Forde-Yard Dash: Evaluating the Fallout of Tua Tagovailoa’s Injury

Tua’s brilliant college career likely came to an end on Saturday with a heartbreaking hip injury. How much heat should Nick Saban take and what does the injury mean going forward for Alabama’s playoff push? Plus, how The Dash sees the current CFP landscape.
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FIRST QUARTER 

THE TUA INJURY FALLOUT 

The injury to Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) is a heartbreaker. We’ll see whether it’s also a season breaker for the Crimson Tide. But before delving into that, how about a quick acknowledgement of his brilliant career.

If this hip dislocation and fracture end his college career, as seems virtually certain, he will leave that level with a fistful of FBS records. Among them:

Career pass efficiency: Tagovailoa checks in at 199.45, smashing the record held by former Oklahoma QB Kyler Murray at 181.3. (He could break his own record for season pass efficiency, which he set last year, but probably will not appear in enough games to do so. Jalen Hurts and Joe Burrow also could break it this season, depending on how they finish.)

Yards per attempt: Tua is at 10.88, nearly a yard more than current record holder Ryan Dinwiddie of Boise State at 9.90.

Touchdown percentage: Of Tagovailoa’s 684 pass attempts, 87 of them ended in touchdowns. That’s 12.7%, far eclipsing’s Sam Bradford’s record of 9.9%.

If he’d stayed healthy, Tua still might not have won the Heisman Trophy—not with the way Burrow is playing at LSU. After being aced out last year by Murray and having this injury, he’s had some tough luck in regard to the most celebrated individual award in football. While that’s a shame, he’s in good company on the list of great college QBs who came close but never won the Heisman over the past quarter century: Peyton Manning, Vince Young, Deshaun Watson, et. al.

Not only is he the best quarterback in Alabama history (2)—and that’s a history that includes NFL Hall of Famers Bart Starr, Joe Namath and Ken Stabler—he’s one of the best to ever play the college game. Losing him is a colossal bummer to fans of artistic, joyful quarterback play.

Now the question for Tua shifts to the impact on his draft stock. Prior to this injury, he’s been viewed as an absolute lock top-five pick, possibly No. 1. But now the injury history will become a major part of the equation.

For a guy who doesn’t run a lot and played behind some very good offensive lines, Tagovailoa has been injured often. He’s had procedures done on both ankles after major sprains. He had a bothersome knee last year as well. Now a serious hip injury that immediately had conjured up bad memories of the damage done to the football career of Bo Jackson (3).

If he’s deemed a major injury risk, that may slow the roll to pay him the kind of money franchise quarterbacks can get.

Given the dissection of top prospects during the interminable lead-up to the draft, Tua should prepare for several months under the microscope. If you thought Murray’s height and Johnny Manziel’s social life and Young’s Wonderlic score generated an endless amount of speculative hot air, this is probably going to be worse.

All injuries suck, not just the ones for star players. But the star players get the most attention and have the most to potentially lose in terms of a financial future tied to their sport, so Tua’s hip will take its place among the most-discussed body parts of 21st century college football.

DON’T BLAME NICK SABAN

A predictable brushfire of blame erupted after the injury Saturday afternoon, with almost all of it pointed squarely at Alabama coach Nick Saban (4). Why was Tua still in a game the Tide were leading 35–7? Should he have even played at all, against what figured to be an overmatched Mississippi State team? Shouldn’t Saban have taken better care of his fragile best player?

The only argument with any merit is whether Tua should have ever played. If he were gimpy coming off the LSU loss and the ankle procedure three weeks before that, sitting him for this game—or using him only in case of emergency—would have been an understandable level of caution. But by all accounts, Tua wanted to play and declared himself ready to play—and Alabama needs all the style points it can get from a College Football Playoff perspective. (More on that in a bit.)

The fact that he was in the game late in the first half with a four-touchdown lead is not a big deal. In almost all cases, starters play the entire first half before being rested. That includes games against significantly overmatched opponents, and this was a conference game. There was nothing unusual about him being on the field at that time.

Saban told CBS at halftime that the series in which he was hurt was going to be Tagovailoa’s final one for the day. They wanted him to get some reps running the two-minute offense, which is actually understandable given the catastrophic interception he threw the previous week against LSU near the end of the half. Why not try to establish some success to build confidence in that area and flush the memory of a pick that played a significant role in Alabama losing its biggest game of the year?

Fact is, every snap can be the one that ends a player’s season. This is the nature of the sport. Athletes can’t be bubble-wrapped, and competitors don’t want to be. Neither Saban nor any coach can run a team while worrying about who might get hurt and when.

PLAYOFF IMPACT 

Here is how the CFP selection committee needs to react to Tua’s injury: by not reacting. Not yet.

If Alabama was fifth last week in the committee rankings, it probably should be no worse than fifth again this week. Don’t predict a fall-off when backup Mac Jones (5) steps in. Wait and see if it does, indeed, happen.

That likely means waiting until the penultimate rankings on Dec. 3, because there probably won’t be much useful to learn from Bama’s Nov. 23 game against Western Carolina. (Also known as The Trigger Game, as the rest of the nation annually loses its mind over the powerhouse Tide scheduling a walkover against an FCS opponent that late in the season.) If Alabama beats Auburn on the road with Jones, its status as a playoff contender should be enhanced by the quality of the win. If Alabama loses, there will be no status left to consider.

(Quick thought on Auburn: some in the punditocracy have begun devaluing the Tigers for their three losses. That’s paying too much attention to record and not enough to quality of opponent. Auburn has played the most difficult schedule in the nation to date, according to the Sagarin Ratings, with a win over Oregon and losses by a total of 21 points to Florida, LSU and Georgia. The Tigers are a good team, even if they end up with four losses.)

Until the Iron Bowl is played, it would be unwise of the committee to try to predict Alabama’s level of drop-off post-Tua. Jones is no bum—he was a four-star prospect who was considered a top-10 pro-style QB in the 2017 class. He was very efficient in his one start, against overmatched Arkansas, and serviceable in relief against both Tennessee and Mississippi State.

Alabama’s hopes for a sixth straight playoff bid got a boost from strivers Baylor and Minnesota both being knocked from the unbeaten ranks. But the Tide didn’t get an Auburn victory over Georgia that would have helped, which means the Bulldogs still have a chance to effectively blockade Bama (and everyone else) from the fourth spot in the playoff by winning out and capturing the SEC championship.

With Tua, the Tide needed some playoff help. Without him, it needs help and for Mac Jones to add to the school’s recent run of amazingly good fortune with backup QBs.

FOUR FOR THE PLAYOFF

If today were Selection Sunday for the Playoff, this is how The Dash sees the landscape:

Top seed LSU (6) vs. fourth seed Georgia (7) in the Peach Bowl. (This is unlikely to happen when all is said and done, because they’re on a collision course Dec. 7 in the SEC title game. But for now, this is the matchup.)

The Tigers (10–0) sprinted out of the Alabama afterglow to a 28–0 lead on Mississippi Saturday night, then muddled their way through the rest of the game for a 58–37 victory. The LSU offense remains ridiculous, amassing more than 700 yards, with running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire continuing to assert himself as the season wears on (194 yards rushing and receiving against the Rebels). And the LSU defense remains a bit suspect, giving up 37 or more points for the fourth time this year. Ole Miss quarterback John Rhys Plumlee ran for 212 yards on the Tigers, including touchdown runs of 46 and 60 yards. Next for LSU: at home against the worst team in the SEC, Arkansas, on Saturday.

The Bulldogs (9–1) added a third quality win to the resume with their victory at Auburn, a game that got tense in the late going but one in which they never trailed. Georgia is now second nationally in scoring defense (10.5 points per game allowed) and third in rushing defense. The ‘Dogs remain achingly conservative in the passing game, illustrated by Jake Fromm ranking 60th nationally in yards per attempt (7.5). They’re likely going to have to cut loose a bit more in that area come the SEC title game. Next for Georgia: Texas A&M on Saturday, in a potential letdown spot for Kirby Smart’s team.

Second seed Ohio State (8) vs. third seed Clemson (9) in the Fiesta Bowl.

The Buckeyes (10–0) stunned America by surrendering 21 points to the worst Power 5 team in America, Rutgers. It was the most points the Scarlet Knights had scored in a Big Ten game in two years. It also didn’t matter in the slightest, as Ohio State broke the 50-point mark for the fourth time this season. Ryan Day’s team was never going to lose, and he got to play everyone but the marching band. Next for Ohio State: Penn State on Saturday, the first of two whopper games to close the regular season.

The undefeated Tigers became the first team in the nation to reach 11 wins, romping over 7–3 Wake Forest. With pretty much no one watching due to the uninspiring schedule, Clemson has predictably rounded into dominant form right on time. Since the narrow escape against North Carolina, the Tigers have scored 45 or more points in six straight games, and more than 50 in four straight. Margin of victory over the last six: 45.2 points. The Tar Heels remain the only team this season to score more than 14 against the Tigers. Next for Clemson: open date, followed by a trip to rival South Carolina.

And now a quick word about Oklahoma (10). The biggest comeback in school history, on the road and against an undefeated opponent, is a big resume enhancement for the Sooners. Enough of an enhancement, in fact, to crank up a second annual fourth-place debate with Georgia. But they also have a loss to 6–4 Kansas State, a one-point win over 6–4 Iowa State and did trail the Bears 28–3—all in the last three games.

Oklahoma now needs to root for Baylor to win its final two games and create another quality-win opportunity when the two would have a rematch in the Big 12 title game. As it is, the Sooners have many pretty good wins but nothing that qualifies as really good—unless Baylor finishes 11–2, with a pair of losses to the boys from Norman. Next up for Oklahoma: TCU at home on Saturday.

Dropped out: Minnesota.

Also considered: Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Penn State, Alabama, Minnesota, Baylor.

MORE DASH: Comeback Stories | Division Races | Texas Is Not Back