Alabama-Michigan St in CFP semifinal at Cotton Bowl

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio holds the trophy after Michigan State defeated Iowa 16-13 in the Big Ten championship NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015, in Indianapolis.


(AP) — A decade before winning three national championships at Alabama, Nick Saban was the coach at Michigan State and Mark Dantonio was one of his assistants.

Before winning bowl games the past four years, Dantonio’s first really good season as the Spartans’ head coach ended with an embarrassing bowl loss to the Crimson Tide and the coach he calls a mentor.

The programs meet again in the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Eve, this time with a national championship game berth on the line. The SEC champion Tide play Big Ten winner Michigan State in likely a bruising College Football Playoff semifinal between 12-1 teams.

“Mark has exceeded expectations of all of us in terms of what he’s done at Michigan State and certainly done a better job than I ever did there,” Saban said Sunday.

“We’re going to play on edge,” Dantonio said.

Michigan State won the Big Ten championship 16-13 over Iowa on Saturday night, and Saban was pulling for his former team and assistant while watching the epic 22-play drive that ended with freshman L.J. Scott lunging forward for a 1-yard touchdown in the final minute.

Just a few hours earlier, Derrick Henry had a staggering 44 carries for 189 yards in Alabama’s 29-15 victory over Florida in the SEC title game.

“They had a big physical back and they had a big physical offensive line, and you know, that’s the way we try to play, and that’s the way they try to play,” Saban said. “That’s the kind of football a lot of people enjoy watching.”

Saban and the Tide also get another shot at the Big Ten. Alabama is the only team that also played in the first four-team playoff last season, but lost 42-35 to eventual national champion Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl.

Saban was 34-21-1 in five seasons at Michigan State (1995-99) before going to LSU, then the NFL and to Alabama in 2007. The Spartans lost in the Independence, Sun and Aloha bowls in Saban’s first three years, but were 9-2 in his final season before he left to start his job at LSU and they then won the Citrus Bowl over Florida.

“When I was there, it was a difficult time,” said Saban, also Michigan State’s defensive coordinator for five seasons in the 1980s. “Didn’t really have the number of scholarships until the last year we were there. … We certainly had a good team that year. Probably not as good as Mark’s teams have been.”

The co-Big Ten champion Spartans lost out on a tiebreaker and didn’t get to go to the Rose Bowl in 2011. Instead, they went to the Capital One Bowl and got pounded 49-7 by Alabama.

Michigan State has won its four bowl games since, including last New Year’s Day when they overcame a 20-point deficit in the fourth quarter to beat Baylor 42-41 in their first Cotton Bowl.

Dantonio left Michigan State a year after Saban to be Ohio State’s defensive coordinator for three seasons, then was Cincinnati’s coach for three years before his nine seasons so far leading the Spartans.

“My mindset as a football coach has been shaped by the people I’ve worked for. Certainly Jim Tressel … but Nick Saban’s probably the guy too that from a defensive system certainly, and then also from just an overall football system,” Dantonio said. “He’s truly a mentor.”

Some things to know when Alabama and Michigan State play:

SORE SHOULDER: Spartans quarterback Connor Cook became the first two-time MVP of the Big Ten title game, even playing with a sore shoulder that now has time to recover. “There were times when I was a little hesitant on throws and trusting the pocket,” Cook said. “But these next few weeks are going to be huge for the progress that I’ve made over the last three weeks.”

RUNNING WILD: Henry’s 1,986 yards broke Herschel Walker’s SEC single-season mark set in 1981, and his 23 rushing TDs tied the SEC mark shared by Tim Tebow and Auburn’s Tre Mason. In the season opener in Arlington, Henry ran for 147 yards and three TDs against Wisconsin. Michigan State’s top three rushers — Scott, Gerald Holmes and Madre London — have a combined 1,614 yards and 22 TDs.

FAMILIAR SETTING: Michigan State and Alabama have already played in AT&T Stadium this year. There was the Cotton Bowl for the Spartans, and Alabama opened this season with a 35-17 victory over Wisconsin. The Tide also opened there in the 2012 season, when they won their last national title.

SMART FINALE: Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will coach the Crimson Tide throughout the playoff after being named coach of Georgia, his alma mater. Smart headed straight to Athens after the SEC championship game in Atlanta on Saturday night for a final interview.

COTTON COMEBACK: Michigan State’s comeback in the Cotton Bowl last January was the school’s biggest ever in a postseason game. The Spartans’ four-game bowl winning streak matches the longest in Big Ten history, and is the longest active streak in the FBS.

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