How will we remember Tua Tagovailoa at Alabama? Some thoughts on a unique legacy that could be in the books
Let’s start with a story.
Tua Tagovailoa’s first career start was roughly 10 miles from where I live just north of downtown Orlando. Like the rest of the college football world, I was fired up to see what Tagovailoa was going to do for an encore. After 2nd-and-26 combined with an offseason quarterback battle with Jalen Hurts, I was ready for the Tagovailoa era to begin.
After witnessing Tagovailoa shred apart Louisville’s woeful defense all night, I had a thought that I shared with a few people. It was based on his scrambling ability to make plays like his first touchdown pass, his ability to drop deep balls into his receivers’ hands like a pillow from the heavens and well, his obvious knack for the big-time moment (more related to 2nd-and-26 than a Week 1 game against Louisville).
I said after that game, “I think I’m gonna tell my grandkids one day that I witnessed Tua Tagovailoa’s first college start.”
Did I get ahead of my skis? Perhaps. After all, I was just a 28-year old married guy without kids. Who was I to start talking grandkids?
Oh, and I might’ve gotten a bit ahead of my skis on trying to predict Tagovailoa’s legacy after a Week 1 game against Louisville.
After Saturday’s loss to LSU in which Tagovailoa had a less-than-perfect but still prolific performance on his surgically repaired ankle, Alabama’s path to a Playoff looks narrow at best. As it stands, it might take some 2007-level craziness for the Crimson Tide to make the field. (Don’t come at me with a take about 2017. That team had 3 wins against ranked foes and the field was different because there were 2 Power 5 conference champions with multiple losses.)
So while nothing is guaranteed yet, let’s talk about Tagovailoa’s legacy. If there’s not a Playoff game in Alabama’s near future and Tagovailoa is heading to the NFL Draft at season’s end — that’s the most likely scenario at this point — there’s not a ton that can change how we’ll remember him as a college player.
He’ll have won a national championship in historic fashion, albeit not as the game’s starter. Still, he’ll forever be synonymous with one of the great plays in college football history. It’d be hard to argue against it as the greatest play in Alabama history. Had that been the final play of Tagovailoa’s career, his legacy at Alabama is pretty easy to define.
Greatest quarterback in program history, perhaps the greatest player in program history and certainly he’d be on the Mount Rushmore of SEC quarterbacks. He might still be all of those things even if this season ends with him playing sparingly down the stretch and sitting out a New Year’s 6 Bowl (I’m not saying that’ll happen. I’m just pointing out the most realistic anticlimactic ending to his career.)
For now, let’s talk specifically about his Alabama legacy.
Barring a miracle, Tagovailoa will finish his career with fewer rings than AJ McCarron. Some will use that as a knock against Tagovailoa. Others (like myself), would point to the fact that McCarron played on Alabama teams that relied more on the running game and had better defenses. And while history sort of overlooks McCarron’s efficiency and clutch throws because of how dominant Alabama’s running game was, Tagovailoa was clearly the better quarterback.
Tagovailoa won’t own every Alabama passing record because he only started 2 years compared to McCarron’s 3 — Tagovailoa would need to average 359 total yards in Alabama’s last 4 games to beat McCarron’s mark for career yards — but the numbers bear out who the more productive player was.
As it stands, Tagovailoa has Alabama’s:
- Career TD record (94 and counting)
- Career record in yards per game
- Single-season mark for TDs (43)
- He needs 15 to break is own record
- 4 more this year would move him ahead of Jalen Hurts for No. 2 behind himself
- Most accurate passer in program history
- Single-game record with 6 TDs
Again, that’s pretty impressive for someone who has less than 2 full seasons of starts. He’ll finish his career all over the Alabama record books as its most productive, efficient quarterback ever. That’s not in question.
But what about in all of college football? Barring something drastic happening down the stretch, he won’t have had the triple crown single season like Cam Newton did in 2010 (Heisman, SEC Championship, national championship), nor will he have the career numbers of a Tim Tebow or a Baker Mayfield, both of whom were 3-year starters. The national championship moment and efficiency puts Tagovailoa ahead of a fellow 2-year starter like Johnny Manziel, despite the fact that the latter has the Heisman.
What I think is fascinating to think about is what Tagovailoa’s career numbers would have looked like had he been given the opportunity to be a 4-year starter like Aaron Murray. Tagovailoa only has 36 fewer touchdown passes than Murray — the SEC’s all-time leader in that department — despite the fact that Tagovailoa played in 21 fewer games than Murray. And Tagovailoa only has 23 starts compared to Murray’s 52.
The game is certainly different than it was 20 years ago when someone like Peyton Manning was carving up defenses. Still, it’s incredible to think that Tagovailoa needs just 5 more touchdown passes to surpass Manning, who was a 4-year starter at Tennessee (he played in 45 games).
Maybe looking back to compare Tagovailoa to the great college quarterbacks won’t be what defines his legacy. Perhaps the better way of breaking it down is looking at how close his successor comes to matching his productivity. That’s not just a numbers thing, either.
Lost in the shuffle of LSU’s coronation over the weekend was the fact that Saturday marked just the second time that Alabama lost a game in which Tagovailoa started. That’s with a running game and a defense that’s looked much more mortal the last couple seasons than it did when Saban’s decade of dominance began. Alabama’s losses with Tagovailoa as the starter came in games in which the defense surrendered 44 and 46 points. How much will that be brought up when people look back on his career? I don’t know.
What I do know is that if there are somehow Alabama fans pushing him out the door, they’re out of their minds. He’s a once-in-a-generation player who probably had the highest bar to reach of any player before their first start in college football history. That’s what happens when you lead a comeback victory that’s capped with walk-off touchdown pass to win the national championship.
For some, it won’t matter than Tagovailoa led the most prolific offense in program history. Some won’t let his separate ankle injuries serve as an excuse as to why he suffered those 2 losses. For others, they’ll look at the entire body of work and label him as one of the great college football players of the 21st century. They’ll see a guy who won a national title, put up absurd numbers and left Alabama as a top draft pick.
Whatever the case, it’ll be an interesting discussion for college football fans to have over the course of the next decade. Tagovailoa’s legacy is as unique as any I can remember. There’s still a chance that one day I’ll tell my grandkids about witnessing his first career start at Alabama.
An even better bet? Tagovailoa is forever considered one of the great quarterbacks in college football history.