The viability of Alabama as one of the historically great college football teams rests on the shoulders of the Crimson Tide’s sophomore southpaw, Tua Tagovailoa.
The quarterback and frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy has evoked plenty of awe — and in recent weeks some concern because of his injured right knee that has taken one hit after another.
“It’s not right people going for his leg, but it’s football,” said teammate Irv Smith Jr.
Tagovailoa’s health going forward has major implications on the College Football Playoff, whose latest set of rankings were released Tuesday with Alabama holding the top spot and Clemson, Notre Dame and Michigan positioned right behind in that order.
Alabama coach Nick Saban insists Tagovailoa is fine and a video supposedly filmed Monday showed him doing drillwork all by his lonesome in the rain as he went through the steps of an RPO play. On Tuesday, Tagovailoa was back at practice with his teammates, showing no ill effects from the cumulative wear and tear he has suffered.
Yet the anxiety about Tagovailoa’s condition is real after he turned in his worst performance to date during a 24-0 victory over Mississippi State on Tuesday. On a frigid day when he weathered four sacks and left the field following yet another shot to his weakened knee, he completed 14 of 21 attempts for 164 yards while throwing a touchdown pass and an interception.
It was a pedestrian stat line for someone who repeatedly flirted with perfection through the midway point of season. But Saban hasn’t adjusted his plan for Tagovailoa even as a matchup with FCS minnow The Citadel looms.
“To say this was not an important game or he doesn’t need to play?” Saban huffed. “I think we need to do a better job of the people playing around him, doing what they’re supposed to do so he doesn’t get hit. And he needs to do a better job of stepping up in the pocket and getting rid of the ball, which he had several opportunities to do. Some of these hits could be avoided by better execution, and I think that’s what we’re going to focus on, not trying to take a guy out of the game so he can’t improve or do what he needs to do to get better.”
It’s clear by that statement Saban is peering off into the distance with his eyes squarely on the Playoff. In turn, everyone else in college football has theirs on Tagovailoa — the star quarterback who will determine Alabama’s fortunes more than anyone else.
They know that for the Tide to maintain the top spot in the rankings and continue its climb toward becoming one of the sport’s most celebrated teams Tagovailoa must be there to lead the charge.
At this late stage of the season, his health is the only subject creating intrigue in these parts — not whether the Tide is the best college football has to offer.
That, for now, is certain.
Rainer Sabin is an Alabama beat writer for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin