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No. 5 Alabama vs. No. 9 Kansas State: Sugar Bowl preview, best bets

Sugar Bowl: No. 5 Alabama vs. No. 9 Kansas State

Location: New Orleans

Date: Dec. 31 (Noon ET)

TV: ESPN

Line: Alabama -6.5

Total: 56

How these teams got here

Alabama (10-2): After losing in the national championship game to Georgia last January, a loaded Alabama team led by reigning Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young was looking to return to that stage this season. Those dreams never materialized. Alabama started the season 6-0, but had close calls vs. Texas and Texas A&M before losing twice in a three-game span. The first loss came on the road to Tennessee in a thrilling 52-49 finish. Two games later, the Crimson Tide lost on the last play yet again. This time, LSU knocked off the Tide 32-31 in Baton Rouge via a successful two-point conversion in overtime.

With two losses, Alabama fell back in the SEC West race and LSU ultimately won the division. Without a chance to win the SEC title, Alabama became a huge long shot to make the College Football Playoff. And though Alabama closed out the regular season with three straight wins, Nick Saban’s team ended up finishing No. 5 in the final CFP rankings — one spot outside the four-team field.

With a national championship no longer on the table, many assumed the Tide’s top players would skip thebowl game and start preparing for the NFL draft. However, surefire first-round picks like Young and edge rusher Will Anderson will be on the field for their final college games.

Alabama quarterback Bryce Young (9) during the first half of an NCAA college football game against LSU in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Tyler Kaufman)
Bryce Young and Alabama are set to take on Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl. (AP Photo/Tyler Kaufman)

Kansas State (10-3): KSU took a significant step forward in its fourth season under head coach Chris Klieman. The Wildcats have always been competitive since Klieman came to Manhattan from North Dakota State, but this year they leap-frogged to the top of the Big 12 and won their first outright conference title since 2003.

K-State had an early home loss to Tulane, but that was the team’s lone blip in a 5-1 start that included a 3-0 mark in conference play. Nebraska transfer Adrian Martinez was the team’s quarterback for the first half of the season before an injury opened the door for Will Howard. Howard saw most of the snaps in a loss to TCU and a win over Oklahoma State before Martinez returned in a 34-27 loss to Texas.

At that point, K-State was 6-3 overall and 4-2 in conference play. The Wildcats have not lost since. Howard took the reins and led the Wildcats into the Big 12 title game with three straight wins to close the regular season. And in the Big 12 title game, K-State knocked off previously unbeaten TCU 31-28 in an overtime thriller to send the program to a New Year’s Six bowl game for the first time since the 2012 season.

Notable transfers/opt outs

Alabama: WR JoJo Earle, WR Traeshon Holden, OG Javion Cohen

Kansas State: None

Players to know

Alabama QB Bryce Young: He was the No. 1 quarterback recruit in the country in 2020 and he has lived up to that billing. After sitting behind Mac Jones as a true freshman, Young stepped into the starting role as a sophomore and quickly emerged as one of the best players in the country. Young led Alabama to an SEC title in 2021 en route to winning the Heisman Trophy. He dealt with a shoulder injury at times this year and had nowhere near the amount of skill talent around him, but he still turned in an excellent season. Entering the bowl game, Young has thrown for 3,007 yards with 27 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He also has four rushing touchdowns on the year.

Kansas State RB Deuce Vaughn: He is one of the best running backs in the country and he’ll get another chance to showcase his skills on a big stage. Listed at just 5-foot-6 and 176 pounds, Vaughn is a threat to take it to the house any time he touches the ball. Vaughn ranks 12th nationally with 1,425 rushing yards on more than 20 attempts per game. Vaughn also has 42 catches for 378 yards and 11 total touchdowns on the season. Vaughn has topped 100 yards in eight games this season. K-State is 8-0 in those games.

Kansas State running back Deuce Vaughn (22) rushes for yardage during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Kansas on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022, in Manhattan, Kan. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)
Deuce Vaughn leads Kansas State in rushing this season with 1,425 yards. He has hit the 100-yard rushing mark in three of his past four games, including in the Big 12 title game. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)

What’s on the line

Alabama: With a win, the Crimson Tide would make it 12 consecutive seasons with at least 11 wins. Alabama is far more accustomed to playing in the College Football Playoff semifinals, but the program has not fared quite as well in non-CFP bowl games under Nick Saban. Alabama beat Michigan in the 2019 Citrus Bowl and crushed Michigan State in the 2011 Capital One Bowl, but the Tide lost both times it played in the Sugar Bowl without national title implications. In the 2008 season, Alabama got blown out by Utah. In the 2013 season, Alabama got blown out by Oklahoma. Saban doesn’t want that to happen again — especially in what’s almost certainly Young’s last game in an Alabama uniform.

Kansas State: This is one of the biggest bowl games in Kansas State history. It's the seventh time in program history that the Wildcats have played in one of the New Year’s Six bowl games. K-State is 2-4 in its six other major bowl appearances, including a 1-2 mark in the Fiesta Bowl. The Wildcats beat Syracuse in 1997 and lost to Ohio State and Oregon in 2003 and 2013, respectively. The 2013 Fiesta Bowl was the most-recent major bowl berth for the program. That season marked the last time K-State reached 11 victories in a season. K-State also has a three-game bowl winning streak vs. SEC opponents.

Best bets

Sam Cooper: With Young playing, Alabama is going to find a way to put up plenty of points on the Superdome's fast track. At the same time, Kansas State is going to be really fired up to play in this game. K-State’s offense has been playing at a high level with Howard and can beat opponents with the downfield passing game or with Vaughn out of the backfield. This could turn into a shootout. Pick: Over 56

Nick Bromberg: An underrated part of this game is going to be the K-State pass rush against an Alabama offensive line that hasn’t been its usual dominant self throughout 2022. Young’s escapability could be huge here and he’ll likely make some off-script plays like he always does. I also think this game could be high-scoring, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the winner gets to 40 points. Pick: Over 56

Alabama head coach Nick Saban walks along the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college football game between Mississippi and Alabama in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Thomas Graning)
Alabama head coach Nick Saban walks along the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college football game between Mississippi and Alabama in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Thomas Graning)