Welcome to the Tua Tagovailoa version of Alabama: A college football super team
ORLANDO — This offseason, I didn’t believe what Trent Dilfer told me.
Sure, I trusted his opinion as someone who had watched Tua Tagovailoa closely at Elite 11 Camp a couple years ago, and not just as someone who tuned into the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship. Dilfer had seen no shortage of talented quarterbacks, and it didn’t take long to find out that he thought Tagovailoa was more talented than all of them. It was high praise, though not shocking to hear him say that.
What stopped me in my tracks was when he talked about how good Alabama could be with Tagovailoa as its starter.
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“I think Tua could go through his college career and never lose a game … I honestly could envision an Alabama team that beats everybody 50-3 with Tua as the quarterback,” Dilfer said on the SDS Podcast earlier this year.
Technically, Dilfer is already wrong. Alabama allowed 14 points to Louisville at Camping World Stadium in Orlando on Saturday night.
But as for the 50-spot? Yeah, Alabama hit that with ease after Tagovailoa got his first college start.
That’s right. He was a preseason Heisman Trophy favorite and a national championship hero before Saturday, but now he can check “start a college game” off his career bucket list.
The Tide found out that Tagovailoa was the starter at the pregame walkthrough at the team hotel at approximately 4:25 p.m. ET on Saturday, according to Alabama center Ross Pierschbacher. DeVonta Smith said he didn’t know who the starter was until Alabama took the field around 8:10 p.m. ET. Nick Saban said he told Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts what the plan was going to be sometime before practice on Thursday.
By approximately 8:25 p.m. on Saturday, it was clear that Tagovailoa had picked up where he left off. Doing his best Steve Young imitation, Tagovailoa shook off an untouched rusher, spun around and with another Louisville defender closing in, he stepped into a throw that somehow found the hands of Jerry Jeudy in the corner of the end zone for Alabama’s first touchdown of the year.
By approximately 9:25 p.m. ET, there seemed to be a growing feeling. With Tagovailoa at quarterback, Alabama has “super team” written all over it.
Nobody in the Alabama locker room would ever accept such an association, especially not Saban. Lord knows he wasn’t pleased following Saturday’s performance. ESPN reporter Maria Taylor found that out the hard way.
Saban’s frustrated attitude, as he explained in the postgame press conference, was because he watched his team commit 10 penalties for 111 yards. Alabama’s errors were mental.
Super teams are not immune to mental errors. A super team is having an abundance of talent that makes it seem borderline unfair that it’s allowed to exist.
Alabama is borderline unfair with Tagovailoa on the field, no matter how much Saban and Alabama players try and make Hurts and Tagovailoa sound like the same person.
“No matter who the quarterback is, we all have chemistry,” Smith said. “No matter who it is, we rollin.”
Oh, really? I don’t buy that Smith, who never had multiple catches in a game with Hurts starting every game of 2017, felt he and Hurts had as much chemistry as he and Tagovailoa. By the way, Smith led Alabama with 4 catches for 99 yards in Tagovailoa’s debut as a starter Saturday.
But he and Alabama players insisted that all things were equal with Hurts and Tagovailoa.
“No, it’s nothing different,” Smith claimed. “Both quarterbacks get in there and do what the other one do.”
It’d be fun to live in a world in which Alabama players could speak freely about the quarterback situation, or if either Hurts or Tagovailoa could speak to the media after a regular season game. But that’s a different subject for a different time.
If they won’t say it, I will. Clearly, Alabama is a different kind of scary with Tagovailoa under center.
Hurts did air it out during his limited action, though he wasn’t in sync with Jeudy and he got a questionable pass interference call on a ball he threw into double coverage. Plays like the one Tagovailoa made to Jeudy, or the perfectly-thrown deep ball to emerging freshman Jaylen Waddle are why we can’t stop talking about the sophomore southpaw.
“(On the first touchdown) It was pretty amazing to be able to move in the pocket that way and still keep your eyes downfield and throw the ball … he’s capable of making those types of plays,” Saban said. “Some guys when they start to scramble, their eyes go down. They can’t see downfield anymore so they’re stuck throwing ….”
Not to put words in Saban’s mouth, but it felt like he stopped himself from saying “here’s what Tagovailoa does well and here’s what Hurts still doesn’t do well.”
Anybody who watched an Alabama game last year could tell you that’s where Hurts struggles and where Tagovailoa thrives. Instead of maybe scrambling and picking up 7-8 yards like Hurts, Tagovailoa can make a highlight-reel throw for 6 … and he can still run every bit as well as Hurts.
Saban insists that he’ll continue to feature both of them. The plan for Saturday night was to have Tagovailoa get the first 20 plays and then to bring in Hurts, regardless of what played out. By the time Tagovailoa gave way to Hurts, Alabama was up 21-0.
Get used to that.
Saban isn’t going to pay attention to the new redshirt rule with Hurts, who clearly isn’t just going to sit out after appearing in 4 games this year. Maybe Saban just wants to play Hurts so that he won’t transfer, or perhaps just for the sake of his own health.
Tagovailoa is unbelievably talented, but plays like the sack he took before 2nd-and-26 and the ground-caused fumble he had Saturday night were examples of where he can grow. Saban wants Tagovailoa to do a better job of keeping 2 hands on the ball in the pocket. Those are correctable mistakes.
But combined with the 3-headed rushing attack of Josh Jacobs, Damien Harris and Najee Harris, Alabama’s ability to stretch the field in the passing game obviously adds a new element. Five titles in 9 years doesn’t suggest Alabama needs it.
Does this already look like Alabama’s most versatile offense in recent memory?
“I’d say so, yeah,” Pierschbacher said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do with communications, but the upside is tremendous with our offense.”
In the first game without Calvin Ridley, 8 Alabama players had catches. That was after a year in which Ridley was the only Alabama player who averaged more than a reception per game. Keep in mind that Tagovailoa only attempted 16 passes with the Tide up big all night.
Obviously there will be tougher tests than Louisville. Road trips to LSU and games against the likes of Mississippi State and Auburn will push Alabama’s offense in ways the Louisville’s defense didn’t come anywhere close to.
But it’s hard not to feel like Alabama’s “weaknesses” will get turned around in a hurry. A young secondary has the best defensive backs coach in the planet to get it turned around. The team that struggled with discipline has the ultimate disciplinarian coach to fix that.
Combine that with the potential of Tagovailoa, and that 9:25 p.m. ET feeling resurfaces. Alabama is a super team, capable of somehow playing at a level that’s even higher than anything we’ve seen in the Saban era.
Well, perhaps I should chill on the “super team” talk.
At least until Alabama finds the Tagovailoa of kickers.