NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Alabama coach Nick Saban gave his players a history lesson after they learned they'd been left out of the College Football Playoff and would instead meet Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl.
The last two times the Crimson Tide played in New Orleans on the heels of similar disappointments, it didn't go well.
“That was kind of the first thing that coach Saban discussed” when bowl practices commenced earlier this month, Alabama offensive lineman Emil Ekiyor Jr. said. “The attitude of this team has been completely opposite of the attitude that he explained that those teams had."
The 2008 Crimson Tide was favored against Utah in the Sugar Bowl that season, but lost by two touchdowns. The 2013 squad was favored in the Sugar Bowl, too, but lost — again, by two touchdowns — to Oklahoma.
This time, No. 5 Alabama (10-2) heads into Saturday's game favored by 6 1/2 points over No. 11 and Big 12 champion Kansas State (10-3), according to Fanduel Sportsbook.
“We’ve been really focused. We’ve been doing extra lifts, extra sprints after practice, extra film, just treating this game like it’s our championship,” Ekiyor said. “I’m really excited to see how we perform because I know we put a lot into it.”
The Wildcats have expressed similar sentiments heading into the first game ever played between the programs.
“Growing up, I always looked at Alabama as the best program in college football history,” Kansas State defensive end Felix Anudike-Uzomah said. “So, it’s a dream come true and an honor the play them.”
Kansas State lost three of its first nine games, but arrived in New Orleans on a four-game winning streak — including a dramatic overtime victory over No. 3 TCU in the Big 12 title game — that has put the Wildcats in position to make this season among the most memorable in program history.
“Not many people expected Kansas State to be in this position this year,” Wildcats coach Chris Klieman said. “We have a number of kids that are going to have opportunities to play at the next level, but we haven’t had a kid on our football team that’s had an opportunity to play in the Sugar Bowl, and to play in a New Year’s Six game. That’s really special.”
Alabama has played in the national title game or CFP semifinal in all but three of the past 14 seasons. So Saban has to guard against let-downs when his team enters bowl season outside the national title picture.
“It’s more challenging when that’s sort of a goal for what the players work for all year long and came up short,” Saban said. “But I think that our players have had the right disposition and the right mindset."
While many non-playoff bowl games that have seen high-profile NFL draft prospects opt out, the best players for Alabama and Kansas State were expected to suit up for the Sugar Bowl.
Quarterback Bryce Young, a 2021 Heisman Trophy winner and first 'Bama QB to pass for 3,000-plus yards in consecutive seasons, is among those planning to play, along with Crimson Tide All-America edge rusher Will Anderson Jr., Kansas State running back Deuce Vaughn and Wildcats defensive end Anudike-Uzomah.
“The best thing you can do to create value for your future is to play really well against really good teams,” Saban said. “I’m very pleased that they chose to do this.”
Saban said that when players say they're opting out to prepare for the draft, they really mean the NFL Combine.
“A lot of things you do at the combine are irrelevant to what you do playing football,” Saban asserted, citing seven-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady, "who didn’t run fast at the combine, didn’t jump high, didn’t bench press a lot, didn’t do all of the things that they measure ... but he can play quarterback."
Klieman said Kansas State's top players “weren’t going to let their teammates down, and it was never even a conversation that we even had to have. I never asked anybody, ‘Are you going to play in this game?’”
Kansas State season-opening starting QB Adrian Martinez is ready to return from a Nov. 12 injury, but Will Howard is slated to remain in his recent role as starter.
Kansas State is 5-1 in games when Howard has had to step in. Howard has gone 4-0 as a starter, including in the Big 12 title game against TCU. K-State went 1-1 when Howard came off the bench.
“Will Howard is ready for this stage,” Klieman said, but also indicated that there would be a package of plays for Martinez.
“Both of those two quarterbacks have helped us win that (conference) championship,” Klieman said. “They’ve become really, really good friends, and excited to see both of those guys on this big stage.”
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