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Sugar Bowl wrap-up: A bittersweet ending to a season so full of promise

For most programs, an 11-2 finish and an overwhelming victory in the Sugar Bowl would be the kind of season memorialized with banners, even statues. At Alabama, it was a season of what-ifs.

Two losses torpedoed Alabama’s chances at getting back to the College Football Playoff, because despite the intentions of the CFP process – get the four best teams into the playoffs – it is a system that has, on multiple occasions now, simply been about picking four teams with the best records, regardless of whether they were really one of the four best teams or not.

It’s harder in 2022 to identify just who those four teams are, because outside of maybe Georgia, there isn’t a dominant team. Not like there was last year, when Alabama and Georgia were clearly the two best teams, and Alabama ended up being matched up against one of those great-record/OK-team opponents, Cincinnati, in the first round of the 2021 playoffs.

The CFP committee’s job in 2022, therefore, became both harder and easier. Easier in the sense that teams could eliminate themselves simply by not staying on task; harder in the sense that the CFP’s original purpose was to make the hard calls when the results on the field, by themselves, could not.

Alabama had legitimate reasons for going to the CFP over either Ohio State or TCU, but also legitimate reasons for not going. Those reasons are named Tennessee and LSU. Both games were ultimately lost on the game’s final play, but both were really lost earlier in the game by mistakes, poor focus, and more than just a splash of – dare we say it – unchecked hubris. Alabama had so much going for it in the preseason – the nation’s best offensive (QB Bryce Young) and defensive player (LB Will Anderson) on the same team, an electrifying transfer running back in Jahmyr Gibbs, and the greatest head coach the sport has ever known, Nick Saban, all in the same mix.

Alabama can possibly be forgiven for falling to Tennessee. A loss in Knoxville hadn’t happened since 2006, Tennessee had caught lightning in a bottle with QB Hendon Hooker and an elite collection of wide receivers, and the Volunteers were ultimately the benefactors of several critically-timed – and highly questionable – calls from the officiating crew assigned to that game. But Alabama did itself no favors with a defensive scheme that was barely functional.

The greater sin, by far, was losing to an average LSU team, a loss that ultimately cost Alabama the division crown. That the Tigers ended up in the SEC Championship Game instead of Alabama is one of the most mystifying occurrences in recent SEC memory. And with Alabama sitting at home on conference championship weekend, two losses in its pocket, the CFP committee took the path of least resistance and left Alabama to go to New Orleans and play an 11 a.m. kickoff against Kansas State.

What mattered, at that point, was what Alabama did with the opportunity.

As Nick Saban would have advocated, Alabama chose to go out and create value for itself by playing good football. While Kansas State ran 74 plays to Alabama’s 55, Alabama was the picture of offensive efficiency – starting in the second quarter, at least – and leveraged its superior athleticism and speed with the matchups it chose. Defensively, it was a game of match discipline, Alabama only getting itself in trouble when it allowed Kansas State to draw Tide defenders out of their assignments, especially over the middle of the field.

But the sequence that saw Alabama keep Kansas State out of the end zone following an 18-play, second-quarter drive – and then Bryce Young’s mastery of a touchdown drive that took less than a minute, closing out the first half – would turn the game on its ear. Alabama followed that up by recovering an onside kick attempt to open the second half, score again, and the game was over at that point.

Kansas State simply didn’t have the speed or the athletes to mount a comeback. With the threat of the run largely shelved, KSU couldn’t pressure Alabama’s secondary, and the Tide’s defensive front could begin to take more chances to get upfield. End result: a 45-20 beatdown that made the Wildcats look like a mediocre opponent and collaterally damaged TCU’s College Football Playoff legitimacy in the process.

Each season is its own, and Alabama will be undergoing significant change over this offseason. Bryce Young will not be back at quarterback. It’s highly unlikely offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien will be, either. It’s too soon to say about some of the beleaguered defensive staff, which bore the brunt of most of the fan angst following the Tennessee and LSU losses. The prime mover in all of it, though, may be a Georgia program that is threatening to take over the alpha position from Alabama, not just in the SEC, but for all of college football.

Nick Saban has never been one to settle for second-best at anything, so how Alabama approaches these shifts in the landscape will be interesting to watch. We’re not sure what the next chapter will bring, but at least Alabama finished this one on the highest note it could still hit.

Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Kansas State:

1. Young’s poise and accuracy made the offense go, and is what Alabama will miss most in ’23. If you want to know what will be the hardest thing to replace about this team going forward, watch Bryce Young’s sideline throw to Jermaine Burton near the end of the second half, and touchdown pass to Ja’Corey Brooks. It’s unlikely any of Alabama’s younger quarterbacks have that kind of touch yet. Now add in Young’s footwork, escapability and the ability to extend plays in the pocket, and it’s clear why he’s almost a consensus choice for the No. 1 overall pick in April’s NFL Draft despite being tiny for an NFL quarterback. Then throw in the poise to lead multiple, last-minute touchdown drives in clutch situations in his career, and it’s hard to make an argument for best quarterback in school history that doesn’t at least include a paragraph or two about Young. For this game, a legitimate case could be built for safety Brian Branch to be the MVP over Young, but it would be hotly contested even given Branch’s performance. Bottom line, Alabama will miss Bryce Young, perhaps more than it currently knows.

2. Pressure on Will Howard led to key lapses in the KSU passing game. It became clear early on in this one that when Kansas State QB Will Howard’s footwork was disturbed even in the slightest way, he didn’t have the pure arm strength to hammer throws into his receivers against Alabama’s superior speed in the defensive backfield. Wideout Kade Warner and TE Ben Sinnott had a couple of good, clutch plays each, but in the end combined for 8 catches for a rather average 96 yards and no scores. On Howard’s first interception, pressure from DE Byron Young forced an underthrow, which gave S Jordan Battle the time he needed to catch up to the route. As Alabama continued to figure out Kansas State’s protection schemes and begin to get more effective pressure from multiple angles, Howard’s game struggled. Kansas State might ask itself whether running an option-based attack with backup QB Adrian Martinez could have worked better in the long run, but all things considered, the Wildcats played what they thought were their best cards. Howard just didn’t have the kind of talent most SEC quarterbacks show in the face of steady pressure.

3. Brian Branch may have had his NFL Draft decision made for him with this performance. Nick Saban talks about the best way to “create value” for oneself as a football player – it’s playing football rather than sitting out, and S Brian Branch may have benefited like no one else on this day. Branch finished with 12 total tackles, including 4 tackles for loss, a sack and an interception. It was Branch who eventually solved the riddle of how to stop talented Wildcat RB Deuce Vaughn – who looks like a legitimate NFL third-down back despite his diminutive size – after Vaughn had found some early success. But it was his well-timed post-snap blitzes from deep off the line of scrimmage that caused Kansas State the most trouble. For a player reported to be on the fence about coming back for his senior year, a performance like this one may have given him what he needed to advance to the next level a year early.

4. Defensive adjustments at the half – and better ILB play – put the brakes on the KSU offense. Early in the game, Alabama played more cautiously, even passively, than was expected, and Kansas State made the Tide pay early, both in the passing game and the running game. Deuce Vaughn’s early success, capped by a long touchdown run late in the first quarter, victimized a secondary that was shading toward the deep middle of the field. This allowed Kansas State to both attack through the air using clearout routes, as well as break off chunks of yardage if it could make it through the first level. Two poor run fits on Vaughn’s touchdown run, one from the defensive line and another from MLB Henry To’o To’o, didn’t help. But Alabama steadily corrected things as the game went along, and after the half, really put the screws to the Kansas State running game and kept things held down until trash time late. It also didn’t hurt that Kansas State head coach Chris Klieman decided – right or wrong – that the end of the second quarter and the start of the third quarter were do-or-die points on the curve and the Wildcats were going to make or break their day by what happened in those moments. Going back to the Bama defensive scheme and personnel, Deontae Lawson, who played the entire way at weakside linebacker with Jaylen Moody recovering from a shoulder injury, had his best game to date at Alabama and gives Alabama fans something to look forward to next season. There will be lively competition this spring for the other ILB spot, with as many as six players having a legitimate shot at it.

5. After a rough start, Alabama got a glimpse of the talent it has at WR. Now, can it be refined? It’s possible Alabama may have added by subtracting in the wide receiver corps, as five wideouts entered the transfer portal after the Auburn game, thinning out the herd in a crowded depth chart. Alabama played a more customary five-man wide receiver rotation for this game – starters Jermaine Burton, Isaiah Bond and Ja’Corey Brooks, with Kobe Prentice and Kendrick Law as backups – and the continuity seemed to help a bit, giving the receivers a chance to get accustomed to their defensive counterparts and develop a work strategy. Jermaine Burton started off terribly, appearing to run the wrong route twice, the second time on a deep pass from Bryce Young that the broadcast team continued to (erroneously, we think) portray as having been Young’s mistake. Tight end Cameron Latu also had a solid day, both as a blocker and as a receiver, and with Alabama receiving a transfer commitment from Maryland TE C.J. Dippre in recent weeks, suddenly it’s possible that Alabama might not just be hopeful for its wide receiver corps in 2023, but actually excited for it.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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