Tuscaloosa, Alabama, sits 202 miles from Atlanta, but that’s just a number. The best way to describe the distance between the two cities would be to replay the sounds I heard while standing 5 feet behind the end zone in overtime of last season’s College Football Playoff national championship game. It was second-and-26 from the Georgia 41-yard line, on a January night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, when Alabama true freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa launched a title-winning touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith. Georgia was vying for its first national title since 1980 and was playing significantly closer to its campus, so it had a major home-field advantage. Following one of the great finishes in college football history, I know that Atlanta is “30 percent of a stadium finding God wafting over the deflation of everybody else” miles from Tuscaloosa.
Tagovailoa had been subbed into the game at halftime to replace starter Jalen Hurts—an unprecedented move, the first time a quarterback had been benched on this stage for performance reasons since college football instituted a true national title game in 1999. Hurts had been ineffectual: Alabama scored zero points during the first half, with the signal-caller going 3-of-8 passing for 21 yards and completing only one attempt to a target beyond the line of scrimmage. Tagovailoa, then 19, had never seen meaningful action for the Tide before this point, just mop-up duty in the usual dose of Bama blowouts. He was joined on the field by a slew of fellow freshmen: running back Najee Harris and receivers Smith, Jerry Jeudy, and Henry Ruggs III—all former five-star recruits who hadn’t seen playing time for the majority of the season but had repped together in practice.
Led by Tagovailoa, the kids jump-started Bama’s offense. Once down 13-0, the Tide evened the game at 20 with under five minutes to go, then nearly completed a game-winning drive in the final seconds of regulation. (Alabama, as is custom, missed a key field goal.) Tagovailoa got sacked for a massive loss on the first play of Bama’s possession in overtime, but that turned out to be a blessing in disguise: The 16-yard loss put Alabama far enough from the end zone to run Four Verts. And Four Verts, folks, is a good-ass play. Tagovailoa connected with Smith for the longest touchdown in the history of college football overtime, delivering Alabama a 26-23 triumph and its 16th national title.
If Tagovailoa had ascended through Megatron’s Butthole and into heaven after throwing that pass, he would have gone down as a college football legend. He spun victory from nothing under the brightest spotlight imaginable. He and Nick Foles can take turns visiting each other in Tuscaloosa and Philly, ensuring that neither will have to buy a drink ever again.
But Tua wasn’t tractor-beamed out of college football after claiming the Zombie Georgia Dome for Alabama. He’s now locked in a quarterback battle with Hurts that won’t be resolved until the Tide take the field for their 2018 season opener Saturday night. If Tagovailoa struggles going forward, he will be remembered as a moment. If he plays like he did in Atlanta, however, he could establish himself as the best QB in college football—giving the sport’s reigning dynasty a dimension it’s never had.
NFL dynasties are defined by the quarterbacks who led them: Ask Tom Brady, Joe Montana, or Terry Bradshaw. That’s not the case at Alabama, which has ruled college football while lacking superior play at the sport’s most important position. The Tide have dominated recruiting at every other position on the depth chart. Strength-and-conditioning coach Scott Cochran has yelled muscles onto the bodies of the best athletes in the country, and Alabama has churned out dementors on defense, interchangeable hulks at running back, and offensive linemen who combine to look like this video of a hydraulic press crushing various household items.
But Bama hasn’t sought out dynamic quarterbacks. Part of this is seemingly because the Tide are consistently ahead in games under head coach Nick Saban, and when Bama is ahead it’s safer to have hulk no. 5 sprint through a hole created by a sentient hydraulic press than it is to have a quarterback risk throwing an interception. I was going to write “if you looked up ‘game manager’ in the dictionary, you’d find a picture of an Alabama quarterback” ... and then I Googled the phrase “game manager QB.” The first image result was a picture of former Tide quarterback AJ McCarron.
Bama’s current dynastic run began with Greg McElroy in 2009, and it’s hard to get more game manager than him. He had the highest Wonderlic score of any player in his draft class and became a seventh-round pick. McCarron succeeded McElroy, and then came Blake Sims, who moved to running back in the NFL and was cut by the Falcons and Buccaneers. There was Jake Coker, who once lost a quarterback battle at Florida State and later went undrafted; Cooper Bateman, who transferred to Utah; and Blake Barnett, who transferred to Arizona State, lost a quarterback competition, and transferred again to USF. Factor in Hurts, and we have covered every quarterback to start a game for Alabama during its decade of dominance. This group of players has won no major national college football awards and counts just four combined NFL starts.
Mediocre QB play is fine when you’re winning—and Bama is almost always winning. But in the rare instances when the Tide have started to lose, their quarterbacks have often been too ineffective to do anything about it. Take the program’s last four losses: Sims threw three second-half interceptions after Ohio State took the lead in the 2015 Sugar Bowl; Coker and Bateman combined for three picks after Ole Miss raced out to a big first-half lead in September 2015; Hurts went 13-of-31 passing for 131 yards in a national championship loss to Clemson in January 2017; and Hurts went 12-of-22 passing for 112 yards in last year’s Iron Bowl.
Tagovailoa is not a game manager. Even when he entered blowouts last season, he couldn’t resist attempting risky, spectacular plays that would lead many quarterbacks’ highlight reels. His second NCAA touchdown pass, against Vanderbilt last September, might have been the prettiest play of the college football season, a pirouetting escape from a sack followed by a bomb that dropped smoothly into Smith’s outstretched arms.
Tagovailoa is the most Jackie Chan quarterback I’ve ever seen: No matter how many anonymous henchmen come sprinting at him, he makes a few nimble moves to send them comically crashing into each other and then moves on to his next task.
Tua Tagovailoa has been in for like three plays and he's already my favorite college football player pic.twitter.com/FPy4PTlMNr— gifdsports (@gifdsports) January 9, 2018
And the throws. My goodness, the throws.
The question of whether Tagovailoa or Hurts will start for Bama is the biggest football-related story line of the 2018 preseason. The mystery isn’t unusual—two years ago, Saban slow-played that Hurts was his team’s best quarterback option as a true freshman—but the public squabbling about the competition has been. Hurts has been openly critical of Saban’s handling of the situation, claiming the coach falsely told press that he was considering a transfer if he were to lose the starting job. Drama like this never happens at a meticulously controlled environment like Alabama.
I think Hurts has been unfairly maligned during his time in Tuscaloosa. He rightfully won 2016 SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors as a freshman (the first Alabama quarterback ever to do so) and was better last year as a sophomore. He’s exceptional as a runner, having recorded seven 100-yard rushing games in his two seasons as a starter. Despite his limited upside as a passer, he can accurately throw to wide-open receivers; otherwise, we wouldn’t know about Calvin Ridley’s greatness. Hurts is the safe option for Alabama. On 254 passing attempts last season, he threw 17 touchdowns against just one interception. Tagovailoa threw two interceptions on 77 passes, a pick-six against Tennessee and a baffling throwaway against Georgia. Bama wants to suffocate its opponents, and Hurts won’t allow them to break the chokehold.
But Tagovailoa can accomplish so much more. Alabama could not have come back against Georgia with Hurts in the game. Hurts barely threw beyond the line of scrimmage, which allowed the Bulldogs to clue in on the few areas that Hurts could access. Tagovailoa was able to launch it deep. Forced to defend the whole field, Georgia couldn’t hold.
Tagovailoa’s national championship game was the stuff of Friday Night Lights episodes, and it was based in something sensible: A quarterback who attacks the entire field is more effective at scoring points quickly than one whose range is limited. Tua gave Alabama another element. What if Saban decides he wants that element all the time?
Saban is not a man for excess. He’s a millionaire whose greatest joy in life may be a dry, factory-produced snack cake that’s available at gas stations. He famously enjoys the Process more than the wins that come with it. Saban makes me wonder if the Galactic Empire would have beaten the Rebellion if it had devoted its ample resources to perfecting the systematic, day-to-day crushing of freedom in the galaxy instead of to building a flashy laser that blew up planets. (RUN THE DANG BALL, DARTH!) Alabama hasn’t needed a great quarterback to win, and so it’s relentlessly won without a great quarterback.
In fact, the Tide’s lack of great quarterback play has been part of what’s made the dynasty so demoralizing for everybody else in college football. Greatness can be thrilling when accomplished with flair, but thrill is risky. Alabama has refined greatness to the point where it’s boring. The Tide have won and won, and it hasn’t been particularly fun to watch.
Alabama is a tank crushing cars under its treads: powerful, methodical, unyielding. Alabama with Tagovailoa under center is a tank with a jet engine strapped to it. Starting him might not be the best idea long term, but every second of the experiment would be fascinating. We’d know that Alabama tried to be as destructive as possible instead of merely trying to win.
If Saban plays it safe and goes with Hurts, Tagovailoa will always have his Natty Night, a moment unmatched in the sport’s history. But his future is more intriguing: What if the best team in college football finally has the best quarterback in college football?