Two ex-quarterbacks who had led their college teams to national titles began signaling just as overtime began in Monday’s national title game. New Nebraska coach Scott Frost, in town to collect the Eddie Robinson Award for his work at UCF, stood near the sideline as Alabama and Georgia rolled toward their epic finish. Former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow had to stay near the SEC Network set so he could jump on the air when the game ended.
They couldn’t hear one another, so Frost used a silent count protocol. He mimicked throwing with his left hand. The message? That lefty out there for Alabama is something. Tebow, the last southpaw quarterback to win a national title, smiled and nodded. Absolutely.
And that was before Tua Tagovailoa threw perhaps the most important pass in Alabama’s storied football history. Now, his performance has the entire sport buzzing. At the American Football Coaches Association convention in Charlotte, coaches from schools across the country debated in hallways and on barstools whether they would have had the guts to pull a quarterback who had gone 25–2 as a starter (Jalen Hurts) for a true freshman who had only gotten mop-up duty all season. One veteran Power 5 head coach summed it up best: Down 13–0 at halftime of the national title game with an offense that felt barely functional, Alabama coach Nick Saban had to try something. But since that move paid off in the form of a miracle finish and a national title, it has raised some significant questions.
• Is Tagovailoa unquestionably Alabama’s starting quarterback going forward?
• If he is, what does Hurts do now? Does he find another school or try to win back the job at Alabama?
• Had Tagovailoa not played Monday, would he be the one on transfer watch right now?
Saban didn’t answer either question the morning after the victory. “Look, we have two good quarterbacks on our team, no doubt,” Saban said. “Both of them made a great contribution to the success of the team this year. I think that we haven’t really made a decision about that. I don’t think it’s imperative that we make one right now. We’ve got two fine young men who really respect each other and have worked hard to help each other all year long. Hopefully we’ll be able to continue to do that in the future.”
Given the politics of the position and the demand for effective quarterbacks at other schools, that probably isn’t possible. Hurts has had his struggles throwing the ball against the best defenses Alabama has played the past two seasons, but he still has outperformed most of the quarterbacks in the country. Remember, this is still a guy who led his team to the fourth-quarter touchdown it absolutely needed in the national title game as a true freshman. (Unfortunately for Hurts, Deshaun Watson was the quarterback on the other sideline, and he still had time.) Hurts still has a redshirt year, and he could start for two seasons at a new school after sitting out 2018.
Plus, Hurts won even more fans with the grace with which he handled the benching on Monday. A lot of players would have sulked after getting yanked in the national title game. Hurts was the first person off the sideline to congratulate Tagovailoa on the first of his three touchdown passes. What did Hurts say? “I love you. This is what you were made for,” Hurts recalled after the win. “You were built for this. You worked for this.”
Hurts offered nary a negative word. Instead, he praised his coaches for making the switch that brought Alabama a national title. “We had 30 minutes left,” he said. “For some guys, it was the last 30 minutes of their college careers. Some guys will never play football again. For this team, it was the last 30 minutes we’d ever step on the field with each other. We stepped up, and we made plays, and we ended the game national champions.”
If I want to teach my children how to handle a disappointing situation perfectly, I’ll show them video of the interviews Hurts gave after the game. And any team would be lucky to have Hurts in the locker room. The question is what he does now.
It would make the most sense for Hurts to go through spring practice at Alabama and then make a decision then. He’ll have to sit out in the fall anyway if he transfers, so he’d have ample time to learn the playbook and win the job at his next school. Staying for spring practice would allow for a proper competition between Hurts and Tagovailoa. If Tagovailoa wins it, Hurts will face a choice. Does he go elsewhere to start? Or does he stay in Tuscaloosa, where he would only be one unlucky snap away from running the Crimson Tide offense again?
It’s not an exact parallel, but there are similarities between this and the quarterback situation at Ohio State going into 2015. Braxton Miller had missed the 2014 national title run with an injury. J.T. Barrett had filled in spectacularly for 12 games before getting injured. Cardale Jones had led the Buckeyes to wins in the Big Ten title game and the playoff. Miller wound up agreeing to become a receiver (his NFL position) before that season, and the Buckeyes toggled between Jones and Barrett in a 12–1 campaign that ultimately was a disappointment because it didn’t end with a title of any kind.
While Hurts probably could become an NFL player at another position, it’s difficult to imagine him accepting a position switch. Staying at quarterback is far more likely. So if Tagovailoa won the job, Hurts would have to choose starting elsewhere in 2019 or backing up the sophomore at Alabama. Would the Houston-area native head back to his home state and play in the Big 12? He’d fit well in the offenses at Texas and TCU. If he were to watch video of Quinton Flowers playing for Willie Taggart at South Florida, he might be intrigued by the idea of playing in that offense for Taggart at Florida State.
Had Tagovailoa not played Monday, he might have been the one seeking transfer options. He had expected to play some in the Sugar Bowl, but that playing time never materialized as the Tide defense strangled Clemson’s offense and Bama’s offense remained relatively conservative. Had Alabama stuck with Hurts against Georgia even though the offense wasn’t working, that might have been taken as a sign that Tagovailoa would have been better off elsewhere. Instead, he got a chance to show everything he could do. Alabama’s offense opened up with a devastating vertical passing game for which the Bulldogs didn’t seem prepared. And while Hurts is the superior runner, Tagovailoa showed his wheels are plenty dangerous on this incredible third-and-seven scramble that may have ultimately saved Alabama’s title chances.
Going forward, the idea of a Tagovailoa-led offense that features recruiting classmates Najee Harris (tailback), DeVonta Smith (receiver), Henry Ruggs III (receiver), Jerry Jeudy (receiver) and Alex Leatherwood (offensive tackle) seems thrilling. After Monday’s win, Tagovailoa said that group had prepared for just such a moment.
“Us freshmen, we go in with the ones sometimes,” he said. “We trade reps with the ones. We go in with the twos. And I think preparation leading up to this point has been the key thing with our offensive coaches helping us throughout the process. And just building the trust within each other, from the O-line to the receivers creating a bond with each other. I think that’s helped us build confidence coming into this game to where, if you’ve got to go in, if your number’s called, then you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to give the team the best placement—or how should I say this? To give the team the best opportunity to win the game.”
If Tagovailoa continues to play the way he did Monday, he’ll be the one who gives the Tide the best chance to win. And even though Saban would love to hang on to Hurts, Tagovailoa’s rise might mean some other program is going to be very lucky to welcome a Texas-bred quarterback with a national championship ring and an attitude we all would do well to emulate.