When the final chapter of Tua Tagovailoa’s book at The University of Alabama is written, the resulting product is going to be a story of what might have been, above all else.
Alabama seems to have a penchant for this. Joe Namath. Kerry Goode. Linnie Patrick. The most talented, explosive players Alabama signs – the ones for whom multiple championships and accolades seem all but certain – instead become tragic figures, either due to injury, or missteps of their own design.
No one compares, nor likely ever will compare, to Tua Tagovailoa and the wasted (or more appropriately, ruined) opportunities that dotted his career. He won a national championship as a true freshman mop-up player after replacing a slumping Jalen Hurts in the season’s final game. The next two years, he rewrote school record books and set a benchmark for consistency and efficiency for SEC quarterbacks for generations to come – which are rivaled only by his penchant for getting injured late in the season.
His storyline coming out of Starkville on Saturday was familiar: Trying to do too much, trying to salvage a play that didn’t matter in a game that was already well beyond being decided, he was awkwardly sacked and severely injured his hip. His season is now finished, and with it, likely his team’s chances of winning an 18th national championship.
It isn’t just that Alabama would have to go through a tough (if one-dimensional) Auburn team, in Jordan-Hare Stadium, to end the year. Alabama would also likely need to defeat LSU in a rematch in a national semifinal, then take down the winner of a Clemson-Ohio State semi. It was already going to be a difficult task. Now, it’s a task that might not ever get the chance to be completed.
Part of Alabama’s claim to the fourth playoff spot – over champions from either the Big 12 or the PAC-12 – was Tua himself. It’s the reason a lot of people still had LSU and Alabama as No. 1 and No. 1A after their meeting a week ago. Suddenly, a Tua-less Alabama doesn’t look so hot. Alabama will find out just how much damage the injury did to its reputation on Tuesday night, when the college football playoff committee huddles to generate its weekly rankings.
In regards to the Mississippi State game itself, Tua’s injury overshadowed quite a bit. Najee Harris continues to steadily get better in all facets of his game. It was the best game Alabama’s defense had played perhaps all year. And, of course, Tua’s injury overshadowed Tua the quarterback, as he was well on his way to another nearly-flawless afternoon.
Much was made of him being in the game at the time of the injury in the first place. In all fairness to Nick Saban, his presence in the game was understandable, to a degree. Tua’s performance against LSU had more rust on it than a Connecticut Oldsmobile, at least in the first half. He wasn’t going to play much next week against Western Carolina. The next game of significance is Auburn. This was going to be Tua’s last chance to work with the starters in a critical spot in a game; i.e., the two-minute offense.
But hindsight being what it is, it turned out to be a terrible miscalculation on Saban’s part, and Tua himself bears much of the blame. So many injuries have befallen Tua because he simply can’t accept the need to throw the ball away when trouble is coming in his face. Like dealing with a child that keeps touching a hot stove, everyone who has watched Tua the last two years knows the threat of injury is there, and made worse by his stubbornness. Those fears became manifest Saturday afternoon.
What happens from here is anyone’s guess. If the playoff committee drops Alabama behind either Oregon or Utah this Tuesday, you can consider the season over, at least in the absence of miracles. Dropping Bama from the five-spot would be a signal that the committee is setting Alabama up to get jumped by the PAC-12 champion. And that’s assuming Alabama can walk into Jordan-Hare and beat Auburn with less than its best weaponry in place.
As for Tua, the NFL Draft awaits. The unfortunate side effect to the injury, from his perspective, is that it threatens to drop him into the middle of the first round, thereby costing him bonus money. At least it gets him out of the clutches of such woeful franchises as Miami and Cincinnati.
But oh, what could have been. Such a loss. Such a terrible loss.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Mississippi State
1. Defensive line probably had its best day in many weeks, even with the injuries. Alabama held Mississippi State roughly 30 yards below its season average in rushing offense, then added a sack and four QB hurries on the day. Outside of two long runs given up to QB Tommy Stevens, the defense as a whole, and in particular the front, controlled the pace of play almost absolutely. Alabama is at its best up front when it can keep its primary focus on the running game, rather than having to defend the pass first, as it had to against LSU. Linebackers Shane Lee and Christian Harris were able to stay on the field throughout, and they combined for 16 tackles, 2 QB hurries, an interception and half a sack. Without the receivers necessary to stretch the defense, Misssissippi State’s offense couldn’t get past Alabama’s pressure in the 10-yard zone just beyond the line of scrimmage. When Alabama can control that area of the field, it doesn’t lose many games.
2. Najee Harris continues to dominate, and he’ll be needed against Auburn and beyond. Harris ran for 88 yards and caught another 51 yards in passes out of the backfield, plus scored four times. He’s been a different running back the last month or so of the season and Alabama will lean on him doubly so as the season winds down. Harris’ combination of speed, power and balance is hard to defend, and he’s borne more than just a passing resemblance to Derrick Henry lately. Brian Robinson Jr. also had a nice day coming off the bench, averaging 7 yards per carry, even if he did drop a screen pass that could have gone for a long gain. If Alabama continues to up its RB usage, third-teamer Keilan Robinson will have to be ready to get at least a few carries against opposing defenses’ 1s. But basically, with Tua out, Alabama is going to go just as far as Najee Harris will carry them.
3. Jones did well in relief, and may be more ready to lead than people think. He’s not as dynamic as Tua, which at the moment means he’s not going to be a fan favorite. We’ve often wondered how the Alabama fan base would transition to the next starting QB after Tua’s departure; now we get to find out, much to our chagrin, in 2019. Jones’ skill set is built perfectly for short passes that demand accuracy, with the occasional throw over the top. He worked that plan to perfection against Arkansas, and had Alabama called his number from the outset this Saturday, the Tide would still have had no trouble beating Mississippi State. The pressure is going to be on in two weeks when the Crimson Tide visits Auburn, but Jones is probably already better than Auburn’s Bo Nix. The question is whether he’ll be ready to play on that stage, given his lack of opportunities when the chips were down.
4. Defensive backfield responded strongly to LSU-game criticism, but they had help. Bama bounced back from Joe Burrow’s torching to give up just 82 yards through the air. But then again, LSU would have only had that many yards had the Tigers’ wide receivers been as awful as Mississippi State’s. The Bulldog program isn’t going to get anywhere in the SEC until it upgrades the talent at this position group. Aside from Stephen Guidry, MSU had no one that could get separation from Alabama’s cornerbacks – and Guidry still had just 3 catches for 18 yards. But this wasn’t all on Mississippi State; Alabama played with more focus and confidence against the Bulldogs.
5. Cue the obligatory “injuries are mounting up” speech. Raekwon Davis was having his most impactful day in some time when he got leg-whipped by teammate Christian Barmore and twisted an ankle. D.J. Dale tweaked a knee. Henry Ruggs III hurt his rib or shoulder area somehow, and then of course there’s Tua. The losses at defensive line won’t really affect Alabama next week – Tevita Musika might get to start on Senior Day with Dale out, for that matter – but there’s a point of critical mass for Alabama relative to both its injuries and its ability to beat Auburn on the road, to say nothing of the playoffs. The good news is that Alabama has saved up redshirt time for several players; it would not be a surprise to see Braylen Ingraham and Ishmael Sopsher play some this week, for instance. And we haven’t even touched on the effects of missing players like TE Miller Forristall and PK Will Reichard. At this point in the season, every team is likely to have a few injuries. But Alabama’s bad luck the past few years has been almost unbelievable.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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