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By Jessica Wimsatt | @Jessica_Wimsatt

Sports Capital Journalism Program

DALLAS — On the first day of 2015, Alabama lost a chance to play for the inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship when the Crimson Tide lost to Ohio State. At AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, 364 days later, the Tide will have that same chance.

Photo courtesy College Football Playoff

Photo courtesy College Football Playoff

A win over Michigan State in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl on Dec. 31, and Alabama would advance for a chance to win a championship at Glendale, Arizona, on Jan. 11. But with the loss to the Buckeyes still lingering in their minds nearly a year later, the Crimson Tide enter this week with one goal in mind.

“Last year, in the last couple years actually, we didn’t finish,” Alabama senior linebacker Reggie Ragland said on Monday, “and this year we’ve got to finish.”

Ragland isn’t alone in focusing on finishing. On Monday, every Alabama player available to the media pointed to finishing as one of this week’s main goals.

“For the past two years, we never finished,” senior linebacker Denzel Devall said, “and we preach a lot this year on finishing the season right.”

Senior defensive lineman Jarran Reed echoed the theme. “Last year,” Reed recalled, “it just left us with a bad taste in our mouth.”

The Crimson Tide hope to get rid of that sensation with a Cotton Bowl win. Since the 43-37 loss to Ole Miss on Sept. 19 that threatened their championship hopes, the Tide allowed more than 16 points just once – the 41-23 victory at Texas A&M. Alabama’s ability to finish on Thursday starts with defense and its ability to limit Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook.

“We’re not going to put a defense out there now that Connor Cook hasn’t seen,” said Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who will soon conclude his final season with the Crimson Tide before becoming the head coach at the University of Georgia.

Cook, who has faced tough Big Ten defenses all year, leads an offense that has had success this season wearing down defenses and winning close games.

“He’s a playmaker for them,” Ragland said of Cook, “so it’s all about the big guys up front getting to them and trying to ram him.”

Those big guys include a handful of defensive lineman who are good at doing just that. Alabama’s front seven led an effort that produced a SEC-best average of 3.54 sacks per game, a number higher than any Alabama team in Saban’s nine seasons in Tuscaloosa.

“I think they’re everything you want in a D-line,” Cook said about the defensive line he will face. “The talent is there. Everyone sees that. They’ve got the size. They’ve got the speed, athleticism, everything you want.”

That combination has led to Alabama’s defense being referred to as one resembling an NFL defense at least twice this week. It also makes for a tricky scouting report for the Spartan offense.

“We’ve looked at everything and tried to find ways to exploit Alabama,” said MSU co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner. “And I’m not sure we found any.”

The Crimson Tide defense has been successful in stopping some of the best offenses this season, forcing 24 turnovers, the second most in the SEC.

Alabama’s defensive line deflected 16 passes this season, a figure that is tied for second in the nation. “I call them savages,” Alabama junior defensive back Eddie Jackson said, and smiled. “They’re like a bunch of caged animals.”

Junior defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson laughed and questioned the description, but he admitted that bringing energy and aggression are keys to the unit’s success.

“They’re jumping around,” Jackson added. “They’re hyped. They’re pumped. Just watching those guys go out there and do what they do, it really affects you to come out with your A game and play your best.”

The defensive line—and the entire Alabama defense—will certainly need to play its best against Michigan State’s high-powered offense.

On Monday, Ragland was asked if a victory on Thursday would restore pride in the Southeastern Conference. While Ragland quickly discounted that notion, it was something else in his response that showed just how focused he is on finishing this season.

“We’re two teams trying to win a championship,” he said, then stopped as Robinson mumbled something to him under his breath. Ragland smirked, then turned to Robinson. “Man, trying to win a championship,” he said with a sneer.

“You know what I mean, trying to win a championship,” Ragland repeated, this time facing the media and leaning into the microphone to make sure his point was heard.

Ragland wants to finish in practice this week. He wants to finish on Thursday night. He wants to finish the season the way an Alabama season is expected to end.

As for that championship? Ragland — and the rest of the Crimson Tide — will need to stay focused on finishing if they want to get that chance.