ORLANDO, Fla. — Let’s get the obvious thing out of the way.
When University of Alabama junior quarterback Tua Tagovailoa went down with a hip injury last month, it affected coordinator Steve Sarkisian as much as anyone. Not only did he lose the star player the offense was built around, but his relationship with the family goes back years to when he was coaching at Southern California.
“We're all hurt for him,” he said.
“The odd part is, and Coach Saban had mentioned this even right after he got hurt, when I reached out to him after the game, it felt like he was picking me up and that's just him. He's so positive. He's so upbeat. And that's how he's been throughout his rehab now … Whatever his future holds for him, this guy's going to be successful in life. And I think, as coaches, that's all you can ask for."
Well, as a coach he’d obviously like to have Tagovailoa (hip) in uniform with the Crimson Tide when it plays in the Citrus Bowl, only that’s not going to happen. The quarterback is traveling with the team this week while doing rehab and continuing to ponder whether to declare himself eligible for the 2020 NFL Draft.
In the meantime, Sarkisian’s goal has been to keep the offense running efficiently and with as little change as possible under redshirt sophomore quarterback Mac Jones. Granted, there have been some alterations to better fit his skillset, and running back Najee Harris saw the ball a little more down the stretch, but even Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown noted that Alabama’s offense has essentially stayed the same.
“He's translated the practice to the game, built his own confidence and then, in turn, that's built the confidence in his teammates in him as well,” Sarkisian said about Jones, who has already passed for 1,000 yards and earlier this week called this “my team.”
Even without Tagovailoa, Alabama hasn’t lost its offensive identity, and remains extremely dangerous. It still has Harris. It has everyone on the offensive line, and the only draft-bound players who decided not to play against Michigan on Wednesday (noon CT, ABC) are all on the defensive side.
So outside of Tagovailoa, the Wolverines are getting the full Alabama passing armada, from 2018 Biletnikoff winner Jerry Jeudy down to tight end Miller Forristall, who has returned from midseason throat surgery.
It still includes speedsters Henry Ruggs III and Jaylen Waddle, plus the one who led the group and was named a team co-captain, DeVonta Smith (65 catches, 1,200 yards and 13 touchdowns).
Brown called the receivers group one of the best he’s ever seen.
“We're going to try and just play, not only for us but for everybody,” Smith said. “We're one of the smaller receiver groups and we always try to be physical and try to play bigger than what we are. So I just feel like just the will to want to do it.”
Consequently, there’s a good chance that this matchup will be the key to which team prevails at Camping World Stadium. Even though the Wolverines got torched by Ohio State, 56-27, Michigan comes in ranked seventh nationally in total defense.
It’s also a defense that’s a little different than what Alabama’s seen this season in terms of scheme, with a secondary that both regularly changes its coverages and employs both zone and man matchups.
"They can switch it up,” Smith said. “They can be physical. They can be patient and adjust in the things that they do. They switch it up, keep you guessing, and have you just wondering, like, ‘OK, what is he going to do this time?’"
The releases for the wide receivers, and getting off the line will be vital so the timing of routes won’t be significantly altered. However, it also falls on the quarterback to make the appropriate reads and adjustments.
Alabama is second in the nation, scoring 48.3 points per game, and still posted 45 at Auburn it’s last time out – while giving up two touchdowns on pick-six interceptions.
It’s had a month to correct some of those issues, while Tagovailoa is still on crutches following hip surgery.
“I would like to coach him forever,” Sarkisian said.