering with their traditional 3-4 defense to get more speed on the field and playing more of a 4-3 look with extra defensive backs.
Up front that has meant more opportunities for quick edge rushers such as Williams (9.5 sacks), Ryan Anderson (five sacks) and Denzel Devall (five tackles for loss).
”Getting faster guys on the field in those situations has helped,” Smart said. ”We’ve been able to get those guys out there, when in years past we might have had them but we didn’t get them on the field.”
And then there’s the depth.
Robinson is the star, a stout defensive end who can move inside. Jarran Reed is a similar player who lines up on the other side. The 280-pound Jonathan Allen is listed behind Robinson on the depth chart, but leads the team with 10 sacks.
The best way to sum up Alabama’s D-line depth: Da’Shawn Hand, the No. 1 recruit in the country in 2014, is the last man in the rotation. Talented players have to wait their turns.
”It’s hard to sell guys on the team is bigger than me,” Smart said. ”But when they see the production and they see the results and they see the defensive stats, they realize it’s working.”
After bowl losses to end the last two seasons, the defensive linemen agreed that an attitude adjustment was also needed for Alabama.
”Somebody has to set the tempo in practice and at the game,” Reed said. ”Everything starts up front. So that would have to be us. Everybody just started feeding off that.”
During media interviews on Monday, Robinson barely spoke above a whisper and kept his answers brief. But his teammates made it clear he speaks up plenty when it comes time to work.
”If he doesn’t like something he’s going to let it be known,” All-America linebacker Reggie Ragland said.
Much like Alabama’s defensive front was expected to lead the Tide this season, the same can be said for Michigan State’s offensive line. Allen, his little brother, Brian, who plays guard, and tackle Jack Conklin, a potential first-round NFL draft pick, figured to pave the way for a strong running game and give star quarterback Connor Cook lots of time to throw.
Injuries made a mess of that plan. Jack Allen, Conklin and right tackle Kodi Kieler all missed games. Michigan State used six starting combinations.
By the Ohio State game in late November, all were back. It made all the difference in beating the Buckeyes with Cook out injured, and then again in a rugged Big Ten championship victory against Iowa that included a 22-play game-winning drive.
Michigan State usually works in a couple of second-teamers throughout the game, but for the most part the Spartans will ride their five starters, and try to do what no other team has been able to do against Alabama’s defense this season: win the line of scrimmage.
”Confidence isn’t an issue for our team,” Jack Allen said.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP