Here's how I think Nick Saban will handle Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts in the Orange Bowl
If Tua Tagovailoa is at 100 percent and plays like it in the Orange Bowl on Saturday, he’ll make Nick Saban’s life much easier. In that scenario, Saban will only turn to Jalen Hurts in the event of a blowout in Alabama’s favor.
But obviously that’s not a guarantee.
For now, all we know is that the last time we saw Alabama play a game, Tagovailoa was taken out of the game with an ankle injury and Hurts was the star. You know, just in case you haven’t heard.
What you’ve also heard is that Saban is back to figuring out the best way to manage his quarterbacks. As in, what does he do if he has to troubleshoot? It wouldn’t be surprising if Tagovailoa came up limping at some point Saturday night.
That’s not my way of predicting someone will get hurt. But let’s be honest. Tagovailoa and the injury tent are like peanut butter and jelly at this point.
How does that impact Saban’s decision-making? Well, that depends. My thinking is that the leash on Tagovailoa will be tight. Tighter than usual (I promise that wasn’t an attempt to reference the Tagovailoa family method of punishment).
If Saban senses that Tagovailoa isn’t himself, he could get the hook. That, obviously, is extremely subjective. If Tagovailoa isn’t lighting up Oklahoma in the first half, that to me, will be a sign he’s not himself. The Sooners have the last-ranked passing defense for a reason.
So yes, if Tagovailoa has a Hurts 2017 National Championship Game first half, he could be benched. The difference is that wouldn’t be a “we don’t think you’re good enough to lead a comeback” benching like it was for Hurts. It would be a “we think 100 percent Hurts gives us a better chance to win than 80-to-85 percent Tagovailoa” or whatever he is.
Man, the postgame takes that would fly if that happened.
Saban won’t care about that, though. As he always does, he’ll care about winning a football game and worry about the ripple effect later.
But what we saw from Hurts in the SEC Championship should give Saban more confidence than ever to turn to him, regardless of what the score is. It’s no longer crazy to think that Hurts, who has clearly developed as a passer, could lead Alabama back with his arm if a banged-up Tagovailoa leads to something like a 21-3 first-half deficit.
A month ago, I never would have suggested that. Things have changed, though.
Here’s the good news. Alabama is more than capable of protecting Tagovailoa. Alabama isn’t going to want to move him around very much because Tagovailoa should be able to pick apart the horrendous Oklahoma defense without putting himself in harms way. In some ways, it’ll be like a game-plan to play a Group of 5 team.
Stop it. That’s not my way of saying Oklahoma is a Group of 5 team.
That’s my way of saying that literally every Group of 5 team in America — and Power 5 team — allows fewer passing yards per game than the Sooners and that I expect whichever Alabama quarterback is healthy to go off.
That’s the other good news. While I’m not suggesting that Mac Jones is Kyler Murray like that one Finebaum caller, I have zero doubt that either Hurts or Tagovailoa can lead Alabama to a 35-point output. Whether it’ll be enough against the Heisman winner, that remains to be seen.
This might all be wasted time spent discussing what the Alabama quarterback situation will look like on Saturday. Tagovailoa could indeed be at 100 percent and put up half a hundred in 3 quarters.
But we’ve all seen enough Alabama games in the last year to assume that it’ll be business as usual. Expect the unexpected and prepare for the event that the Crimson Tide have to change courses. That’s the school of thought that Saban utilizes better than anyone in college football.
Will he need to get creative at halftime on Saturday? Or better yet, would Saban hesitate to start Tagovailoa if he’s at less than 100 percent? He answered that question on Thursday.
“Look, I’m not really a medical expert. The medical staff makes the decision about whether a guy is capable of playing and going out there and doing his job, and then I think the player has to sort of have input on that, as well. In other words, medical staff can say he’s fine, but if the player doesn’t think he’s fine, then he’s not fine. Joe Namath used to always tell the old story about when he got his first knee operation when he was playing at Alabama, Coach Bryant told him, he said, ‘How do you feel?’ He said, ‘It really hurts’ and Coach Bryant said, ‘that’s all in your head,’ and he said, ‘it hurts just the same.’
“So if it’s in your head that you can do it or can’t do it, that goes a long way for me as a coach to know whether you think you can go do your job or not. Those decisions that we make between now and then, he’ll have input as to whether he feels like he can go out there and do his job or not.”
In other words, don’t rule out anything on Saturday. Saban isn’t.