Nick Saban got choked up. Of all the impossible college football scenarios, this was the most impossible.
Alabama could’ve lost the SEC championship game. In fact, as the Tide went into the fourth quarter trailing by a touchdown, I started to accept the incredible unlikelihood that one of the best college football teams of all time was about to lose. But an emotional Nick Saban? That was outside the realm of possibility.
Until what happened on the field Saturday. It was a game absurd enough to draw tears from a stone:
“I’m so proud of this guy for what he’s done this year, I can’t even tell you.”— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 2, 2018
Nick Saban got emotional when speaking about the heroics of Jalen Hurts. pic.twitter.com/mmY4HfoFqD
To understand how America’s preeminent football robot nearly wept, we need to go back to January. That was the first time this Alabama team ripped Georgia’s heart out in Atlanta. After sputtering to a brutal start in the national title game with Jalen Hurts at quarterback, Saban benched the passer who had guided his team to back-to-back national championship games in favor of Tua Tagovailoa, a true freshman. Tagovailoa (alongside multiple true freshmen at wide receiver and running back) rallied Bama back from the brink, turning a 10–0 deficit into a 26–23 overtime win. It was, at the time, the most ridiculous game I’ve ever seen, and a testament to Alabama’s football machine: When Plan A failed, Alabama had a perfect Plan B composed of superstars who hadn’t even needed to receive meaningful playing time in the team’s first 14 games.
During the 2018 season, Tagovailoa turned into a dynamic superstar, a stunning talent capable of completing any pass to any player at any time. Bama won every game by at least 22 points, entering the conversation for one of the greatest teams of all time. The Tide were so good that they were favored over a great Georgia team in the SEC championship game by two touchdowns.
But Tagovailoa — who has battled a BuzzFeed listicle of leg injuries all season — was clearly hobbled, and had his worst game. He finished 10-for-25 with two interceptions — the first time he’d ever thrown multiple picks. First his right ankle got injured; then his left ankle got injured, and he needed to be carted off the field. In came Hurts, against the same opponent in the same stadium where he lost his starting job earlier this year.
Alabama had trailed 28–14, but Hurts returned to the role that was stripped from him and guided the Tide to a 35–28 victory.
Jalen Hurts using his legs and arm to get the tying TD pic.twitter.com/yRzns0MCnU— CFB Gif'er (@CFBgifer) December 2, 2018
It’s been an odd journey for Hurts. Not a lot of players who go 26–2 get benched, but then again, not a lot of players are as talented as Tagovailoa. Saban pretended that Hurts might start during the 2018 season, and Hurts publicly complained about the lack of transparency. But Saban had to start Tagovailoa. The usurpation was justified, and it was unclear what Hurts was supposed to do. Most assumed he would transfer. After all, virtually every quarterback who doesn’t get playing time does. Old people say it’s because of millennials’ entitled need for instant gratification.
But, oddly, Hurts didn’t. He stuck it out, seemingly content to be a backup. He got a few snaps here and there while Tagovailoa brought Alabama to levels of dominance even Alabama wasn’t used to.
The first amazing thing Alabama did was to have a quarterback as talented as Tagovailoa on the bench last season and still be good enough to make the national title. But perhaps more amazing was the fact that after Tagovailoa ascended, Alabama was able to keep Hurts around — and ensure that it had a player as exceptional and experienced as him to play in case Tagovailoa’s body failed him.
Saturday, that paid off. Hurts — aided by one of the most cursed fake punt decisions in recent college football memory — played like a dude who’d won game after game after game for the Tide. You know, because he is one. Hurts and Tagovailoa hugged — the most accomplished quarterback duo ever to play on the same college football team at the same time.
Hurts is now a poster boy for the concept of staying instead of transferring. (The Olds are excited.) Surely, he could’ve been some team’s starter this year. Instead, he hung around at Bama, and will probably help the team to a national championship.
But he’s also representative of the ridiculous things Alabama is capable of. Now, twice in the same year, Georgia has blown a lead to Alabama in Atlanta in a championship game after a second-half quarterback change. (Two important traits of bulldogs: They’re not good at adjusting to change, and they don’t have a ton of stamina.)
A loss for Alabama would have changed college football — this year and for posterity. Any talk of Alabama as the GOAT would’ve died. This year’s playoff picture would’ve been drastically changed, with Alabama potentially missing out. If both Georgia and Alabama were to have made the playoff, keeping three of the five power conferences on the outside looking in, there would have been pressure to change the entire system, as we wrote about the other day.
Instead, only one thing will change: the Heisman talk relating to Tua Tagovailoa. He could still win the award, but Saturday was the greatest argument that Alabama is capable of winning regardless of who’s in the game.
Never believe that Alabama is dead. Even if you were able to check the body, and it didn’t have a pulse, and you saw the coffin go in the ground, and somebody gave you a notarized copy of the death certificate, and somebody built a housing complex on top of the graveyard, and eventually climate change buried the graveyard under 3 feet of water. Alabama’s never dead, no matter how dead it seems — and no matter how badly Georgia hopes Alabama is dead, Alabama rises.
Alabama can’t die because Alabama’s not alive: It’s a machine. It has systems in place to deal with anything it encounters. If one engine shuts down, the other kicks into gear. Last year it was Hurts who needed to be taken out of operation; this year Hurts was ready to lead Alabama to the biggest win of the year.