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For Both Alabama and Kansas State, Reputation is on the Line in the Sugar Bowl

While the Crimson Tide’s reputation precedes it wherever it goes, the Wildcats are striving to build an emerging reputation — and the Sugar Bowl provides a perfect opportunity.
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NEW ORLEANS — Reputation.

It can be both a blessing and a curse. Reputation has the potential to impress or even motivate others to do better. Or it can just as easily shine a poor light upon something — or someone — that forces perspectives to change.

For the Alabama Crimson Tide, reputation is something that has always preceded it. Even during the late 1990s and early 2000s, a win over what was a lackluster Crimson Tide team was still considered something to be proud of. Since even before the days of Paul 'Bear' Bryant, defeating Alabama on the gridiron — regardless of the date, stadium or situation — has always meant something to the Crimson Tide's opponents.

This year alone, the two fanbases whose teams were able to defeat Alabama both stormed the field in first Knoxville, then Baton Rouge. While it took Tennessee 16 years to take down Nick Saban, the Tigers' most recent win came just a few years ago in 2019.

When someone beats Alabama, it means a lot to not just the players, coaches and fans. Entire programs can consider their season a success simply because of the fact that, at the end of the day, the Crimson Tide suffered a loss at the hands of their team.

And now, it's the Kansas State Wildcats' turn to attempt to achieve that same success.

On Saturday morning inside the Caesars Superdome, Alabama will be facing Kansas State in the 2022 Allstate Sugar Bowl. The Wildcats are riding one of their biggest wins in a decade: a 31-28 overtime thriller over No. 3 TCU in the Big 12 Championship Game.

On the opposite sideline, the Crimson Tide is missing the College Football Playoff for just the second time since the format's inception. But despite two losses, no CFP berth and no SEC Championship, the reputation of Alabama still precedes it.

"The Nick Saban era of Alabama football has been something that I grew up watching," Kansas State running back Deuce Vaughn said on Thursday. "I watched the rise of Alabama and how they’ve stayed at the top for all these years, it’s a historic program. They’ve played in games like this and games higher. They have won national championships in recent years and over the past ten to fifteen years.

"I’m super excited for this opportunity. This is a game that I have always wanted to play in, the Sugar Bowl against a top five team in the nation and a program like Alabama. So, I’m super excited."

During Thursday's media availabilities for the Sugar Bowl, members of Kansas State's offense and Alabama's defense took to the stage as well as their respective coordinators. While the mentality for the Crimson Tide was the same as it always appears — an approachable attitude that reads laid-back-yet-laser-focused — the attitude displayed by the Wildcats was much more serious in nature.

Make no mistake: Kansas State didn't come to The Big Easy just to eat gumbo and take a walk down Bourbon Street.

"We’re here to win," Wildcats offensive lineman Cooper Beebe said. "We know it’s Alabama, we know the challenge that’s ahead, but we’re here to win. We didn’t come here to just say, 'Hey, we made a Sugar Bowl.' We’re coming here to win and that’s our ultimate goal."

Kansas State is taking a serious approach to the Sugar Bowl, and with good reason. Not only are the Wildcats stacked up against the Crimson Tide, but it is also trying to avoid repeating history. 2012 marked the last time that not only was Kansas State named Big 12 champs, but it was also the last time the team reached a New Year's Six bowl game — which was referred to back then as a BCS bowl as the Fiesta Bowl, Orange Bowl, Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl were part of the Bowl Championship Series prior to 2014.

The Cotton Bowl and the Peach Bowl were added to create the New Year's Six in the same year as the inaugural College Football Playoff in 2014.

Whether called a BCS bowl or a New Year's Six bowl, neither have been frequent happenings for Kansas State. Over the course of its 110-year history, the Wildcats have only played in six BCS/New Year's Six bowls, with this year's Sugar Bowl marking the seventh. The 2013 Fiesta Bowl was the last time that Kansas State participated in one — a 35-17 loss at the hands of the Oregon Ducks.

The 2022 Sugar Bowl certainly means a lot to the Wildcats, but it also means a good bit to the Crimson Tide team who is out to prove that it belonged in the CFP.

Alabama defensive back Kool-Aid McKinstry might have said it best when summarizing his team's emotions compared to the Wildcats heading into the game.

"It’s very important to go out with a win, with a bang, and that’s how we feel," McKinstry said. "That’s the main reason why we’ll embrace the guys who are playing who could’ve opted out but came back and are going to play with us. They feel like they want to go out with a bang. I feel like us as a team, the younger guys, also want to go out with a bang.

"They [Kansas State] think it’s their Super Bowl but I would say that it’s ours too. We play every game like it’s the Super Bowl or a National Championship."

Alabama is used to receiving opponents' best performances. The reputation of the Crimson Tide far precedes it. Under Saban, the team has turned into a program that young kids play in the backyard dreaming of playing in a crimson and white jersey — or being the star player on the team that takes them down.

When you have that kind of target on your back 24/7/365, it can be tough for defenses to adjust from week to week.

Alabama defensive coordinator Pete Golding noted that at Alabama, he and his players have simply come to expect that their opponent will not only play their best but also that the tale of the tape isn't quite as easy to interpret.

"I think this biggest difference probably — having been at Alabama and other places — is you're not really gonna get what you've seen on tape from a lot of people," Golding said. "Whether they've done it all year, they're going to go back and [see] what's caused issues for you in the past — regardless of whether it's been in their package or not. A lot of teams are like that."

"The tough part is in the preparation for the kids. You're working in things throughout the week that they're not seeing on tape. Because if you don't work in and expose it to them during the week and that happens in a game, they're not going to be ready for it."

Crimson Tide outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr. noted something similar, but added that the week-to-week adjustments and the challenges that opponents present are what make the game exciting.

"We always know that no matter what, everybody's gonna come with their best — something that we probably haven't seen before — and we do a really good job all week of preparing for what we might see and what we might not see," Anderson said. "Even if they don't do it, we prepare for it so it's very exciting. I think it always keeps us on our toes because it's like, 'Whether they do this, we'll be prepared for it.'

"And if they don't — and if they do something that we haven't seen — we'll just get it fixed on the sideline and we'll keep rolling like that. But it's very exciting and it's been fun."

Reputation. It's something that all teams possess. Whether the team is like Alabama and is projected to reach the CFP prior to essentially every season, or whether it's a team like Kansas State that is playing in its first-ever Sugar Bowl, all teams have a reputation to either live up to or to overcome.

For Alabama, it's the legacy of the juggernaut program that Saban has built. While the Crimson Tide might not be in the playoff this year, it has a reputation to uphold and a standard to live up to. For Kansas State, it's the opportunity to re-emerge as a legitimate program and to build up a reputation as a giant-killer. The Wildcats already have wins over Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Baylor and TCU — why not add Alabama to the mix?

Kansas State quarterback Will Howard will tell you that while he and his teammates are soaking in the atmosphere of New Orleans for the first time, they have no intentions of making this the program's last trip to The Big Easy.

"We know that this is kind of a once in a lifetime opportunity," Howard said. "Hopefully not once in a lifetime. Hopefully we make this an every year thing, but we're trying to take it in as much as we can and enjoy it along with trying to — we didn't just come here for a participation trophy. We didn't just come here because, 'Oh, it's cool, we're playing Alabama.' We came here to win. It's a business trip. And we're looking forward to the game.

"It's a really good challenge and a really good test for us. We put ourselves up against the best."

To both Alabama and Kansas State, the Sugar Bowl means a lot more than just a means to add one final win to the record and cap off the season. No, to each team it means significantly more.

To each program, the Sugar Bowl represents an opportunity to remind fans of what it wants them to remember forever: its reputation, whether it be well-established or just now emerging.

See Also:

Who Could Step Up at WR for Alabama in Sugar Bowl

Where Has Alabama Football's Offense Grown This Season?

How to Watch the Sugar Bowl: Alabama vs Kansas State

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