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When Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio suffered a mild heart attack in September, Nick Saban called his former assistant to wish him a speedy recovery.

The close friends will face each other for the first time when the No. 7 Spartans take on 15th-ranked Alabama in the Capital One Bowl at Orlando, Fla., on New Year's Day.

Dantonio served as Saban's assistant at Michigan State from 1995-99 until Saban left for LSU, and they have remained close through the years. Dantonio said his time as an assistant gave him the chance to coach the Spartans, and he credits Saban for making him part of the Michigan State program.

"Coach Saban really has been probably my biggest mentor as a coach," Dantonio said. "When I had the opportunity to come here - and I probably sit here now as a head football coach because of him bringing me here - I'm very, very appreciative of that and all the time I spent five years with him."

Saban went 0-3 in bowl games at Michigan State, and he resigned before the team's Citrus Bowl victory after guiding the Spartans to a 9-2 record in his final season. Current Alabama assistant Bobby Williams, who succeeded Saban as head coach, led Michigan State to a 37-34 win against Florida.

"(Dantonio) has done a fabulous job with his team and what they have accomplished this year and how he has built the program back to national prominence," Saban said. "I never really look forward to competing against my friends but this is a great opportunity for our team."

A share of its first conference championship in 20 years and a school record for wins didn't help Michigan State (11-1) earn the program's first BCS invitation, finishing behind fellow Big Ten champions Ohio State and Wisconsin.

The Spartans feel a matchup with the preseason No. 1 and 2009 national champion Crimson Tide will be a good measuring stick in determining if they were worthy of competing at that level.

"They are a football team who has lost two of their three games by four points total," Dantonio said. "So when you look at BCS-type teams and the teams we would have played had we gotten the opportunity to go to a BCS (game), I don't think we could have picked a better team than Alabama."

The matchup, however, doesn't seem to favor the Spartans on paper, and their task got a little more difficult now that leading receiver B.J. Cunningham is out after breaking his foot in practice Dec. 18.

Cunningham led the team with 50 receptions for 611 yards and nine touchdowns. Michigan State does have other options, though. Mark Dell caught 49 passes for 761 yards, and Keshawn Martin added 29 catches.

The Crimson Tide (9-3) led the SEC giving up 14.1 points and 296.0 yards per game. Alabama also forced 21 interceptions, and Michigan State's Kirk Cousins has thrown five of them in his last four games.

Running back Edwin Baker ranked third in the Big Ten with 1,187 yards, but the Crimson Tide's rush defense allowed 33.9 per game.

"We feel, although we're not in a BCS bowl, that we're playing in a BCS-type game because of the quality of the season that we put together and the quality of the season that Alabama's put together," Cousins said. "We feel like this is a BCS-type bowl game."

Spartans senior linebacker Greg Jones is the only AP first-team All-American on either team and is the lone repeat member from the 2009 honorees. Jones led the team with 98 tackles and will attempt to help slow an Alabama offense averaging 435.6 yards. Michigan State ranked third in the Big Ten in total defense, giving up 337.8 yards per game.

"We're really excited about the challenge that we have in front of us, especially for the defense," Jones said. "I feel like we can really improve ourselves and be one of the top defenses in the country."

Alabama will counter with wide receiver and second-team All-American Julio Jones, who set school records with 75 receptions and 1,084 yards this season. Jones caught seven of Greg McElroy's 19 touchdown passes.

However, last season's Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, who missed two games due to injury, has been held to less than 100 yards in eight straight contests after eclipsing that mark nine times in 2009.

The Crimson Tide tied for first in the SEC with the least amount of turnovers (14) and may need to continue that trend against the Spartans.

"Defensively they are in the top 25 in a lot of categories in the things that really matter and have a great inside linebacker in Greg Jones," Saban said. "They are just a really good, well coached all-around team, and when you play teams like that you have to play with discipline and can't make a lot of mistakes because they will be difficult to overcome."

Michigan State has lost its last four bowl games, while Alabama has alternated wins and losses in its past eight.

No. 15 Alabama (9-3) vs. No. 7 Michigan State (11-1), 1 p.m. Saturday on ESPN

  • Series Record: First meeting.

What's at Stake
Michigan State is looking to prove it belonged in a BCS bowl after sharing the Big Ten title with Wisconsin and Ohio State. The Spartans were left out because of a lower ranking in the BCS poll, and knocking off the defending national champion Crimson Tide would give them some satisfaction. This could be the last game for several of Alabama’s stars, including 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, so the Crimson Tide are looking to go out in style.

Key Matchup
Alabama WR Julio Jones vs. Michigan State secondary. Jones led the Crimson Tide with 75 receptions for 1,084 yards this season. About 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, he has size and speed over most defenders. Jones will likely see a lot of one-on-one coverage with the Spartans crowding the line of scrimmage for Ingram and fellow running back Trent Richardson.

Players to Watch
Alabama: QB Greg McElroy. This will be the senior quarterback’s last college game. He threw for 2,767 yards, 19 touchdowns and only five interceptions this season.

Michigan State: RB Edwin Baker. He rushed for 1,187 yards and 13 touchdowns this season, and the Spartans will need Baker to control the ball if they hope to knock off Alabama.

Facts and Figures
Alabama coach Nick Saban had stints at Michigan State as an assistant (1984-1987) and as a head coach (1995-1999). He hired current Spartans coach Mark Dantonio as a defensive backs coach while he was there … Alabama is making its NCAA-record 58th bowl game appearance … This is the second time Alabama has been to the Capital One Bowl, formerly known as the Florida Citrus Bowl. The Crimson Tide won the 1995 bowl 24-17 over Ohio State … Michigan State is making its fourth straight bowl appearance for the first time since 1987-90, matching the longest bowl streak in school history … The Spartans have lost their last four postseason games, including 0-3 under Dantonio. They have not won a bowl game since beating Fresno State 44-35 in the 2001 Silicon Valley Football Classic.