Alabama vs. Kansas State: 5 final thoughts and a prediction on the Sugar Bowl
There are 4 bowl games being played on New Year’s Eve, and you probably heard that 2 of them are College Football Playoff semifinals.
You probably also heard that Alabama won’t be playing in either of them, for only the 2nd time since college football went to this current format in 2014. This is uncharted territory for the Crimson Tide and their loud, loyal legion of fans, and not the kind anyone wanted when Nick Saban began fall practice in the thick Tuscaloosa humidity.
But there is also a consolation prize waiting for Bama on New Year’s Eve afternoon, if the Tide are willing and able and motivated enough to chase it down inside the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans. There is the 89th edition of the Sugar Bowl, and Alabama was invited to play in it against Kansas State to close a 2022 season that was all things frustrating, agonizing, bruising, bewildering and, yes, a little bit rewarding when you look real closely.
It is somewhat humorous for anyone old enough to even think about the words “consolation prize” and “Sugar Bowl” in the same sentence.
There was a time when playing in the Sugar Bowl meant you won the SEC that year, which of course Bama didn’t come close to doing this fall.
There was a day when playing in the Sugar Bowl also meant you were SEC champions and playing to be national champions, which of course the Tide won’t be doing on Saturday like Georgia, Michigan, TCU and Ohio State will.
So yes, the Sugar Bowl was once hardly a consolation destination. It was once the destination, and Alabama was often playing in it, as the SEC champion and as a player in the national championship picture. This will be the Tide’s 17th appearance in the Sugar Bowl, and they have a 9-7 record in this prestigious game that isn’t quite as prestigious on the final day of 2022.
But this hardly means it’s not important.
Alabama legends-to-be Bryce Young and Will Anderson Jr. thought it was important enough a few weeks ago to announce that they were not opting out, as many expected, and that they were going to don the crimson and white 1 more time in the Big Easy before saying goodbye and heading off to the NFL Draft in 2023. This fact alone should give every one of Saban’s players the motivation that Saban begged for from them when the Crimson Tide were selected to play in the Sugar Bowl earlier this month.
Young and Anderson want to run out of a tunnel 1 last time, together, and with their Alabama teammates. They want to ride the Tide for 1 more afternoon. They want to win 1 last game, even if that game isn’t a Playoff game but just the little, old Sugar Bowl, and they have nothing to gain and everything to gain.
So yeah, 2022 has been a little weird for the Alabama Crimson Tide.
They won “only” 10 games, finished 1 spot out of a Playoff berth and lost their 2 games by a combined 4 points, both on the final play of the game.
They lost Young to a sprained throwing shoulder in Week 5, and he missed only 1 game, but yet they were never totally right as an offense.
They committed too many penalties at too many key times and didn’t force nearly enough turnovers despite all those glossy names on the defensive side of the ball, led by Anderson.
But yet here they are, despite it all, in a New Year’s 6 bowl game, with Young and Anderson by their side, and with an opportunity to play a Kansas State team that took down previously undefeated TCU in the Big 12 Championship Game a month ago.
You know, the same TCU team that will be kicking it off against Michigan in a CFP semifinal game right about the time that Bama’s players are taking their shoulder pads off for the last time this season. If ever there was a fitting vision for Tide fans in 2022, it is that one. But they shouldn’t cry too hard, not with those 7 5-star recruits that were lured by Saban in last week’s Early Signing Period.
Those prized recruits are seeing what Alabama football offers, even at the end of a “down” year. All of what happened in the fall of ’22 funnels down to New Orleans and a bowl game that is still and always will be elite, even if Bama isn’t playing among the very elite, for a change. They also see that Young and Anderson valued their stay in Tuscaloosa so much that they don’t care to leave just yet.
This all means something for 2023 and beyond. For Saturday’s game, it means a lot, too.
For everyone involved, from those pair of legends-to-be to those prized freshmen-to-be, there’s a lot to think about.
With that, here are 5 final thoughts on Alabama’s Sugar Bowl showdown with No. 9 Kansas State (10-3), with a prediction for how things will end up for the Tide in 2022.
1. Dealing with Deuce
If Alabama is going to get that 11th victory of 2022, it will have to at least limit the damage of the dazzling Deuce Vaughn. Kansas State’s junior running back piled up 1,425 yards and 8 touchdowns, surpassing the 1,400-yard mark for the 2nd straight year. Vaughn topped 100 yards in 8 games this season, and Bama will have to catch the diminutive running back first if it wants to avoid being the 9th victim.
You see, Vaughn is only 5-foot-6 and 176 pounds, but pound for pound he just might be the best running back in the nation. Alabama star linebacker Henry To’oTo’o said during the Sugar Bowl prep that he has never seen a running back as small as Vaughn in college — or in high school. Stopping Vaughn on Saturday is probably unrealistic for Bama, although Iowa State did hold him to 23 yards in Week 6, so it can be done.
But limiting Vaughn to, say, between 80 and 120 yards so that he doesn’t completely put his stamp on things becomes the game within the game for the Tide. Having Anderson around for 1 more afternoon of bone-crushing hits will surely help the cause, but it won’t guarantee success. Bama is going to be revved up, especially at the start, wanting to show an interested nation that it actually cares a lot about this game. What it can’t do is overcommit, or Vaughn will go crazy.
And then Saban will go crazy, even if this isn’t a Playoff game.
2. Going hard — without getting injured
Look, a player can get injured during a preseason practice in early August. It has happened plenty of times to plenty of players. So the injury risk for Young and Anderson in a bowl game is there like it would be in any game, in any practice or even any workout during the course of the calendar year.
Playing on Saturday is their choice, and while it carries a risk factor that could affect their 2023 draft status, they are football players and they are Alabama football players, and they want to be that 1 more time, injury risk be damned. Their decisions to play and not bow out are so deliciously old school. Their decisions reek of loyalty to their school. They aren’t satisfied. They want to go out winners, 1 last time.
In Young’s case, he has already gotten hurt this season, in that Week 5 victory at Arkansas, so there’s your example. It really can happen any time. If you’re afraid to get hurt, don’t play football. Young and Anderson will go hard 1 final time for Alabama because you can’t take it easy in football. There are no levels of want, or at least there shouldn’t be. Going less than full speed will probably get you hurt, so Bama’s star quarterback and star linebacker will let it fly and let NFL general managers see — 1 more time, in case they forgot — why they are gamers who can instantly make their team better.
3. Points at a premium?
Kansas State isn’t your typical wild and crazy Big 12 team. That is, the Wildcats actually play some defense. They allowed just 20.1 points per game this season, which ranked 17th in the country and 1st in a conference that normally treats defense like a commercial break between offensive possessions. Kansas State was also 53rd in the country in total defense, allowing 365.8 yards per game — again, not bad for a Big 12 team.
There are many players to be concerned about on Kansas State’s defense, but the headliner is junior defensive end Felix Anudike-Uzomah, who had 8.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss this season to go with his 44 tackles and 2 forced fumbles. Keeping him away from Young would be a good idea, but it won’t be easy. The 6-foot-4, 255-pounder had 11 sacks last season, so he specializes in getting to the quarterback and making his life miserable.
He has also been waiting for a day like Saturday for his entire career at K-State.
“Growing up, I always looked at Alabama as the best program in college football history,” Anudike-Uzomah said. “So it’s a dream come true and an honor to play them, honestly. I’m not going to lie, I never thought I would be in the Sugar Bowl.”
Oh, by the way, Bama finished 9th in the country this season in points allowed, giving up just 18 per game. So we could be in for a lower-scoring game, if these motivated, star-studded defenses have their way.
4. Speaking of those limited points …
The wise guys in Vegas who know better have noticed the talent that is on these defenses. Don’t worry about the point spread, which by the way has Alabama favored by slightly less than a touchdown. The over/under on the Sugar Bowl is only 56, which you would probably say is a bit low considering you have 1 offense led by a former Heisman Trophy winner and another led by 1 of the best running backs in the country.
You also have a Big 12 team involved, which screams offense and doesn’t exactly yell defense. But the Wildcats aren’t your typical Big 12 team, which is probably a big reason they toppled TCU in the conference championship game and are here playing Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
This could be an old-school Saban Era game, you know, like those 20-17 or 17-14 barnburners that Alabama played a lot of during Saban’s early years in Tuscaloosa and usually prevailed in. With opt-outs not tearing down this Sugar Bowl like some other bowl games, everyone is all in, and that means these defenses aren’t decimated like they easily could have been.
And that means the under might just win out.
5. The guy on the other sideline
On 1 sideline, you have Saban. On the other, you have a champion of a different kind in Chris Klieman. The 55-year-old from Waterloo, Iowa, who played defensive back at Northern Iowa, coached North Dakota State to 4 FCS championships in his 5 years as head coach between 2014-18.
Klieman went 69-6 during those 5 glorious seasons in Fargo. So on Saturday afternoon at the Superdome, you’ll have a combined 11 college football championships in just this century alone roaming the 2 sidelines, with Saban’s 7 combined titles at LSU and Alabama and Klieman’s quartet of FCS championships.
Also, not bad.
You’ll have a legend in Saban who’s still doing it at Alabama and a guy in Klieman trying to forge his own legendary path. Klieman also knows what it’s like to replace a legendary figure, too, as he took over for Bill Snyder at K-State. So far, Klieman is 30-19 in Manhattan, now has a Big 12 championship to his name and will be going toe-to-toe with arguably the best coach in college football history on New Year’s Eve at a legendary bowl game.
The prediction: Alabama 27, Kansas State 20
The Wildcats are really good. And if Alabama had the normal array of opt-outs, this matchup would look a whole lot different. But I just can’t see Young and Anderson walking out of the Superdome with a loss to end their incredible careers, with everything they’ve invested and with their commitment to play in this game alone. So we’ll take the Tide by a touchdown, maybe a late TD pass by Young to make the difference and seal the deal before he and Anderson ride off into the draft abyss.