First look at Sugar Bowl: How Alabama, Kansas State can win

Linebacker Henry To'oTo'o is the centerpiece of an Alabama defense that will have its hands full with Kansas State. Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY Sports

We've seen this scene before in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. A Big 12 champion comes in riding high against an SEC team that is disappointed that it's not in the title hunt. It's the classic "didn't want to be there" scenario.

The SEC has had a team in nine of the past 10 Sugar Bowls that weren't a part of the BCS or the College Football Playoff, and those teams are 3-6: Florida beat Cincinnati in 2010; Ole Miss beat Oklahoma State in 2016; and Georgia beat Baylor in 2020.

Two of the biggest upsets in recent years fit the bill, however, of high-profile SEC teams that seemed focused on a national title or bust. No. 3 Alabama lost to No. 10 Oklahoma 45-31 in the 2014 game and No. 6 Georgia lost to No. 14 Texas 28-21 in 2019.

Playing the role of Big 12 champion this time is Kansas State, fresh off an upset of TCU, which made the playoff despite the loss. The Wildcats face playoff regular Alabama, and there already has been a flood of Crimson Tide players entering the transfer portal. Nick Saban said Sunday that he can't say yet who might sit out the bowl game to prepare for the draft.

"We're going to coach the players that are there," Saban said. "We're going to try to coach them to do the best possible job that they can."

No. 5 Alabama vs. No. 9 Kansas State
Allstate Sugar Bowl
When: Saturday, Dec. 31 at noon ET
Where: Caesars Superdome, New Orleans
How to watch: ESPN and ESPN App
Opening line via Caesars Sportsbook: Alabama by 4


Key player: Henry To'oTo'o is going to have his hands full, whether it's trying to corral Kansas State running back Deuce Vaughn or disrupt quarterbacks Will Howard and/or Adrian Martinez. To'oTo'o is the heart of the Tide defense at middle linebacker. He calls all the plays and is second on the team in tackles (89), including seven tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. He'll have to be a sure-handed tackler against the Wildcats' ninth-ranked rushing offense, a dynamic attack that has picked up 44.7% of its yards after contact.

X factor: Receiver has been a problem all season long for Alabama. The Tide haven't had anyone who can consistently create separation. What's more, they've had 25 drops, the second most in the SEC. And now, thanks to the transfer portal, they're down two of their most experienced receivers in JoJo Earle and Traeshon Holden. So the outlook isn't great. They need someone to step up, whether it's Kendrick Law, who has carved out a role for himself as a freshman late this season, or Tyler Harrell, who came to Alabama from Louisville with high expectations but has yet to deliver.

How Alabama wins: It might be an oversimplification, but Alabama needs its players to actually play in this game. For starters, it needs quarterback Bryce Young and outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr. -- two of the top 10 players in the country and projected first-round picks in the NFL draft -- not to opt out and leave early to go pro. Then, the Tide need to cut off the flow of players to the transfer portal. To be competitive, the Tide need to have a healthy roster. But there's also the question of motivation. Saban is preaching the opportunity for players to finish the season strong and create value in the eyes of the NFL, but after coming up just short of the playoff, it's fair to wonder how locked into this game they'll be.

Kansas State

Key player: Deuce Vaughn is one of the most entertaining players in college football. At 5-foot-6, 172 pounds, the dynamic running back had eight 100-yard games, including rushing for 130 yards and a touchdown in the Big 12 championship win over TCU. Vaughn also caught 42 passes for 378 yards and three touchdowns this season, averaging 138.7 total yards per game, 13th best in the FBS.

X factor: The Wildcats' quarterback situation. Adrian Martinez played well after transferring from Nebraska, but got hurt in October against TCU. Martinez returned against Texas, but K-State lost that one, then Will Howard took over. He led the Wildcats to a four-game winning streak, including throwing for two touchdowns and running for another in the upset win over TCU. Coach Chris Klieman, however, said before the championship game that there could be a package featuring Martinez if he was healthy enough to play. Given the amount of time he'll have to rest, there's a chance both quarterbacks could play against Alabama.

How Kansas State wins: Klieman is 3-0 in his career against AP top-five opponents, the only coach with multiple wins of that sort without a loss. He's won a lot of games and just became the first K-State coach not named Bill Snyder to win 10 games since 1910. He deftly guided the Wildcats through a Big 12 schedule against eight teams that went to bowl games and did it by playing a physical style similar to Snyder's old teams, with Snyder's old QB, Collin Klein, calling plays. Against an Alabama team that could be breaking in several new faces, his experience could be the difference. If the defense and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Felix Anudike-Uzomah get after Alabama the way they did Max Duggan (2-of-10 for 21 yards with an interception and a sack on third down), they could pull off another upset.