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College Sports

And then there were four: College Football Playoff semifinals are tonight


Mark Dantonio glanced toward Nick Saban during the final news conference before their teams meet in the College Football Playoff and gave a little grin at his old boss.

"He's letting me answer all the questions, I guess. First, anyway," Dantonio said Wednesday. "We'll probably get to kick off."

The Michigan State coach didn't mind deferring to his counterpart from Alabama. If it wasn't for Saban, Dantonio and the Spartans might not be where they are today.

The third-ranked Spartans and No. 2 Crimson Tide will ring in the new year Thursday night in a game that will determine which team plays for the national championship.

"A lot of the things that we do are patterned after the things that I learned from him, whether it's technique in the secondary, in the back end a little bit, or defensively, or just the structure of the entire program, recruiting. A lot of different aspects," said Dantonio, who was defensive backs coach at Michigan State when Saban was head coach from 1995-99.

Saban was very early in his coaching career when Dantonio first caught his attention as a player at Zanesville High School in Ohio. Saban watched Dantonio's coaching career progress, always impressed. When Saban got the Michigan State job, he hired Dantonio away from Kansas.

The two parted ways when Saban went to LSU, where he won the first of his four national titles. Saban tried the NFL for a couple of seasons with the Miami Dolphins before returning to college in 2007.

Hiring Saban changed everything for the Crimson Tide, a traditional power that was flailing as it tried to recapture past glory. Saban and Alabama have set the standard since, going 98-18 with three national championships and four Southeastern Conference titles.

A couple months before Alabama landed Saban, Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis was searching for a new head coach, with the Spartans coming off three straight losing seasons and firmly relegated to the second division in the Big Ten.

Hollis had his eye on Dantonio, who was the Cincinnati coach at the time, and called Saban for a recommendation.

Saban gave Dantonio a ringing endorsement and with little fanfare Michigan State hired a program-changing head coach of its own.

"He's, obviously, blossomed into (doing) a fantastic job in terms of what he's done at Michigan State right now," Saban said. "And I think the world should recognize what a great job he's done."

It would be hard not to at this point.

Michigan State has won at least 11 games in five of the last six seasons. The Spartans have won two Big Ten titles, the Rose Bowl and the Cotton Bowl in the last three seasons.

Dantonio has clearly established himself as one of the best coaches in college football and turned Michigan State into an elite program. Since 2010, only Saban (70) and Florida State's Jimbo Fisher (68) have won more games than Dantonio (65).

The only thing missing is a national championship.

"This will be a great opportunity but a great challenge for us as a program," Dantonio said. "And we're looking forward to our moment."

The top-ranked Clemson Tigers are undefeated, and they've even beaten the law of averages.

That adage about winning the turnover battle to win the game? It doesn't apply where the Tigers are concerned. They're a minus-two in turnover differential heading into Thursday night's Orange Bowl national semifinal game against No. 4 Oklahoma.

No national championship team in at least 20 seasons has had a negative turnover differential, according to STATS. But Clemson (13-0) has had more turnovers than the opposition in six of its wins.

Coach Dabo Swinney can only scratch his head, and then some.

"I'll probably not have any player play on another team that loses the turnover margin six times and is undefeated," Swinney said. "I've never been a part of that. So yeah, that makes you pull your hair out as a coach, but the positive is we don't have to play perfect to win."

The Sooners (11-1) are plus-10 in turnovers, a more typical differential for a championship-caliber team. They were minus-one in their lone loss, to Texas in October.

When the teams met in the Russell Athletic Bowl last season, takeaways were the difference, and Clemson won 40-6.

"Turnover margin will be huge in this game," Swinney said. "It was big last year. They had five turnovers, we had none, and that's why the game was the way it was."


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