Snapshot analysis: Alabama emerges at Sugar Bowl to give Bryce Young a sweet ending

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Alabama’s Sugar Bowl on Saturday was a microcosm of its season as a whole: a little sour, a lot of sweet, and not much clarity about what’s next.

The slow-starting Tide fell behind 10-0 but scored 35 points to edge Kansas State 45-20 to finish their season at 11-2.

The likely final game of Bryce Young’s three seasons as Alabama’s starting quarterback was one of his most efficient. He threw five touchdown passes on 15 completions in the first three quarters, before Nick Saban gave his two-time captain and Heisman Trophy winner a curtain-raiser midway through the fourth quarter.

It may not have been a storybook, national title-winning finish for Young, but it was the second-best scenario for Alabama. After two midseason losses derailed the Tide’s season, Saban rallied his players to win their final two SEC games – then the team rallied behind Young to do their best in the Sugar Bowl.

Alabama gained 496 total yards and averaged nine yards per game offensively, their second most in a bowl game after averaging 10.6 yards per game in the 1935 Rose Bowl.

Now begins the preparation for the 2023 season and the changes it will bring.

Final chapter written for Young, Anderson and others

Alabama entered Saturday’s game with nine seniors accepting Senior Bowl invites and four juniors as virtual locks to enter the 2023 NFL draft.

Even though the rookies hadn’t declared yet, there was a sense of finality for Young, outside linebacker Will Anderson, running back Jahmyr Gibbs and safety Brian Branch in New Orleans.

Anderson didn’t record any stats when alternating with junior Chris Braswell in his position, but the other three made their impact felt on the stat sheet.

It all started with Young, who collected an early 11-yard sack and missed Jermaine Burton on a deep pass in the first quarter, but was essentially perfect after that. Alabama punted on its first two drives, gaining just 26 total yards, but then scored touchdowns on its next five offensive possessions led by Young.

With Alabama up 3-and-10 and trailing 10-0 late in the first quarter, Young hit Gibbs on a 60-yard catch-and-run that led to a 6-yard touchdown run by wide receiver Isaiah Bond three plays later. .

Young opened up the Wildcats’ defense in the second quarter, finding Burton for 47 yards and later tight end Cameron Latu for a 1-yard touchdown. The masterpiece of the first half came when Alabama received the ball at their own 2-yard line with 1:01 left. Big runs by Gibbs and junior Jase McClellan pushed the Tide past midfield where Young hit Burton (28 yards), Latu (22 yards) and Burton (12 yards) to give Alabama a 21-10 halftime lead .

Young’s fourth touchdown came just over a minute into the second half when he had a 32-yard touchdown run into the hands of wide receiver Ja’Corey Brooks. K-State turned the ball over three plays later, and McClellan immediately responded with a 17-yard run that put the game out of reach for Kansas State at 35-10.

Gibbs, projected as a late first-round pick in the second round in April, averaged 5.1 yards on 15 carries in addition to his 66 receiving yards. The touchdown by Latu, an outgoing fifth-year senior, was his fourth of the season. He caught all five of his targets for 54 yards.

Branch, an expected first-round pick, intercepted K-State quarterback Will Howard in the third quarter, sacked him in the fourth quarter, and finished with four tackles for a loss. Safety Jordan Battle, a four-year starter going into the Senior Bowl, shut out Howard on the game’s first possession and teammate De’Marcco Hellams, also a Senior Bowl starter, had a team-high 13 tackles.

K-State puts scare on early Alabama, then crashes

The 60,437 fans at the Superdome leaned in favor of Kansas State, which was making its first trip to a New Year’s Six bowl game since the 2012 season.

KSU chants were heard loud and clear during the Wildcats’ 10-0 start, which included an 88-yard touchdown run by Deuce Vaughn in the first quarter.

When Alabama responded with 35 straight points, the SEC’s cheers echoed through the Superdome and the purple half of the venue fell silent.

In addition to Young’s dominance, the crucial moment came in the second quarter, when Kansas State, trailing by four points, led a 17-play drive with a chance to take the lead. It included a pair of fourth-down conversions by the Wildcats and an incomplete third down erased by a hand-to-face penalty against defensive lineman DJ Dale. But on the fourth goal from the 2-yard line, Howard missed his throw into the end zone and Kansas State never threatened again while the game was in question.

In addition to his 88-yard scoring, Vaughn finished with 45 yards on 21 carries.

What’s next for Alabama coaching staff?

Most of Alabama’s offseason roster move has already happened, in the case of its 11 scholarship players entering the transfer portal, or is expected to happen soon, in the case of juniors declaring for the NFL draft.

But there are some personal issues that remain. Junior cornerback Eli Ricks and fifth-year wide receiver Tyler Harrell, both signed last offseason, have yet to reveal their future plans. Alabama has added an inbound transfer in Maryland tight end CJ Dippre, but will he dive into the transfer portal again and fill roster holes with outfielders like he did a year ago?

And will more Alabama players enter the transfer portal after the bowl game? The freshman window closes on Jan. 18, but another one will open April 15-30 after spring training begins to answer questions about the 2023 depth chart.

The most immediate issues involve the coaching staff. Offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien’s contract expires after this season and NFL slots could open up after the league’s regular season ends next weekend. Safety coach Charles Kelly has already joined the Colorado team as defensive coordinator, but will any other assistants leave the team or find jobs elsewhere?

The coming days and weeks will provide answers to all these questions.

What might not be answered so quickly: Who is Alabama’s starting quarterback in 2023? With Young opting to play in the bowl game, the Tide’s top two picks for the upcoming season, Jalen Milroe and Ty Simpson, were again spectators of Young’s greatness.

Milroe’s playing time against Arkansas and Texas A&M makes him better known than Simpson, the five-star rookie who attempted five passes in the regular season – playing less than Young as backup to Mac Jones in 2020.

The new quarterback will need to rebuild a connection with his receivers that Young dominated in his presumed final game on Saturday. Burton, Brooks, Bond and fellow rookie Kobe Prentice – who rattled a quarterback to a 47-yard touchdown on the final play of the third quarter – all caught touchdown passes from Young. All are expected to return next season as well.

Mike Rodak is an Alabama reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @mikerodak.

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