My dreams for Tua Tagovailoa kept growing in 2018. At the beginning of the year, I merely wanted the Alabama freshman to see significant playing time. By the end of the year, I told anybody who would listen that I believed he could go on to become the greatest quarterback of all time.
I’m a pretty rational guy. I’m the author of such scorching hot takes as “Hey, LeBron James and Michael Jordan are both really good” and “You know what, I’m fine with people calling Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, or Drew Brees the GOAT—they’re all great in different ways!” And yet with Tagovailoa I find myself drawn to hyperbole. I can’t help it. Everything about him is so different and so radical.
It seems fair to dream of a ridiculous future for Tagovailoa, because everything he’s done to this point has been objectively ridiculous. He received his first meaningful playing time during last season’s national championship game, subbing in for starter Jalen Hurts at halftime after Georgia shut out Alabama in the first half. Turning to an unproven true freshman QB in the national title game seems like a stunningly bad idea, but Tagovailoa rallied the Crimson Tide to 20 second-half points before winning the contest with a walk-off 41-yard touchdown pass in overtime.
Since then, Tagovailoa has reshaped college football’s reigning dynasty in his image. A program that spent a decade coasting to wins with suffocating defense and conservative offense now blows opponents to smithereens with one of the two best offenses in the nation. This Alabama team ranks among the greatest in the history of the sport, going 13-0 with an average margin of victory of 33.1 points. He’s thrown 37 touchdown passes and only four interceptions and has posted the second-best passer efficiency rating and third-best yards per attempt of all time.
In Atlanta last January, Tagovailoa changed a game—the biggest game of the year, sure, but still just one game. Over the course of this season, it seems like he’s changed the whole damn sport, revamping a program that had previously never tinkered with its formula, mainly because it didn’t need to.
Sometimes, in between deciding whether to call Tagovailoa the greatest college quarterback ever or simply the greatest college quarterback right now, I remember something: Tua Tagovailoa has still never played four full quarters of a college football game.
Tagovailoa is the best college quarterback I’ve ever seen. He treats every near-sack like he treated a 13-0 deficit in his national title game breakthrough. Yes, the odds can seem stacked against him, and yes, the choices he makes can be unusual and risky. But the bewildering decisions only he would make yield unforgettable successes only he could achieve.
Just think about the decisions Tagovailoa made on this play from Bama’s season-opening 51-14 rout of Louisville. Don’t worry about the execution. Simply focus on what Tagovailoa must have been thinking at each instant during this sequence, and you’ll realize that Tagovailoa would be strapped to the bench if he weren’t on the fast track for the Hall of Fame.
Same thing here, from a 59-0 demolition of Vanderbilt in 2017.
Tagovailoa reminds me so much of Patrick Mahomes II, the quarterback currently tearing apart the NFL with his ludicrous skill set. (Ahem: The quarterback I predicted would tear the NFL apart with his ludicrous skill set.) I haven’t seen the two compared often, but every great thing I see in Mahomes I also see in Tagovailoa. He has the effortless arm strength. He has impossible accuracy throwing into minuscule windows. He has the rare vision to see those windows—and the foresight to anticipate others opening, often throwing to covered receivers who become open mere moments after the ball goes in the air. He uses his mobility not as a tool to pick up 10 yards on the ground, but to keep plays alive and then to complete 30-yard passes. He has the uncanny ability to hit throws regardless of how fast he’s moving. He can do all of this while using a variety of arm angles—a skill that seems best suited for trick-shot videos, until he throws from an unusual angle to connect on a pass that devastates a defense. He combines a Sam Bradford interception rate with a Brett Favre mentality.
I genuinely believe that the reason Oklahoma QB Kyler Murray edged out Tagovailoa in this year’s Heisman Trophy vote is because Tagovailoa was too good. In most of Alabama’s 2018 games, it took him about five plays and two minutes to score his first touchdown. Follow-up touchdowns didn’t take much longer. Bama won its first 12 games by at least 22 points, and the Tide were typically in mop-up time by early in the second half. Tagovailoa played in the fourth quarter of only three games all season, attempting a total of eight passes. Meanwhile, Murray sometimes needed to rally his team late because Oklahoma’s garbage defense left him chasing points. Murray finished the season with more than 4,000 passing yards and 51 total touchdowns; Tagovailoa had just 3,353 yards and 42 scores. Murray was a deserving winner, but plenty of Heisman voters can be swayed by counting stats, and Tagovailoa’s three-quarters season was somewhat short on those. (To be fair: While Tagovailoa had the second-best passer efficiency rating and third-best yards per attempt of all time, Murray set the record in both of those categories this season.)
Even taking this season’s Heisman out of the equation, Tagovailoa has a chance to put together one of the greatest careers in the history of the sport. Tua won the national championship as a freshman, is the favorite to win it again as a sophomore, and should be the runaway favorite for next year’s Heisman and a potential third straight national championship as a junior, after which he’ll probably leave campus to be the no. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft. It might sound ridiculous to say, “I think this guy is gonna win three national championships, plus a Heisman, and then be the top pick in the draft,” but none of those things sounds remotely absurd with Tagovailoa. This isn’t a Finebaum caller fever dream. This is all possible, maybe even likely.
There’s just one problem with my Tua fanfic: the permanent buzzkill of real life. Tagovailoa’s impossibly perfect career hit its first snag in December’s SEC championship game, when the quarterback aggravated the ankle injury that bothered him for much of the second half of the season. Even with a bum ankle, Tagovailoa kept trying to play like he always does, and it burned him. He was still attempting daring escapes and needle-threading throws, but neither his scrambles nor his passes had the zip necessary to create classic Tua highlights. He went 10-of-25 passing with two interceptions—by far the worst outing of his Alabama career, and the first in which he threw multiple interceptions. Hurts came in to replace him and led the Tide to a dramatic 35-28 win, downing Georgia in the same stadium where Tagovailoa had replaced Hurts to down Georgia in January. Word is that Tagovailoa should be good to go for Alabama’s Orange Bowl matchup against Oklahoma (and Murray) in the College Football Playoff semifinal, but who knows; head coach Nick Saban’s injury reports can be misleading.
After Tagovailoa’s first setback, I began rewriting the career summary I had prewritten for him. Maybe instead of racking up national championships, Tagovailoa should just sit out his junior season entirely. He’d be the presumptive no. 1 pick in the 2020 draft regardless—why risk injury? Over the past 12 months, he’s evolved from being Alabama’s best-kept secret to being the best player in college football to being on a path that could lead him to leave Tuscaloosa as the greatest college football player of all time. But Tua remains a 20-year-old kid with arms and legs that can falter. Nothing about his future is promised—not even his next game.
I’m done imagining what Tagovailoa could have done in the fourth quarters he didn’t play, or crafting elaborate scenarios about where his career could go. That seemed essential when he was a backup with a wow-filled high school mixtape and a few “did that really happen?” moments in garbage time, but now he’s the best player for the best team in college football. In real life, right in front of us, a left-handed Hawaiian leapt off the bench to win the most thrilling championship game of the College Football Playoff era, then molded old-school Alabama into a futuristic points machine. This will go down as the Year of Tua, no matter what happens in this year’s playoff.
There is only one thing better than dreaming about Tagovailoa’s limitless possibilities: enjoying the stunning reality he has already created.