A decade before winning three national championships at Alabama, Nick Saban was the coach at Michigan State and Mark Dantonio was one of his assistants.

Before winning bowl games the past four years, Dantonio's first really good season as the Spartans' coach ended with an embarrassing bowl loss to the Crimson Tide and the coach he calls a mentor.

The programs meet again in the Cotton Bowl on New Year's Eve, this time with a national championship game berth on the line. The SEC champion Tide play Big Ten winner Michigan State in a likely bruising College Football Playoff semifinal between 12-1 teams.

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''Mark has exceeded expectations of all of us in terms of what he's done at Michigan State and certainly done a better job than I ever did there,'' Saban said Sunday.

''We're going to play on edge,'' Dantonio said.

Michigan State won the Big Ten championship 16-13 over Iowa on Dec. 5, and Saban was pulling for his former team and assistant while watching the epic 22-play drive that ended with freshman L.J. Scott lunging forward for a 1-yard touchdown in the final minute.

A few hours earlier, eventual Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry had a staggering 44 carries for 189 yards in Alabama's 29-15 victory over Florida in the SEC title game.

''They had a big physical back and they had a big physical offensive line, and you know, that's the way we try to play, and that's the way they try to play,'' Saban said. ''That's the kind of football a lot of people enjoy watching.''

Saban and the Tide also get another shot at the Big Ten. Alabama is the only team that also played in the first four-team playoff last season, but lost 42-35 to eventual national champion Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl.

Saban was 34-21-1 in five seasons at Michigan State (1995-99) before going to LSU, then the NFL and to Alabama in 2007. The Spartans lost in the Independence, Sun and Aloha bowls in Saban's first three years, but were 9-2 in his final season before he left to start his job at LSU and they then won the Citrus Bowl over Florida.

''When I was there, it was a difficult time,'' said Saban, also Michigan State's defensive coordinator for five seasons in the 1980s. ''Didn't really have the number of scholarships until the last year we were there. ... We certainly had a good team that year. Probably not as good as Mark's teams have been.''

The co-Big Ten champion Spartans lost out on a tiebreaker and didn't get to go to the Rose Bowl in 2011. Instead, they went to the Capital One Bowl and got pounded 49-7 by Alabama.

Michigan State has won its four bowl games since, including last New Year's Day when they overcame a 20-point deficit in the fourth quarter to beat Baylor 42-41 in their first Cotton Bowl.

Dantonio left Michigan State a year after Saban to be Ohio State's defensive coordinator for three seasons, then was Cincinnati's coach for three years before his nine seasons so far leading the Spartans.

''My mindset as a football coach has been shaped by the people I've worked for. Certainly Jim Tressel ... but Nick Saban's probably the guy too that from a defensive system certainly, and then also from just an overall football system,'' Dantonio said. ''He's truly a mentor.''

Spartans quarterback Connor Cook became the first two-time MVP of the Big Ten title game, even playing with a sore shoulder that isn't holding him back anymore.

Cook says he had been limited in practice, but is now ''pretty much doing everything in practice.'' He has thrown for 24 touchdowns and five interceptions.

Michigan State's top three rushers - Scott, Gerald Holmes and Madre London - have a combined 1,614 yards and 22 TDs.

Henry became the second Alabama player to win the Heisman, joining running back Mark Ingram. Henry's 1,986 yards broke Herschel Walker's SEC single-season mark set in 1981, and his 23 rushing TDs tied the SEC mark shared by Tim Tebow and Auburn's Tre Mason.

AT&T Stadium shouldn't feel unfamiliar to Michigan State and Alabama, as both have played there this year. The Spartans had last season's Cotton Bowl, and Henry ran for 147 yards and three TDs in the Tide's season-opening 35-17 victory over Wisconsin this Sept. 5.

The Tide also opened at AT&T in the 2012 season, when they won their last national title.

Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will coach the Crimson Tide throughout the playoff after being named coach of Georgia, his alma mater.

Michigan State's four-game bowl winning streak matches the longest in Big Ten history, and is the longest active streak in the FBS. The Spartans' comeback in January's Cotton Bowl was the school's biggest in a postseason game.