ORLANDO _ When the final snap of his collegiate career is over Saturday afternoon, one of the first things University of Alabama senior quarterback Greg McElroy wants to do is meet his Michigan State counterpart, Kirk Cousins.
It turns out he's been following the junior's career a bit.
"I just have a lot of respect for him, the way he carries himself, the way he's been able to respond, the way he's been able to take a huge step forward this year," McElroy said. "What he does against us, I think he's going to do a great job, I'm sure he's done a great job of preparation and hopeful our defense is ready for him."
Although Alabama's top defensive priority is to always try and stop the run and make the opposition one-dimensional, Cousins is clearly the player the Crimson Tide is concerned with the most.
After beating out Oklahoma transfer Keith Nichol (who moved to wide receiver) to become the starter last year, this season he's completed 216 of 320 passes for 2,705 yards and 20 touchdowns to lead the Spartans to an 11-1 season and co-Big Ten championship. His completion percentage was 67.5 to go with a 153.5 passer rating.
He led late drives to beat Wisconsin, Northwestern and Purdue while playing through shoulder and ankle injuries.
"I think he has so many qualities, as a person and as a quarterback," Michigan State quarterbacks coach Dave Warner said about Cousins. "He's certainly the best leader we've had around here in this program in a long time. He's a tremendous competitor, he's a tremendous person. He's a good teammate to everybody. I don't think he's ever upset anybody in his life, he's just that type of guy. Above all that, he's talented and a hard worker."
Obviously, some are drawing comparisons between the two quarterbacks, who even play in similar systems.
"He does a great job with the play-action," Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. "He does a great job throwing the ball and is mobile enough to get out of trouble. Great leader, you can tell that.
"He makes very few mistakes."
Adding to the Tide's defensive problems is that Smart said Michigan State has the most balanced offense it's faced this season.
"Hopefully we'll get after him, disguise our coverages," sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower said.
Smart dispels rumors
Smart made it pretty clear that he has no intention of leaving the Capstone for anything short of a head coaching job or to be Will Muschamp's defensive coordinator at Florida.
"Will and I talk all the time, he's one of my best friends, I've known him for twenty years now, or about twenty years, and he and I talk a lot but not really about he and I coaching together, no," Smart said during a press conference Thursday. "Obviously, that's the next step that I'd like to take, to be a head coach.
"I'm at a great place now. My wife, my family, we're all happy at the University of Alabama, Coach (Nick) Saban has been very good to me and the University of Alabama has been very good to me."
Last year Alabama matched a $750,000 offer for the 2009 Broyles Award winner for assistant coach of the year to be the defensive coordinator at Georgia. Meanwhile, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jim McElwain was recently a finalist for the head coaching job at Colorado.
"His organization is unbelievable," McElwain said about learning under Saban. "I'm talking about from top to bottom, within the entire program, not just football and the Xs and Os part, how the total department has to be run successfully. Those are some of the things that have been lost in some programs, how that works from everyone in the organization pulling together as one.
"His preparation is impeccable."
Breaking in a new QB
McElwain's top concern after the Capital One Bowl will the quarterback competition between A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims, which will official start in the spring.
"The great thing is we have two quality players coming back," he said. "Obviously they don't have the experience, but Phillip Sims really came on and learned things throughout the year and made a lot of progress.
"It'll be a great competition. I know this, from a comfort-level standpoint it's going to drive me crazy."
McElroy was the first quarterback he got to coach for more than a season as a positions coach since he was at Montana State (1995-00), and he joked that the Rhodes Scholar finalist helped him a lot with his vocabulary.
"It's going to be real hard to see Greg leave," McElwain said.
Big money programs
According to the Department of Education, Alabama spent more than $31 million to run its football program, the second-most of any bowl team.
However, what the report didn't mention was that the Crimson Tide also turned a huge profit.
Top 10 spenders:
1. Ohio State, $31,763,036
2. Alabama, $31,118,134
3. Notre Dame, $29,490,788
4. Auburn, $27,911,713
5. LSU, $25,566,520
6. Florida, $24,457,557
7. South Carolina, $22,794,211
8. Wisconsin, $22,041,491
9. Arkansas $22,005,014
10. TCU $20,609,361
The figures for most schools were from a 12-month period ending in mid-2010 and are collected annually due to the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act.
McElwain had the line of Thursday's press conference about what he and Smart learned under Saban: "I hope Kirby's a better actor than he is. ... Yeah, I'll catch it for that."
Smart claimed that this year's team is taking its bowl game more seriously than Alabama did two years ago when it lost to Utah in the Sugar Bowl. "That team was a little different two years ago because that was the first game they weren't playing for something."
McElwain was asked what would be the benefits of Julio Jones and Mark Ingram returning to Alabama and responded, "Well, they get to spend another year with me," before deflecting the question and saying their focus has been on the team and Saturday's game. "I think that's a credit to what kind of people they are, and are a joy to coach."
McElwain on dealing with criticism of the offense's performance: "When you're in this profession and you don't go undefeated and win it all there's always going to be criticism. That's all part of it. I know the work we put in and the plan we put in and sometimes don't execute it all that well. I know I'm harder on myself than probably anyone out there. I take the blame and I take the criticism because I know how hard these guys work." McElroy quickly jumped in with: "If we had a big game, there's not another guy I'd rather have calling plays than Coach Mac."
Although the Crimson Tide (9-3) didn't finish the way it hoped, both McElroy and Hightower, who were named co-captains with Mark Barron, said the team had more fun this year _ for better or worse: "I wouldn't say it's a complete disappointment, we did some things that we really wanted to do," McElroy said. "We made improvements, we're a better team now than we were at the start of the season, that's always encouraging."
Alabama players went on their shopping spree with their Best Buy gift cards they received as bowl gifts. "It felt like Christmas all over again," junior linebacker Courtney Upshaw said in a release. Friday, Saban will attend a coaches' press conference and the team will hold its final walkthrough of the season.