If you wondered whether Nick Saban’s Alabama team, which missed the College Football Playoff for just the second time under the current format, would be at full strength against Kansas State, you weren’t alone. But The #5 Crimson Tide will have no opt outs in this one. Less surprisingly, #11 Kansas State, fresh off of a conference-clinching upset win over previously-undefeated TCU, will also have no opt outs as they look to finish the year on a high note. Let’s take a look at the odds and make some picks for this year’s Sugar Bowl.
Alabama Vs. Kansas State Odds
Alabama is favored by a score in this one, with the spread set at 6.5 points. The scoring total is set at a pretty interesting number of 56.
Alabama Vs. Kansas State Prediction & Pick
To paraphrase a famous, albeit fictional Alabama album, the Tide’s bowl game after they whiff on a championship is like a box of chocolates, you never know which version of the team you’re gonna get. If you’re 2010 Michigan State or 2019 Michigan, it’s a pissed off group that chooses to take its anger out on you and put up a big win. If you’re 2008 Utah or 2013 Oklahoma, it’s an unmotivated bunch, who roll over after the letdown of missing out on National title glory. This team probably knows they were one of the four best teams in the country, and were just a play or two away from avoiding one of the two losses that sunk them; they’re likely to be motivated to show the committee they made a mistake.
Things are looking up for Kansas State! They’ve already secured their first 10+ win season since the departure of longtime coach Bill Snyder, and the first conference title since 2012. Now, they’ll look to take it a step further and pick up the biggest bowl win the program has had since 2000, when Snyder led the team to victory at the Cotton Bowl. So far, they’ve picked up a number of big wins, including a 48-0 romp over then-#9 Oklahoma State, and of course the dramatic finish against TCU, so they’re no strangers to big moments. The Tide should be their toughest test yet, but after beating a team that made the playoff, the Wildcats should be motivated to beat the one that just missed, and maybe make people wonder if they deserved TCU’s spot after winning a conference title over them.
That being said, this is still Alabama, they still have Bryce Young and Will Anderson, as well as a litany of other soon-to-be NFL players. Yes, this does mean that there could be a motivation deficit, but the zero-opt-out news is pretty interesting; it shows an Alabama team that’s interested in showing up and doing their best against any opponent. Given that belief that they’ll genuinely try, they should win as they’re surely the more talented side. Regarding the points total, it’s a pretty similar concept; if Bryce Young is planning on playing this game and risking his presumed #1 overall draft spot, the 2021 Heisman Winner clearly has a message to send; I’m expecting Alabama points, and plenty of them, while Kansas State will chip in enough on their end to send this one over, particularly with QB Will Howard in very good form.
Kansas State Ground Attack vs. Alabama Run Defense
Believe it or not, sports reference’s simple rating system has KSU ranked fourth in the country, with Alabama down at sixth. While this may not be quite an outright indicator that the Wildcats should be favorites, it does inform us that they don’t have to act like long-shot underdogs in this one. Instead, it will be key for them to stick to their strengths and control the tempo of the game. For Kansas State, that means running the football; they’ve put up the 16th most yards per game in the country with almost 200, and they’ve done it while averaging over 5 yards per carry and almost 2.5 ground scores per game. Star halfback Deuce Vaughn has been at the center of it all, as he’s picked up over 1800 scrimmage yards and 11 total touchdowns, while picking up 5.3 yards per rush. The team’s second leading rusher is actually Adrian Martinez, who could be a factor on the ground if he does see time in this game. The o-line has been pretty average, 45th in PFF’s run blocking rankings, they really only have one standout and that is left guard Cooper Beebe, who excels more in pass protection but is also the team’s best run blocker.
They’ll be going up against an Alabama run defense that PFF considers to be the second-best in the country, and tops among Power-5 teams. The Tide have allowed 125 rushing yards per game, but at a rate of only 3.5 per carry, and just 1 rushing touchdown to go along with that. Of course, it’s impossible to talk about the Alabama defense without bringing up Will Anderson Jr., the edge rusher who is likely to go in the top three or so picks of the upcoming NFL draft. He’s been outstanding again this season, limiting rushers to the tune of an average depth of tackle of 1 yard, and he intends to play in the Sugar Bowl. Linebacker Deontae Lawson has also been really solid in run defense, as have many of Alabama’s secondary players like safety DeMarcco Hellams. This is shaping up to be a fascinating battle between a prolific rushing attack and a very stout run defense; its outcome could very well determine that of the game overall.
Bryce Young vs. Kansas State Defense
Put pretty simply, if Kansas State isn’t able to limit Young, it’s not going to matter how well they run the ball, because they won’t be able to build a lead and win the game; he’s just the type of player who can affect a game essentially all on his own. While he battled injuries this year and wasn’t able to make it to New York and defend his title as Heisman winner, Young was still extremely sharp- PFF ranked him as the second-best qualified passer in FBS and the best in Power-5- and carried the least talented Alabama team in years to a number of wins throughout the season. Young takes care of the ball extremely well for someone who’s asked to do so much; on 359 throws, his 5 interceptions came off of just 9 turnover-worthy plays. He wasn’t entirely alone- Alabama still had a top-5 offensive line in the nation, so at the very least Young was well-protected- but he was working with a receiving group devoid of a legitimate star, and one that PFF ranked just short of being top-60 in the nation. Young made up for the lack of a top dog in the group by spreading the ball out really well and keeping things unpredictable; 5 Alabama players had more than 300 receiving yards, but none over 650, with a similar distribution existing for both touchdowns and receptions.
With the 41st-ranked secondary and the 79th-best pass rush in the country, Kansas State has a clear mission; limit Alabama’s receiving group, because getting a lot of pressure on Young does not seem particularly realistic. KSU’s pass rush has basically come down to two players; linebacker Khalid Duke, who has done well to put up a win rate of 17.9% with limited snaps in pass rush, and edge rusher Felix Anudike-Uzomah, who leads the team with 8.5 sacks. Fellow edge rusher Brendan Mott is right behind with 6 sacks, but has not been able to create pressure consistently. There are brighter spots in the secondary, led by safety Cincere Mason who has put up a wild PFF coverage grade of 88.4 while snagging 3 interceptions. Top corner Julius Brents is the team’s next-highest graded player, and also leads the squad with 4 picks. Beyond those two, it’s basically just a well-rounded group that plays good team defense. The question is whether or not they’ll be able to suffocate the ‘Bama wideouts enough to limit Young’s options, even if the pass rush is unable to force him to get the ball out quickly. I think not, but we’ll have to wait until New Year’s Eve to know for sure.