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Tua Tagovailoa’s Rise Seemed Unlikely, but It Was Part of Nick Saban’s Championship Plan

Alabama has become college football’s modern dynasty in large part because of Saban’s meticulous planning process. In the national title game against Georgia, that meant replacing an established QB with an unproven true freshman—and producing a legend as a result.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Like everything else for Alabama, the schedule scrawled on the Crimson Tide’s locker-room wall in Mercedes-Benz Stadium showed signs of precise, meticulous planning. 6:59 p.m., kickers. 7:09, specialists. 7:19, team. 8:17, Kick UGA ASS.

But things don’t always go according to plan. A more accurate schedule would’ve featured Georgia kicking Alabama’s ass for a few hours, and then called for a radical change to Bama’s offensive philosophy at about 10:30. “Score a point” would’ve come slightly after that; perhaps “kick UGA ASS” might have been slotted on the wall for sometime around midnight, when backup quarterback Tua Tagovailoa uncorked a national-title-winning 41-yard touchdown pass to fellow true freshman DeVonta Smith. That’s what actually happened in Alabama’s 26-23 overtime victory over Georgia, one of the best and wildest championships in recent memory—and certainly a much more interesting contest than the one predicted on Alabama’s wall.

Normally, things go the way that Tide head coach Nick Saban envisions them—well, everything except for field goals, unless he routinely envisions misses, and I assume he doesn’t. But his initial vision for beating Georgia proved useless, as starting quarterback Jalen Hurts and the offense were held scoreless in the first half. It seemed that Saban’s longtime assistant, second-year Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart, had outsmarted him. (Ugh.)

But then the most Alabama thing of all happened: The Tide revealed an entirely separate plan, one that was clearly thought out, practiced for, and eventually executed to perfection by some of the most talented players in college football. They were guys most people had never seen play.

No team has ever benched a quarterback by design in the middle of a national championship game in the BCS or College Football Playoff eras. Florida played two quarterbacks, Tim Tebow and Chris Leak, in the title game after the 2006 season, but the Gators had rotated between the two for months. Tebow was essentially a Wildcat QB, throwing just one pass for 1 yard in a 41-14 rout of Ohio State. Three years later, Texas went from Colt McCoy to Garrett Gilbert in the first quarter of a 37-21 loss to Alabama, but that happened only because McCoy was forced to exit with an injury. For a team to choose to bring in a second-string quarterback like Tagovailoa is unprecedented.

Like many backup QBs, Tagovailoa had long been the most popular player in the hearts and minds of folks who had only seen him play in blowouts against wildly overmatched opponents. He made one of the most beautiful passes of the season in a 59-0 shutout of Vanderbilt, but that came when Alabama was already leading by 45 points. The idea of a team that won 11 regular-season games and a playoff semifinal switching quarterbacks at halftime of the national championship game is befitting of message-board rumors or the plot of a TV show like Friday Night Lights; it’s not something that would seem to originate from the mind of a historically great and famously stubborn head coach.

But Saban understood that something needed to change against Georgia. Hurts, Alabama’s starter, is not a bad quarterback. He’s a great runner, with 855 rushing yards on the season, and rarely gets into trouble, throwing just one interception on more than 250 pass attempts. He is a safe option, which was perfectly fine for Alabama for most of this season given that the team’s near-perfect defense generally meant that the offense needed to come through with only a smidgen of production to win games.

Yet Alabama couldn’t afford to be safe after its first half against the Bulldogs. The Tide trailed 13-0, with four punts in five drives, three coming after three-and-outs. Saban felt Hurts’s inability to throw was allowing Georgia to ignore any threat of the pass and zero in on stopping the Alabama rushing attack. “With the absence of a passing game and being able to make explosive plays and being able to convert on third down, I just didn’t feel we could run the ball well,” Saban said at his postgame press conference.

Hurts went 3-for-8 for 21 yards. Here are screenshots from the All-22 tape of his three completions, with the targeted receiver circled in each.

The depths of Hurts’s targeted receivers on those three plays: 4 yards behind the line of scrimmage, 2 yards past the line of scrimmage, and 4 yards behind the line of scrimmage, respectively. The first shouldn’t even qualify as a pass—it’s a forward toss to a receiver on a jet sweep. And the third is a screen.

Hurts additionally missed on two attempted passes of more than 10 yards, and threw the ball away three times on plays in which he felt that nobody was open. Hurts’s five targets went to receivers who were a combined 20 yards downfield at the moment that Hurts released the ball.

Meanwhile, Tagovailoa’s second pass of the game was intended for a receiver who was 22 yards downfield when the QB threw the ball:

That pass fell incomplete, but the fact that Tagovailoa took the shot shows how everything changed for Bama offensively once he entered the game.

Here are two more screenshots of plays that the Tide ran with Hurts:

The Tide rarely sent receivers deep, and when they did, Hurts was not capable of throwing to them. By looking at the below screenshots, it’s easy to see how different Bama’s plays were when Tagovailoa was in the game:

Each of the four plays shown features a receiver running at least 19 yards downfield. Tagovailoa proved significantly more effective than Hurts, going 14-for-24 passing for 166 yards with three touchdowns. Sure, he threw an interception, equaling Hurts’s total for the entire season. But an element of risk was necessary since the Tide could generate offensive success only with a quarterback who possessed the ability to stretch the field.

Tagovailoa’s first touchdown cut the deficit to 13-7. His second tied the score at 20 with just under four minutes remaining in regulation. His third touchdown—the game-winner, which will live on forever in college football lore—came on a passing play the Tide call “Seattle.” In non-Bama parlance, it’s called four verticals, because it features four wide receivers running vertical routes. I don’t think that Bama ran four vertical routes combined during Hurts’s full half of quarterbacking.

This play shouldn’t work during overtime. If you watched Oklahoma’s bomb-based offense sputter in overtime of the Rose Bowl against Georgia on New Year’s Day, you know why: The field isn’t long enough to unleash deep balls, since each team begins its possession at the opposing 25-yard line. The vertically inclined Sooners were forced to play horizontally in that game, and the Bulldogs’ linebackers covered the field, sideline to sideline. But Tagovailoa got sacked for a 16-yard loss on Bama’s first snap, pushing the ball back to the 41-yard line. This allowed him to complete the longest touchdown pass in the history of college football overtime.

Tagovailoa brought Alabama back in large part because he was a threat to throw deep. Fittingly enough, his seemingly costly overtime sack gave him the opportunity to do just that once again.

The mood in Alabama’s locker room after Monday night’s victory was the typical mixture of jubilation and hater-bashing. THEY SAID WE WEREN’T SUPPOSED TO BE HERE, running back Damien Harris shouted repeatedly to anyone within earshot. It should be noted that Alabama entered the 2017 campaign as the national title favorite, and now has five championships in Saban’s dynastic tenure. But when a team wins a title, it earns the right to retroactively exaggerate victimhood for celebratory purposes.

Still, while the Tide treated their championship like a stunning turn of events, everyone in Bama’s locker room spoke about a true-freshman backup quarterback coming in and winning the biggest game of the season as if it were perfectly normal. “Tua came in and did the job,” running back Bo Scarbrough said. “That’s what quarterbacks are supposed to do.” “We all know Tua. We work with Tua all the time,” tight end Hale Hentges echoed. “He came in and made plays.”

There was no grand announcement that Tagovailoa was supplanting Hurts. He was simply in the game all of a sudden, and Alabama’s players moved on as if the personnel change were nothing significant. “We rolled out to the huddle and Tua was in the huddle,” Hentges said. “That just shows you how interchangeable [Tua and Jalen] can be.”

CFP National Championship presented by AT&T - Alabama v Georgia Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Bama knew this was an option.

“I felt like that we’ve had this in our mind that, if we were struggling offensively, that we would give Tua an opportunity, even in the last game,” Saban said. “Jalen was sick a couple days before the Clemson game, and the players really respond well to [Tua].”

Tua wasn’t the only true-freshman backup who entered the game for Bama late. Najee Harris, listed as the team’s fourth-string running back, got zero carries in the first three quarters but finished as the Tide’s leading rusher, with 64 yards, including a critical 35-yarder. Receivers Smith, Jerry Jeudy, and Henry Ruggs III were all on the bench at the beginning of the contest: Ruggs caught Tagovailoa’s first touchdown pass; Jeudy nabbed a 20-yarder to set up the touchdown that forced overtime; and Smith brought down the game-winner. Smith set a career high in receiving with the one catch, but was somehow confident enough to expect the game-winner. “I told Tua, ‘Trust me,’” Smith said later. “He nodded at me, and I saw them playing Cover-2.” Four verts + poorly executed Cover-2 = six. Check the math.

Tagovailoa, Harris, Smith, Jeudy, and Ruggs were all prized recruits in the Class of 2017. Tagovailoa was a five-star quarterback; Harris was the best running back in the country, per 247Sports’ composite rankings; Ruggs, Smith, and Jeudy were all ranked in the top five at their position. Although these five players had little on-field impact for Alabama this season, it made sense for the Tide to let Tagovailoa ride with the guys he’d developed a rapport with in practice all season. “I rep with Tua,” Jeudy said. “I know what he do. When he came in, I knew it was going to be the same thing.”

Bama’s knack for landing constellations of five-star recruits is well known at this point. On Monday, Saban unleashed a whole offense full of them in the second half of the national title game, unfatigued and unscouted. “We knew how much talent we had,” Jeudy said. “It was just a matter of time before we got to show it. We did this in high school. We came in and did the same thing. It’s nothing new. It’s just a different level.”

So much about this game was surprising: That Georgia initially stopped Alabama from doing what it wanted, that Alabama turned to its true freshman backup quarterback in the national championship, that Alabama was ready to deploy a secret squad of future superstars, that Saban had to break the glass in case of emergency. Most of all: that any of this worked.

But that’s Alabama. Everything has been meticulously planned for, even, as it turns out, total failure.