By Jordan Ray
Connor Cook has done a lot of winning at Michigan State.
He has won a Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, a Rose Bowl, a Cotton Bowl and two Big Ten championship games.
He has won 34 games as a starter, more than any quarterback in Michigan State history and more than any active quarterback in college football.
He has won the 2015 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award for the nation’s top senior quarterback as well as MVP honors in the Rose Bowl and both Big Ten championship games.
So when the No. 3 Spartans face No. 2 Alabama in the College Football Playoff on Dec. 31 in the Cotton Bowl, why should anyone be surprised if Cook wins again?
Despite his team opening as a nine-point underdog to the Crimson Tide (12-1), according to Las Vegas Super Book, Cook gives Michigan State (12-1) a major advantage that could help propel the Spartans to their first national title in 50 years.
“He’s a tremendous football player,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who saw for himself when Cook’s Spartans beat the Hawkeyes 16-13 in Saturday’s Big Ten Championship game.
Alabama hasn’t faced a quarterback on Cook’s level yet.
In fact, the only time the Crimson Tide played someone with a skill set close to Cook’s, they lost.
In Alabama’s only loss of the season, Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns as the Rebels beat the Tide 43-37.
Kelly’s quarterback rating of 96.0 was the highest for any quarterback against Alabama this season. He also leads the SEC in passing yards (3,740) this season.
Cook has already proven he can beat defenses comparable to Alabama’s. The Hawkeyes rank 10th in opposing quarterback rating while Alabama ranks slightly better at fourth.
And Cook beat Iowa with one arm.
Although his stat line was severely impacted by a shoulder injury (16 of 32 for 191 yards, no touchdowns, one interception), affecting his overall stat line, Cook still made some key plays to help his team win.
“He’s got a great pocket presence,” ESPN analyst David Pollack said. “He’s also got good mobility. People don’t realize it because he’s kind of tall, and he looks kind of awkward.”
Both skills were on display during the Spartans’ eight-minute, 22-play, game-winning drive.
Cook faced heavy pressure on third-and-long situations twice during the drive, but delivered accurate passes for first downs both times. Then, facing fourth and 2 with 1:54 left in the game, he ran for a first down on an option keeper, putting Michigan State on the Iowa 3-yard line.
Cook was awarded MVP of the game, becoming the first player to ever win the award twice.
The performance should put the Crimson Tide on notice, especially since Cook will have a month to heal before Michigan State plays Alabama.
Plus, he’s already played in the Cotton Bowl this year, thanks to a scheduling quirk.
Cook threw for 314 yards and a pair of touchdowns in his team’s 42-41 comeback win over Baylor in last season’s Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1.
“He’s so experienced,” ESPN “College GameDay” host Rece Davis said. “He doesn’t put the ball in jeopardy that much.”
Actually, Cook did give up two interceptions in last season’s Cotton Bowl. He only has five this season, though, never throwing more than one in a game.
The Spartans being underdogs might not hurt, either.
“I don’t think they’ve played as well this year (as a favorite),” Pollack said. “After beating Ohio State, (MSU coach) Mark Dantonio said, ‘This is the first time we got to be the hunter instead of being the hunted.’ It makes a difference.”