On the long list of Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa's exceptional gifts, the most important item might be his knack for first impressions.
You may have heard the story of his first meaningful college snaps in front of a national audience: The true freshman took over when the Crimson Tide trailed Georgia 13–0 at halftime of the national championship game in January, then engineered one of the most memorable comebacks of all time in an eventual 26–23 win that Tagovailoa finished off with a 41-yard game-winning touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith. That was only a preview of what was to come.
This offseason, Tagovailoa won a battle with incumbent starter Jalen Hurts that dominated the months following Alabama’s national title celebration. But the reason he has become the Heisman Trophy frontrunner and college football's biggest story isn’t his video game–like numbers. (They don’t hurt: the sophomore is completing 72.5% of his passes, leads all quarterbacks with 14.3 yards per attempt, has thrown 21 touchdown passes to zero interceptions and has yet to play in the fourth quarter this season.) And it’s not only because he’s the face of the nation’s No. 1 scoring offense, which is averaging 53.6 points per game and with 50 touchdowns through seven games is within striking distance of the single-season record of 76, set in 2016.
No, the reason why Tagovailoa has become the toast of this college football season through seven weeks is those first impressions. The frightening pace at which he is leading Alabama to offensive heights few thought possible has made Nick Saban’s team, winners of five of the last nine national titles, even more intimidating.
Alabama has scored a touchdown on the opening drive of every game, and those seven possessions average 89 seconds in length. The longest was against Louisiana on Sept. 29: an eight-play, 72-yard drive spanning 3:35. On the shortest drive, Tagovailoa needed only eight seconds to find Smith for a 30-yard touchdown strike on Alabama’s first offensive play against Texas A&M. That was one of three scoring drives that took less than a minute. Tagovailoa found tight end Irv Smith Jr. for a 76-yard touchdown on the first play against Arkansas; two plays into the next week’s game against Missouri, he uncorked a play-action bomb that Jerry Jeudy ran down for an 81-yard touchdown 24 seconds after kickoff.
It's all part of a blistering first season as a starter that has hammered home to fans outside Tuscaloosa that Tagovailoa can and will do whatever he wants on the field. The only sign he has shown of slowing down came when he left the Missouri game in the third quarter and did not return after aggravating a right knee injury on a slide. Saban said Tagovailoa has not missed practice and could have continued playing if the score demanded it. As for Tagovailoa’s predecessors, they have seen enough to make their own conclusions.
“I don’t think the hype is premature,” says John Parker Wilson, who was Saban’s first quarterback at Alabama in 2007. “That was one of the narratives heading in—you got to be ready for Tua to turn it over because he’s going to throw it a lot more than we’re used to, so get ready for the interceptions and some bad decisions and him learning how to be a starter.
“But we haven’t seen that at all this year, not even close. Every ball he throws is a good decision. He’s not even throwing many incompletions. I don’t think the hype is too much, I think he’s that good of a quarterback. He’s got some good players around him, he’s spreading the ball around, and he’s extremely accurate. I think he’s got a great presence in the pocket, great anticipation, a very good feel, and the guys around him play hard for him, so I think he’s got it all, to be honest with you.”
This is uncharted territory for Saban, whose offense’s mission statement could be summarized as follows: protect the ball, get the ball to the team’s wealth of talented running backs and receivers and let the defense handle the rest. It’s why nearly every quarterback who has played for Saban has been saddled with the derogatory “game manager” label.
Tagovailoa is operating under the same rules as the players who have come before him; Saban is just playing to his unique strengths. Tagovailoa has the arm to stretch the field in ways many of his predecessors could not. And Alabama still has a bruising running game and punishing defense, making it more of a nightmare than usual.
“What’s amazing about Tua is the way he sees the field and anticipates windows in the defense,” says Greg McElroy, who led Alabama to the 2009 national championship, its first under Saban. “He sees openings in the defense before other guys do. And that is advanced. It’s just not easy to do. You have to really trust yourself, you have to trust what you’re seeing, then you have to trust your receiver to be at the spot that you’re throwing to even if it’s not there right now. If a guy is covered but becoming open, he sees the opening before he’s actually open.
“His ability to anticipate is what sets him apart.”
“All the expectations are the same and that’s the thing Coach Saban is really good at,” Wilson says. “You can’t try to do too much. Tua is just doing it really, really good right now. They’ve adapted the offense to him and his passing ability.”
This is why no one flinches at the idea that Tagovailoa has already been anointed Alabama’s greatest quarterback ever. McElroy says he’s “the most talented quarterback Alabama has had in my memory,” which obviously includes himself.
Pat Dye, the former Georgia All-America lineman and Auburn head coach, called Tagovailoa the best quarterback in SEC history on the Paul Finebaum Show last week, citing two other legendary Alabama quarterbacks as he did. “He’s as good as I’ve seen in the conference, ever,” Dye said, after Tagovailoa had just made his sixth career college start. “Somebody asked me about [Joe] Namath and [Ken] Stabler. Tua’s better than both of them.”
For as flashy as Tagovailoa has made Alabama’s offense, the essence of what it means to be the Crimson Tide quarterback hasn’t changed. It’s always been a heavily scrutinized position in the state without professional sports teams, and its significance carries no different meaning than it did in the decades before Saban.
“Around here they say the head coach at Alabama is the most important and popular person in the state, the quarterback is second and the governor is third,” says Wilson. “It’s always been like that, it really has.
“Like it or hate it, everybody looks at you. It’s easier when you’re winning.”
Alabama fans are used to holding their teams to a higher standard than anyone else. If Tagovailoa finishes this season the way he started it, capping one of the greatest statistical seasons ever with a second consecutive national championship, would that permanently wreck the curve all Tide QBs are graded on? It's a quintessentially Alabama problem, surpassing expectations fans didn't even know they had, and it's just one way Tagovailoa is changing the playing field even as the wins roll in as fast as ever.