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Sugar Bowl Preview: When Alabama has the Ball

Kansas State’s defense might have Alabama fans seeing double

NCAA Football: Big 12 Football Championship-Texas Christian at Kansas State Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

When Coach Chris Kliemen and his handpicked DC, Joe Klanderman, took over in 2020, they led the Wildcats to one of the worst defenses in football, allowing 31 points per game. In the two seasons since, though, they’ve consistently hovered right at 20 points per game - Solidly a top 25 defense in back to back years.

For better or for worse, Klanderman runs a very similar scheme to what Alabama runs under Pete Golding. It’s a 3-3-5 base that tends to rotate into a 2-4-5 for nickel. Graduate transfer safety Drake Cheatum plays the Jordan Battle role of being a deep centerfield safety, while senior transfer Josh Hayes and freshman VJ Payne work up to the line of scrimmage and out of the slot much more often.

Payne is an exciting freshman, to be sure, but he’s also having to take over for All-Big 12 safety Kobe Savage, who went down for the season in mid-November. Hayes is the Brian Branch of the group as a smaller guy who hits like a freight train and is a do-it-all slot safety. He and Cheatum have combined for 130 tackles.

At cornerback, Julius Brents leads the team with 4 picks. He’s a 6’4” outside cornerback with active arms and sticky coverage. He can be beaten downfield and will bite on gambles, but he’s also a danger to breakup passes or make interceptions he shouldn’t be able to. Again, like Alabama, their outside corners mostly stick to the sidelines with Cover 6 match style coverages and rarely work to the middle, leaving that up to the triage of safeties.

Linebacker Austin Moore leads the team with 85 tackles and 10 TFLS. He’s an undersized, speedy guy that’s really more of a blitzing safety than a true linebacker. And then Daniel Green and Khalid Duke round out the linebacker crew as 245+ pound guys that are more built to take on blockers. Green plays inside and Duke tends to line up more on the strongside and can put his hand in the dirt. Senior Nick Allen also rotates in regularly.

On the defensive line, Felix Anudike-Uzomah is the only true pass rusher on the defense. He’s a first team All-Big 12 player with 11 TFLs and 8.5 sacks on the season. Essentially, he plays the same role as Will Anderson as a linebacker-sized defensive lineman.

The rest of the defensive line really rotates quite a few players into two spots. Brendan Mott plays end on passing downs and is next on the team with 6 sacks, and he’s spelled with Nate Matlack. Meanwhile, Eli Huggins, Robert Hentz, and Jaylen Pickle fill the role of 300 lb run stuffers who play both NT and interior DE. They’re mostly interchangeable and usually only 1, sometimes 2 play at a time. Huggins is the leader, or DJ Dale of the group as the team’s starting nose tackle.

They’re a good pass defense, only allowing a 57% completion rate at 6.3 yards per attempt, and they have a 1:1 interception to TD ratio on the season. Rushing-wise, they’re more just OK, giving up 150 yards per game at 4.3 yards per attempt.

For the Tide, I think this should be a familiar matchup. The defense should feel very similar to what they face in practice every day. They run the safety triangle look on the interior with two outside corners expected to hold down their sidelines (for better or worse, they’re on their own), and they typically have on legit edge rush, some interior mush rush, and hope to fill out the rest with regular linebacker blitzes.

And just like Alabama’s defense, they can also be had in the run game. They lack the size and explosive strength up the middle, and the best tacklers are two safeties and an undersized LB, all of whom can be blocked into oblivion by offensive linemen if the DL is unable to keep them clean.

I like the Wildcats’ secondary a lot, and I think they’ll make things tough on Bryce Young and his receivers to get passes completed. However, I think their front seven really lacks the horses to keep up, and Alabama’s OL should have one of their better games of the season. Young should be able to scramble for a whole lot of yards if he doesn’t refuse to do it, and the Tide’s run game should really click if Bill O’Brien doesn’t abandon it.

Two big “if’s” there, but I think there’s a path for good 35-point and a whole-lot-of-clock kind of day from Alabama’s offense.