Reflecting on Alabama’s Sugar Bowl history under Nick Saban

Tzali Nislick, Staff Reporter

Inconsistency and the question of what could have been are two themes of the 2022 Alabama football season. A lack of discipline, and perhaps talent in some positions, are two others. It has all led to a pair of regular season losses and a few close-call victories, setting up a date with Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl and a comfortable spot on the couch to watch the top-4 teams in the College Football Playoff.  

At face value, many college football fans across the country may not be taking this game as seriously as they should be. Alabama is arguably the biggest brand in the sport, but Las Vegas suggests nobody should be discounting the Big 12 champions. The Crimson Tide enters the game as 6.5-point favorites, its smallest point spread of the season.  

On top of all of that, Alabama curiously has a checkered history in Sugar Bowl contests. It is just 1-3 in such games under Nick Saban, with a few devastating losses. With Saban’s fifth Sugar Bowl one week away, it’s time to reflect on the Crimson Tide’s four previous matchups with him at the helm. 

2017 vs. Clemson 

Coming off a loss to Auburn, the Crimson Tide found itself at No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings despite being ranked No. 1 all season leading up to the Iron Bowl. Alabama rebounded in a big way, however, pummeling Clemson 24-6 to advance to the College Football Playoff National Championship.  

The Crimson Tide put on a defensive clinic, forcing Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant into two interceptions, the latter being returned for a touchdown by linebacker Mack Wilson to put the stamp on the win. Alabama defensive lineman Daron Payne got it done on both sides, with an interception of his own and a touchdown reception on a creative play design at the goal line. After avenging its Sugar Bowl demons, Alabama went on to beat Georgia for the program’s 17th national title.  

2014 vs. Ohio State 

This semifinal game in the inaugural College Football Playoff was one of the most heartbreaking losses of the Saban era. After jumping out to a 21-6 lead, the Ohio State Buckeyes stormed back, scoring 28 unanswered points. Alabama cut the deficit to 34-28, and many know the story from there.  

With under four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliot carried the ball 85 yards up the middle of the Alabama defense, or as it came to be known, the heart of the South, essentially sealing the deal for Ohio State. Elliot was unstoppable throughout the game, totaling 230 rushing yards and two touchdowns, including the final dagger in Alabama’s chest.  

2013 vs. Oklahoma 

What made the 2014 loss to Ohio State even more painful for Alabama was that it was a year removed from yet another Sugar Bowl loss to the Oklahoma Sooners in 2013, as well as a certain crushing defeat to Auburn that most Alabama fans refuse to talk about — the Kick Six.  

It feels like the 2013 Iron Bowl took all the wind out of the sails for a team that was ranked No. 1 the whole year. The momentum seemed to swing Oklahoma’s way after T.J. Yeldon fumbled in the red zone in the middle of a tied game, leading to a Sooners touchdown to make it 24-17. An A.J. McCarron interception on the ensuing possession set up another Oklahoma touchdown and then a missed field goal capped off a miserable end to the first half for Alabama, trailing 31-17. The Crimson Tide couldn’t overcome the deficit in the second half, ultimately losing the Sugar Bowl to conclude a brutal season. 

2008 vs. Utah 

The 2008 season was the first year of prominence for Alabama under Saban. After entering the year ranked No. 24, the Crimson Tide rattled off wins against then-No. 9 Clemson, then-No. 3 Georgia and then-No. 15 LSU to catapult all the way to No. 1 in the AP Poll. A loss to Florida in the SEC Championship Game poised Alabama for a Sugar Bowl matchup against then-Mountain West foe Utah, for Saban’s first major bowl game with Alabama. 

The Utes started hot, leading 21-0 after the first quarter. Alabama fought back to cut the margin to 21-17, but Utah pulled away at the end to spoil what was an incredible year for the Crimson Tide — a year that put the program back on the map in college football.  

Alabama looks to win its second Sugar Bowl under Saban against Kansas State on Saturday, Dec. 31, at 11 a.m. CT on ESPN.  

Questions or comments? Email Blake Byler (Sports Editor) at [email protected]