Any Alabama fan with a memory of how the 2008 season ended is casting a wary eye toward New Orleans this week. In that season, Alabama came agonizingly close to playing for a title, but lost to Florida in the SEC Championship Game and then headed off to New Orleans to play Utah.
It was a game that was supposed to be a walkover. And it was. Just not for Alabama.
This year’s Crimson Tide came within a whisker of qualifying for the College Football Playoff despite having two losses. Its reward? It finds itself in the Sugar Bowl at an odd start time playing a rarity – a physical Big 12 team – one that just happened to defeat CFP designate TCU in the Big 12 Championship Game.
And now, with bowl preparation well underway, Alabama is dealing with multiple defections to the transfer portal and injuries at key positions. Visions of the patchwork offensive line Alabama had to field against Utah begin dancing in fans’ heads.
Kansas State is unique among successful Big 12 teams because of its physical makeup. The Wildcats commit to running the football and build formations and schemes around it. Alabama will see multiple tight end looks, an actual fullback at times, and a Big 12 team looking to make a statement against the team that has been the gold standard for college football for more than a decade. If Alabama intends to come back to Tuscaloosa with a win in its pocket, it will have to come with a better effort than it did the last time the Sugar Bowl was the prize for just missing out on a title shot.
A lot of what Kansas State does is typical Big 12 – RPO, no-huddle and zone-read concepts, a running quarterback – but the Wildcats have a more traditional bent than most of their conference peers. A midseason injury to starting QB Adrian Martinez also forced Kansas State to become more conventional under center with its QB package. The Wildcats run the ball very well – 16th overall – and that’s good enough to lift the total offense ranking to 42nd nationally despite a passing game that flounders at the 92nd-best mark. Alabama will continue to run its multiple, pro-style attack here, and bet on being able to attack a Wildcat rushing defense that has been surprisingly soft at times.
Nebraska transfer Adrian Martinez gave Kansas State an uncommon weapon – a veteran, true dual-threat playmaker who could probably make a healthy contribution to most college offenses as either a running back or a wide receiver in addition to being a signal-caller. Martinez has been banged up, though, and is listed as questionable for this game. His backup, Will Howard, has the big win of the year on his resume, calling the signals as the Wildcats upset TCU in a rematch of a game Martinez lost. Martinez and Howard are both about equal as passers from an accuracy standpoint, but Howard has thrown for 15 touchdowns compared to just 6 for Martinez despite getting roughly the same number of attempts (164 for Howard to 184 for Martinez).
The difference is in the rushing stats, where Martinez remains the second-leading rusher on the team despite missing 4 games. He has 109 carries for 615 yards and 10 touchdowns on the year, which includes yardage lost to sacks, and leads the team in ground-based scores. Howard has 32 carries for 45 yards, which is indicative of decent athletic ability, but nothing like what Martinez has. If Martinez proves unavailable for this game, Jake Rubley, who has thrown 5 passes all year, will be the Wildcats’ backup.
Alabama will start Bryce Young, who somewhat surprisingly did not decide to sit out the bowl game in advance of April’s NFL Draft. Young has the panache of Martinez but with a much better overall skill set than either Kansas State quarterback. Jalen Milroe and Ty Simpson back him up. It will be interesting to see whether Young is affected at all by the defection of five wideouts since the end of the regular season, including two part-time starters, but it probably won’t mean as much as it first appears. Howard would have to find better accuracy against the Alabama secondary than he has enjoyed in recent contests, and Young’s playmaking ability is superior. Advantage: Alabama
There isn’t much depth for Kansas State, but the Wildcats make up for it in the quality of what they do have. Deuce Vaughn has eye-popping stats – he’s carried 271 times for 1,425 yards, a 5.3-yard average – but has only a middling TD count (8). What is interesting is his size: He’s 5’6”, 176 pounds, making him about the size of former Alabama slot receiver Brandon Brooks. There is no questioning his durability, however, as he averages more than 20 carries per game and also has 42 receptions for 378 yards to his credit. His backup is D.J. Giddens, who at 6’1” and 215 pounds casts a more appropriate shadow for a running back. Giddens has 80 carries for 451 yards and 6 touchdowns, almost equaling Vaughn’s total. No one else is likely to get a carry.
For Alabama, the Crimson Tide will have its top three rushers available, Jahmyr Gibbs, Jace McClellan and Roydell Williams. Of those, McClellan has come on in recent weeks as he’s gotten healthier and more confidence since his return from a knee injury, but Gibbs by far has the most explosiveness and will be using this game as a Draft audition. Fourth-stringer Trey Sanders opted to enter the transfer portal, but he had fallen into a bracket situation with Jamarion Miller anyway.
The key question here is how will Vaughn’s game translate against a team with as much edge speed on defense as Alabama. Alabama has done a good job neutralizing smaller running backs, so either Giddens will get more carries or Kansas State will need to hope for Vaughn to do something against Alabama few other backs have been able to do. It’s hard to overlook the production of Kansas State, but it’s also not that Alabama is chopped liver as a running team, either; the Crimson Tide ranked 30th in the stat in 2022. We think Gibbs offsets Vaughn to great extent and Alabama’s depth should carry them after that. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama lost Traeshon Holden, JoJo Earle, Aaron Anderson, Christian Leary and walk-on Jacoby Boykins to the portal since season’s end. Of that group, Holden and Earle were co-starters at X and slot, respectively, while Leary was an important part of kick coverage teams. Those losses will be felt, but Holden’s playing time had slowly fallen off as Ja’Corey Brooks had become more consistent, and Earle had been pushed by Kobe Prentice and Isaiah Bond all season. Alabama will start Brooks, Prentice and Jermaine Burton in this game, with Bond the primary backup ahead of Kendrick Law.
It might be just those five that see consistent snap loads in this game, which might help with continuity a bit. Others who could see time include Tyler Harrell, Shazz Preston, Emmanuel Henderson and Thaiu Jones-Bell, with Harrell the most intriguing possibility given what he was expected to do this season prior to being hurt in the preseason.
Cameron Latu and Robbie Ouzts will get most of the work at tight end, along with situational blocker Kendall Randolph and Amari Niblack, who is essentially an overgrown wideout. For Kansas State, the big news is that leading receiver Malik Knowles, a tall, physical target, remains listed as questionable for the game. Knowles probably has a pro future ahead of him. The other starters include Phillip Brooks, a 5’7” slot receiver, and Kade Warner, who isn’t particularly tall but has some thickness. Warner has carved out a niche as a possession receiver and leads the unit with 5 touchdown receptions.
At tight end, Kansas State enjoys an advantage based on the flexibility of its unit. Ben Sinnott and Sammy Wheeler both have to be accounted for when they’re on the field, and Kansas State will use Will Swanson in a hybrid role and Christian Moore as a more traditional fullback. All are considered able blockers and are options to take on bigger roles. If Knowles was 100 percent for this game, we might be inclined to take Kansas State here, but the Wildcats have just one reserve receiver – R.J. Garcia – with more than 1 catch on the year. If Garcia has to start for Knowles, there’s literally no depth. Seth Porter has 1 catch and Xavier Loyd none. Even with Alabama’s portal defections, the players that remain are experienced and have actual resumes. Advantage: Alabama
Kansas State has put together good OL stats on the year – the Wildcats rank a respectable 33rd in sacks allowed and 44th in tackles for loss allowed. Size could be an issue on the interior, where center Hayden Gillium and right guard Hadley Panzer are both short of 300 pounds. Depth is also an issue up the middle, as Panzer is listed as the backup center and one of the backups is a freshman, Sam Hecht, who is also on the smaller side. K.T. Leveston and Christian Duffie will start at the tackles; both are fifth-year seniors. Cooper Beebe is the left guard.
Alabama has the odd distinction of having lost a starter to the transfer portal, as Javion Cohen opted to leave the team after two years as a starter, yielding no sacks during that time. With Cohen out, Tyler Booker will start at left guard and Emil Ekiyor Jr. at right guard, with no experienced backup behind either player. Seth McLaughlin gets the call at center, with Tyler Steen at left tackle and J.C. Latham at right tackle.
Alabama lost quite a bit of depth to the portal, including reserve swing tackle Amari Kight, guard/center Tanner Bowles, guard/tackle Damieon George Jr. and tackle Tommy Brockermeyer. Those are significant losses at this point in the season, because Alabama now has only one pure scholarshipped guard (Terrence Ferguson) to back up both spots, and at tackle, Elijah Pritchett. Jaeden George can play in or out, but is coming off an injury. Darrian Dalcourt is the lone experienced reserve available, and will back up McLaughlin and possibly the guards as well.
If Alabama were to have to replace the entire unit at once, Jackson Roby, a walk-on most notable for being a descendant of Bama’s famous Neighbors family of linemen, who has less than 5 snaps to his name, would have to come in at a guard spot, unless James Brockermeyer or Dalcourt could move out from center to handle it, or Kendall Randolph move over from tight end. For reasons of continuity, it’s hard to defend taking Alabama here, even with the size advantage of the starters. Advantage: Kansas State
Kansas State’s defense operates out of a three-man front with fairly well-defined roles, but it’s more of a 4-3 concept in terms of the makeup of the linebacker responsibilities. Removing a down lineman from the mix allows the Wildcats to play a nickel secondary as a base set. This hybrid formulation seems like a good idea, but the numbers aren’t consistently there; Kansas State ranks 55th in total defense, 64th in rushing defense and 53rd in raw pass defense. It does, however, put up very good numbers – especially for the Big 12 – in pass efficiency defense (16th), which allows the Wildcats to rank 19th in scoring defense almost off that stat alone. Alabama will use its usual 3-4 over/under scheme; aside from a ranking of 32nd against the run, Alabama is in the top 16 in all other categories.
For Kansas State, lack of penetration has been an issue up front. The Wildcats rank just 66th in sacks and 95th in tackles for loss, but the defensive ends have been productive at least, getting 14.5 sacks between Felix Anudike-Uzomah and Brendan Mott. Reserves Nate Matlack and Jaylen Pickle have good burst as situational pass rushers, but low tackle totals and haven’t been involved much on rushing downs. Eli Huggins starts at nose, and does a decent enough job of holding the point of attack, but doesn’t get as much drive as you’d like to see in a 3-man look. Alabama will start Jaheim Oatis at nosetackle with Byron Young and Tim Smith as the ends. Jamil Burroughs, D.J. Dale and Jah-Marien Latham will be the primary reserves. While Kansas State probably has more consistency across the board, Alabama has the star power in Young, along with solid work done in the middle from Oatis and Dale. Damon Payne Jr. might find some snaps in this game at both tackle and end. Advantage: Alabama
This would be an easy Alabama advantage, but a run of injuries leading into bowl preparation has left Alabama paper-thin. Several linebackers missed practices this week and their status for the game is unclear. To get the easy part out first – Kansas State has no answer for Alabama’s three-headed monster at outside linebacker, Will Anderson, Dallas Turner and Chris Braswell. Khalid Duke is a bigger linebacker who plays more like a roving end at times rather than the typical strongside backer in a three-LB look, while Austin Moore is built like a larger safety and has put up good numbers as a behind-the-line tackler, but doesn’t pressure the quarterback much.
In the middle, Daniel Green has uncommon size, but isn’t the kind of dynamic middle linebacker Alabama is accustomed to seeing. What we don’t know yet is what the makeup of Alabama’s inside linebacker group is going to look like. Jaylen Moody is out for this game, and Deontae Lawson may or may not be available, both due to injury. Kendrick Blackshire and Ian Jackson both missed the Auburn game, so their status for this one is still uncertain. True freshman Jihaad Campbell, who has barely played at all, might have to start opposite Henry To’o To’o. Shawn Murphy may be the only other scholarshipped linembacker available inside, although Dallas Turner can play the position in a pinch.
Beyond that, it’s a list of walk-ons like Kyle Flood Jr., Jordan Smith and Bennett Whisenhut, none of whom have played outside of Flood late in a blowout. The possibility of having to deal with such attrition – especially since Alabama could find itself aligned in its base defense against Kansas State’s running game – creates a numbers crunch that we can’t overlook. Advantage: Kansas State
This is the strength of the K-State defense, but whether the Wildcats are equal to an SEC secondary remains to be seen. What isn’t up for debate is Kansas State’s propensity to create turnovers in the back end: The Wildcats have recorded a jaw-dropping 16 interceptions on the season, good for 9th in the country, and coupled with their quarterbacks not throwing interceptions (KSU ranks 3rd in fewest interceptions thrown), the Wildcats hold a ranking of 4th in turnover margin compared to 82nd for Alabama. Julius Brents and Ekow Brow-Doe will start at the corners, with Josh Hayes, V.J. Payne and Drake Cheatum at safety. There is good size here – Brents, an Iowa transfer, is 6’4” and playing corner, while Payne is 6’3” and big for a safety.
For Alabama, Khyree Jackson has gone to the transfer portal, but he had fallen well behind Terrion Arnold, Eli Ricks and Ga’Quincy McKinstry at cornerback anyway. Ricks and McKinstry will start there, with Brian Branch and Malachi Moore as the box safeties and Jordan Battle and DeMarcco Hellams as the high safeties. Alabama probably has better athleticism across the board, but it’s hard to argue with production numbers. Kansas State gets this one by a nose. Advantage: Kansas State
Kansas State improved immensely in the kicking game when punter Ty Zentner took over the placekicking duties from Chris Tennant. Tennant had missed two extra points and 5 of his 14 field goal tries, with the longest of his successful attempts coming from just 37 yards out, but Zentner hasn’t missed a kick from any distance. Good special teams play has been a hallmark of Kansas State football seemingly forever, and this year is no exception, as the Wildcats are solid in both coverage and returns for punts and kickoffs as well. Zentner has also helped the Wildcats rank 10th in net punting. This is a special teams unit that has no visible weakness.
For Alabama, Will Reichard likely helps the Crimson Tide hold a slight edge in placekicking based solely off his experience and larger sample size, and Ga’Quincy McKinstry is the more dangerous punt returner. But the transfer portal and injury issues plaguing Alabama have taken their toll most on the return coverage units, as linebackers Demouy Kennedy and Ian Jackson are hurt, wide receiver Christian Leary has transferred out and so has cornerback Khyree Jackson, key personnel all. James Burnip has become reliable at punter, but not overwhelmingly so, and Alabama’s kickoff return unit has struggled recently. Advantage: Kansas State
Alabama and Kansas State lead in four categories each, but Alabama could easily find itself as a 6-2 or even 7-1 leader – it would not lead in special teams under any circumstances – depending on the health of the group that shows up on gameday. Linebacker is an easy flip to Alabama if Deontae Lawson can go, but we cannot guarantee it at this time. Likewise, offensive line favors Alabama by a noticeable margin if the Crimson Tide can keep its starting group intact, but any injury along the front during the game and Kansas State would be favored. Defensive back is a question of production versus athleticism.
As for the OL-DL cross-matchups, Alabama holds slight edges in both even if the individual category comparisons stay locked the way they are. Alabama’s starting OL should be able to handle the Kansas State DL without much fuss, but the gap between the Kansas State OL and Bama DL is much smaller.
The real question, therefore, goes back to the lopsided loss to Utah in this same game 14 years ago, and in trying to figure out why that loss happened and how it can be avoided here. Against Utah, Alabama had significant injury issues along its offensive line coming into the game, and then developed more issues during the game. It also became clear early on that Alabama was still consumed by the loss to Florida in the SEC Championship Game and sleep-walked through preparation for Utah, a team it did not take seriously. We’re going to bet Nick Saban learned as much from that experience as the 2008 team did, and some of the same mistakes will not be repeated.
Having said that, Kansas State is a quality opponent, and if the Wildcats are good enough to beat TCU on a neutral field when TCU was (almost) in a must-win situation says something. Of course, so do losses earlier in the year to Tulane and Texas, and a skin-of-its-teeth win over Iowa State, 10-9.
Alabama needs some injury luck to break its way before game time. If the Crimson Tide can get one or two contributors back from the medical tent, it should have enough advantages in key spots to pull out the win.
Kansas State 21
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN