There's Nothing to Second-Guess; Nick Saban and Tua Tagovailoa Were Trying to Win Game, Title

Alabama Athletics
Christopher Walsh

STARKVILLE, Miss. — Alabama did play "Rammer Jammer" at Davis Wade Stadium. But no one felt like celebrating Saturday afternoon.

There were no smiles as the Crimson Tide walked off the field and headed back to Tuscaloosa. Junior running back Najee Harris could barely talk to reporters, he was so upset. Somewhere in the air Tua Tagovailoa was in a helicopter being flow to Birmingham, and the realization that the junior quarterback might have played his last game at Alabama was beginning to sink in.

“It was just kind of a freak thing that you seldom see,” Nick Saban said afterward. “I don’t really have anything else to say about that. We will go from there.”

Saban’s going to take a lot of flack from critics and second-guessers about both starting Tagovailoa at Mississippi State and still having him in the game when the score was 35-7. 

He shouldn’t. 

It was still the first half, and the hip injury had nothing to do with his previous issues including the high-ankle sprain that led to surgery on Oct. 20.

If anything, Saban was trying to avoid the problem Tagovailoa had during the first half of last week’s game against LSU, when he had two turnovers due to rust. He hadn’t practiced much this past week and probably wouldn’t get much playing time next week against Western Carolina, either.

Besides, this wasn’t just a take-care-of-business game for Alabama, which is still very much alive in the national championship chase. Following last week’s 46-41 loss to LSU it had dropped out of the top four in the College Football Playoff rankings.

It needed a win, a big one if possible, to send a message to the selection committee to hold its spot for the semifinals.

That was the intent at least.

“We wanted to come out show that what happened in the last game isn’t who we are,” junior wide receiver Jerry Jeudy said.

Tagovailoa led that effort and set the tone by starting. He was struggling to move around earlier this week and no one would have given it a second thought had he decided to sit this one out.

Instead, Tagovailoa completed his first nine passes as Alabama jumped out to a 28-7 lead. His first miss was on a deep ball to Jeudy in the second quarter, but the Crimson Tide still scored on the possession.

The offense was clicking. Minus one possession, the defense was as well.

“It was very important, we emphasized it all week,” said senior linebacker Anfernee Jennings. “We wanted to come out and have a dominant performance. We took a step in the right direction.”

Things were going so well that Alabama couldn’t even trip itself up.

Late in the first quarter the Crimson Tide had a possession that could have—and probably should have been—disastrous.

Jeudy had a touchdown nullified by a face-mask penalty off a stiff-arm. Redshirt junior center Landon Dickerson was subsequently called for a personal foul giving Alabama second-and-28 at the Bulldogs’ 37.

If that wasn’t enough, a short pass to junior receiver DeVonta Smith hit the ground as a red-zone fumble had to be recovered by junior wide receiver Henry Ruggs III.

On paper it went down as a 10-play, 70-yard touchdown drive with Harris running in a 5-yard touchdown.

The confidence was back.

And then it vanished.

The coaching staff wanted Tagovailoa to get some 2-minute work in and then call it a day.

Instead, everyone’s left hoping for the best-case scenarios.

For Tagovailoa, no one knows what that is yet. For the team, though, there are still two games remaining plus the postseason.

“We try and keep going no matter who goes down,” junior safety Xavier McKinney said.

It’s much easier said than done.