The Sugar Bowl will be interesting for the same reason it isn’t.
Feel free to read that again.
The fact Alabama’s 11 am New Year’s Eve date doesn’t come with the typical stakes clearly sapped some of the December juice. With that, however, comes a degree of freedom not possible in playoff semifinals.
Subplots to the main storyline emerge, even after Bryce Young and Will Anderson announced they’d be playing in the 2022 finale with Kansas State. How long will he play? And will Ty Simpson get a look along with Jalen Milroe as the 2023 QB Derby gets a head start.
The Citrus Bowl following the 2019 season offered some degree of foreshadowing in this similar scenario. There were no questions at quarterback after Tua Tagovailoa went down with the season-ending hip injury and Mac Jones used his afternoon in Orlando to make his case for the 2020 starting gig.
What about the motivation level of a team that finished one spot out of the playoff? That Citrus Bowl win over Michigan was a launching pad for a national title the following season, much like the 2010 win over Michigan State in the same bowl. Alabama twice came out flat in no-stakes Sugar Bowls with convincing losses to Utah (2008) and Oklahoma (2013).
Nick Saban on Friday said he liked the mentality he saw from his team after the first of the Tuscaloosa bowl practices.
“This is not something that is not important to us,” he said. “We have a lot that we can prove in this game.”
“Even though it’s not a playoff game, it’s still a huge game for us,” said Alabama defensive back Brian Branch. “We are going with the same mindset as we did in the previous game. I feel like it’s even a bigger time for us in this game and we’ve got to work hard.”
Philosophically, this can go in any number of directions.
Some teams use bowl games as a quasi-preseason game with young players getting more reps than the outgoing veterans.
Asked on Tuesday about the young players impressing in practice, running back Jahmyr Gibbs named guard Tyler Booker and receivers Isaiah Bond, Kendrick Law and Kobe Prentice.
Having four receivers and five offensive linemen enter the transfer portal has limited depth at those positions. Only one of them, offensive guard Javion Cohen, was a starter and Booker has been rotating there so the top five remains close to intact up front.
“It’s given guys an opportunity to step up and see what they can show,” starting center Seth McLaughlin said. “We’ve had a lot of guys leave, and I wish the best for them. They’ve had to make their own decisions, and I love all those guys. Those are my brothers, so I’m excited to see these young guys step up and see how they do.
Gibbs, a junior projected as an early-round NFL draft prospect, said he never considered sitting out the bowl game because he’s never played in one. The transfer from Georgia Tech endured a pair of three-win seasons before coming to Alabama.
“It hasn’t gone as we wanted this season,” Gibbs said Tuesday. “So, we’re trying to finish the season off right.”
Other potential NFL draft opt outs like Branch, Jordan Battle and Henry To’o To’o chose to play instead of watch.
The only two opt outs in this era came in that Citrus Bowl after the 2019 season when Trevon Diggs and Terrell Lewis began draft prep early. Diggs’ absence opened the door for Josh Jobe to grab first-team snaps in the 35-16 win over Michigan and the cornerback would keep the job for all 13 games of the following season.
This Alabama secondary will likely look much different next season with DeMarcco Hellams graduating and NFL decisions to come for Battle, Branch and possibly Eli Ricks.
“I feel like the secondary next year is probably going to be better than the secondary this year,” Branch said. “More of my teammates will be more comfortable and I expect great things.”
Help in the secondary is coming from the No. 1-ranked recruiting class but none can help in the Sugar Bowl. The Tide will be without 12 players who were on the roster this season but entered the transfer portal.
Saban took an it-is-what-it-is approach to the transfers. It sounds like a challenge to pride for Saban as he continues practice Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in Tuscaloosa before taking a break and heading to New Orleans on Dec. 26.
“We’re going to play a really good team that plays short of old-fashioned, tough, very disciplined, well-coached — so there’s no way to make it easy to prepare for a team like that,” Saban said. “So for us to have the right mindset and have a good respect for what it takes to have success against a good team like this — I think it’s imperative and how we go about trying to prepare for this game.”
Michael Casagrande is a reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @ByCasagrande or on Facebook.