Some time during the second quarter, a friend looked at me and asked “Do you think Tua will be the starter next season?”
Alabama was trailing Georgia, 6-0, in what had started off as a pretty boring College Football Playoff Championship. My response was basically the grimacing face emoji and an “Eh, maybe two years from now.”
How quickly things can change.
Trailing 13-0 to begin the third quarter, Nick Saban decided to give the true freshman the keys to the kingdom and started Tua Tagovailoa in the second half of a national title game. In somewhat storybook fashion, the Saint Louis School product came off the bench for his first meaningful snaps in a ‘Bama uniform and led the Crimson Tide to a 26-23 overtime victory.
What transpired during those 30 minutes of game action could dramatically alter the landscape of college football for the next few seasons. All of a sudden, the question of whether Tagovailoa will be the starting quarterback for the nation’s most dominant program seems rather silly. When thinking about it early in the game, I had a hard time envisioning how sophomore Jalen Hurts, who had accounted for over 6,700 yards of offense, 61 touchdowns and a 25-2 record as a starter, wouldn’t still be “the guy” next season. But the offense was completely shut down by the Bulldogs in the opening two quarters and Hurts didn’t seem to have any answers. He wasn’t getting anything done from the pocket and when escaping, he was almost always forced to throw the ball away.
The sudden impact of Tagovailoa was dramatic and opened up the entire playbook for Alabama. He was willing to take shots down the field, allowing his receivers an opportunity to make big plays. He was elusive, accurate and poised when he had no reason to be any of those things against one of the country’s best defenses.
But before getting too ahead of ourselves and proclaiming the young southpaw to be the next Mariota, there are still issues to play themselves out. Despite not seeing the field for all but one kneel down in the second half, Hurts still got Alabama to the title game and was as gracious and genuinely happy for his teammate as one could ever hope a young athlete to be. If he is in Tuscaloosa once spring rolls around, he’ll have to still be in the mix and taking snaps with the first team.
On Tuesday, Lane Kiffin said that if Tagovailoa had not played in Monday’s game, he would be looking to transfer from Alabama. To be fair, Kiffin has multiple axes to grind with the Tide, and never hesitates to take a shot at Saban. If he can throw any sort of wrench into the cog that powers the ‘Bama machine, he’s not above doing so.
But it’s not unreasonable to believe this would have been the case.
If Saban had stuck with Hurts a bit longer, he may not have only lost the national championship, but also his young signal caller.
Yet the narrative moving forward appears to be much different than it appeared a mere 48 hours ago. This Alabama team’s ceiling was visible and plateauing, even if it was still just as high as any other program’s.
Now it’s back on an upward trajectory, which means more groans from the rest of the country. But with Tagovailoa pushing himself to the forefront, I’m guessing that SEC viewership in Hawaii is going to be reaching all-time highs.
David Simon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.