Instant analysis: Alabama surges in the Sugar Bowl to give Bryce Young a sweet ending

Alabama’s Sugar Bowl on Saturday was a microcosm of its season as a whole: a little bit of 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 blow past Kansas State, 45-20, and finish its season 11-2.

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

It might not have been a storybook, national title-winning ending for Young, but it was the next-best scenario for Alabama. After a pair of midseason losses knocked the Tide’s season off track, Saban rallied his players to win their final two SEC games — then the team rallied behind Young to put their best foot forward in the Sugar Bowl.

Alabama gained 496 total yards and averaged nine yards per offensive play, its second-highest in a bowl game after it averaged 10.6 yards per play in the 1935 Rose Bowl.

Now the preparation begins 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 having accepted invitations to the Senior Bowl and four juniors as virtual locks to enter the 2023 NFL draft.

Even though the underclassmen had yet to declare, there was a sense of finality for Young, outside linebacker Will Anderson, running back Jahmyr Gibbs and safety Brian Branch in New Orleans.

Anderson did not record any statistics as he rotated with junior Chris Braswell at his position, but the other three made their impact felt on the stat sheet.

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

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

Young opened 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 its 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 a little more than a minute into the second half when he dropped a 32-yard touchdown into the hands of wide receiver Ja’Corey Brooks. K-State turned the ball over three plays later, and McClellan answered immediately 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 of second-round pick in April, averaged 5.1 yards on 15 carries on top of his 66 receiving yards. The touchdown for Latu, a departing 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 headed for the Senior Bowl, picked off Howard on the first possession of the game and fellow starting safety De’Marcco Hellams, also part of the Senior Bowl, had a team-high 13 tackles.

K-State puts an early scare in Alabama, then falls flat

The 60,437 fans in 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.

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

When Alabama responded with 35 consecutive points, the SEC chants instead echoed through the Superdome and the purple half of the venue fell silent.

Besides Young’s mastery, the pivotal 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 a third-down incompletion erased by a hands-to-the-face penalty against defensive lineman DJ Dale. But on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line, Howard missed his throw to the end zone and Kansas State never threatened again while the game was in question.

Other than his 88-yard score, Vaughn finished with 45 yards on 21 carries.

What’s next for Alabama, coaching staff?

The majority of Alabama’s offseason roster movement 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 the juniors declaring for the NFL draft.

But there are some personnel questions that remain. Junior cornerback Eli Ricks and fifth-year wide receiver Tyler Harrell, both transfer additions last offseason, both have yet to reveal their future plans. Alabama has added one incoming transfer in Maryland tight end CJ Dippre, but will it dip into the transfer portal again and fill roster holes with external players like it did a year ago?

And will any more Alabama players enter the transfer portal after the bowl game? The window for underclassmen closes Jan. 18, but another will open from April 15-30, after spring practices start to answer questions about the 2023 depth chart.

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

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

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

Milroe’s playing time against Arkansas and Texas A&M makes him more of a known quantity than Simpson, the five-star freshman who attempted five passes in the regular season — playing less than Young did as Mac Jones’ backup in 2020.

The new quarterback will need to re-build a connection with his receivers that Young mastered by his assumed final game Saturday. Burton, Brooks, Bond and fellow freshman Kobe Prentice — who shook a defender for 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, too.

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

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