How Tua Tagovailoa's injury could impact the SEC West, the Heisman Trophy and the Playoff
“Tua Tagovailoa is heading to the injury tent.”
Alabama fans weren’t exactly new to hearing those words said after his banged up finish to 2018. At some point last year, it became a customary thing like the coin toss. Tagovailoa battled knee and ankle injuries that pulled him out of multiple games.
But when the words “Tua Tagovailoa is heading to the injury tent” hit late Saturday night, surely it packed a different kind of punch.
Here’s what we know about Tagovailoa’s injury. For starters, it’s a high ankle sprain. And no, it’s not the same ankle that needed that “made-for-Alabama” surgery that he got ahead of the Orange Bowl last year. Tagovailoa had the same surgery Sunday morning. Nick Saban estimated that Tagovailoa will miss “a week or two.” Quick math suggested that will bring Tagovailoa back in time for the much-anticipated, Game of the Century (again) against LSU.
Oh, and Tagovailoa told teammates on Saturday night that he’ll be back for LSU. In other words, only a dramatic setback would seemingly keep Tagovailoa out of the game that could define Alabama’s season.
But even with that quick diagnosis, Tagovailoa’s ankle could have a major impact on the SEC West, the Heisman and the Playoff picture. Obviously. This is officially a storyline for the rest of the season because as we know, sprained ankles aren’t exactly a quick fix. Every time Tagovailoa rolls out of the pocket, takes a sack or even runs out of the tunnel, Alabama fans will have their fingers crossed.
So let’s discuss how that could impact a few things:
Do I still think the Heisman could come down to the battle of Joe Burrow vs. Tagovailoa? Absolutely. That’s not a guarantee. Justin Fields still has some major showcase opportunities and Jalen Hurts has yet to be stopped.
But here’s the interesting thing about Tagovailoa’s injury, regardless of how well he plays against LSU.
Burrow and those other top candidates will essentially get 1.5 more games than Tagovailoa to rack up numbers. At Tagovailoa’s level, that could easily be 7 touchdowns he won’t get. His quest for 50 touchdowns in 13 games — something that would make a loud statement to voters — took a major hit.
Burrow, on the other hand, is still in the driver’s seat to accomplish that extremely rare feat. It’s possible that Burrow and Tagovailoa can play in a shootout and a lot of people still believe the LSU quarterback is still very much worth being the top Heisman candidate.
And who’s to say that’d be wrong? If Burrow is approaching 40 touchdowns before the Alabama game and the LSU offense continues its rampage, some voters might hold the missed games against Tagovailoa.
But the other thing to remember is that while Alabama is usually quick to pull Tagovailoa when games get out of hand, they now have more of a reason than ever to do that. Any thought of padding the stats will be replaced by making sure the key to Alabama’s redemption tour is at full strength and not taking meaningless hits in blowouts. That could also mean we see a somewhat more run-heavy approach moving forward, too.
Would Alabama fans be upset if that meant Tagovailoa not putting up video game numbers in November and missing out on the Heisman? Maybe a little, but I’d bet the vast majority of them are only focused on a different trophy.
SEC West impact
Again, we think the West will be won when Alabama and LSU face off in on Nov. 9. But here’s what would worry me a bit if I’m an Alabama fan.
That Auburn game is still sitting there. I realize that the odds of Auburn beating LSU and Georgia to keep its 1-loss status alive heading into the Iron Bowl aren’t great, but there’s still at least a chance.
And let’s say Auburn does have that second loss and Alabama is still unbeaten going into the Iron Bowl. Against that all-world defensive line of Auburn’s, the last thing I’d want to be worried about is Tagovailoa’s ankle. Another tweak and that could have huge short- and long-term implications. If he’s not at 100% still, that’s an even more daunting task for the Tide.
The good news is that Alabama could theoretically already have the division won by the Iron Bowl. If LSU beats Auburn and Alabama beats LSU, it would essentially take Alabama not puking on its shoes at Mississippi State for the division to still be up for grabs heading into the Iron Bowl.
Do I think Alabama would dare rest Tagovailoa in that extremely hypothetical situation? No because even with a loss to give and an SEC Championship spot already clinched, that’s a dangerous game to play.
While I’m not saying this happens, Auburn and LSU would obviously feel much better about their chances of taking down the Tide with Mac Jones at quarterback. That’s in the event that there’s some sort of aggravation of Tagovailoa’s ankle, which as we know, is certainly possible.
Playoff/National championship mmpact
If Tagovailoa is 100% for the LSU game and looks like it, this injury will be a pebble on Alabama’s path to a national championship. This will all be for naught.
But anything less than that, and yeah, that changes things. I wouldn’t want to have to rely on 75% of Tagovailoa needing to keep pace with Ohio State or Oklahoma. It’s different than years past when Alabama has had the No. 1 defense to turn to, or an All-SEC caliber backup. While Jones is better than most SEC backups, he’s not going to spread the ball out and spread the field like Tagovailoa. Duh. Tell me something I don’t know.
Here’s something else to remember. Let’s say Alabama is back to its 2017 situation. That is, with 1 loss, out of the SEC Championship and in need of some help to make the field. If Tagovailoa isn’t at 100%, does that make Alabama a less attractive team to put in the field? Yes. Is that fair? Not necessarily, but it would definitely be taken into account if it comes to that.
Again, these are all hypotheticals. For all I know, Tagovailoa will look like the best version of himself after this injury and Alabama’s revenge tour will end with him celebrating his second national championship in 3 years.
But it’ll take a long — possibly wobbly — road to get there.