NCF Nation: 2011 Capital One Bowl preview

Alabama looks to make it three 10-win seasons in a row when it goes up against Michigan State on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET on ESPN.

Here’s a quick preview of the Capital One Bowl:

WHO TO WATCH: If this is indeed Mark Ingram’s final game in an Alabama uniform, you know he wants to go out with a bang against the team he grew up pulling for. After stampeding his way to the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore, Ingram was slowed by a knee injury to start this season and never really got untracked. Defenses loaded up against the Crimson Tide’s running game, and Ingram has been held to fewer than 100 yards rushing in eight straight games. A year ago, he had nine 100-yard games. Despite missing the first two games of the season, Ingram still wound up with 816 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in 10 games. He also averaged 5.6 yards per carry. In short, he’s due a big game, and that may be bad news for the Spartans.

WHAT TO WATCH: Michigan State will be without its top receiver, B.J. Cunningham, who broke his foot during the pre-Christmas practices. The Spartans still plan to take their shots against an Alabama pass defense that was inconsistent this season and a secondary that will be without all-SEC safety Mark Barron. It wasn’t just the inexperience in the secondary that plagued Alabama, either. The Crimson Tide also had trouble getting to the quarterback at times. They did intercept an SEC-high 21 passes and will no doubt show Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins a lot of different looks, not to mention some new blitz schemes. Alabama has been rock-solid against the run all season. If the Spartans don’t have some success throwing the ball, they’re going to have a hard time winning this game.

WHY WATCH: Michigan State, which won a share of the Big Ten championship but was left out of the BCS bowl equation, says it’s treating this as a BCS bowl with the opponent being Alabama and the Crimson Tide coming off a national championship a year ago. How motivated is Alabama to be here after having much higher expectations to start the season? We’re going to find out, because the Spartans see this as a chance to really put a stamp on their season and make a statement nationally.

PREDICTION: Alabama 30, Michigan State 14. This should be the healthiest Alabama has been offensively in a while. Having its starting offensive line back intact is a huge plus, and both Ingram and Trent Richardson should be close to 100 percent. Alabama coach Nick Saban has been pushing for a 60-minute game from this team. He’ll finally get it in the last game of the season.
Let's take a quick look at the featured non-BCS bowl of New Year's Day, as co-Big Ten champion Michigan State takes on defending national champion Alabama.

WHO TO WATCH: Michigan State linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon. Few linebacker tandems in Big Ten history have been as productive as Jones and Gordon, who have combined for 784 career tackles. The pair will be tested by Alabama standout running backs Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. Michigan State needs sound tackling and good angles from Nos. 53 and 43 to contain the Tide ground game.

WHAT TO WATCH: The Spartans' improved secondary against Alabama's receivers. Arguably no position group in the Big Ten made a bigger one-year turnaround than Michigan State's secondary, which helped the Spartans tie for 11th nationally in interceptions with 17. Michigan State's defensive backs will be tested by Alabama star wideout Julio Jones and solid No. 2 option Marquis Maze. Big plays from the secondary have fueled the Spartans' success this season, and Michigan State needs more of them in the bowl game.

WHY TO WATCH: There are plenty of reasons, including Alabama coach Nick Saban going up against his former team and his former assistant in Mark Dantonio. As Dantonio told me earlier this week, this is the chance for Michigan State to "measure up" to an elite opponent after getting snubbed from a BCS bowl. The Spartans have upgraded their program in recent years, but they're 0-3 in bowl games under Dantonio. This game provides an excellent opportunity to cap a special season.

PREDICTION: Alabama 27, Michigan State 23. I'm curious to see how motivated Alabama will be for the game, but the Tide still boast a bunch of talent on both sides of the ball. Michigan State will be ready and certainly could pull off the win, but Alabama's offense boasts too many weapons. It'll be close and entertaining, but Saban and the Tide win.

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