First and 10: Put Tua Tagovailoa in bubble wrap this week, or risk putting Alabama's title hopes on ice
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
In the spirit of the SEC’s annual November cupcake fest, it’s time to take a long, hard look at the most important story of the college football season.
Tua Tagovailoa’s balky right knee.
Alabama is one hit from the entire season going in the tank because of the uncertainty surrounding Tagovailoa’s right knee. Knowing this, why in the world would Tide coach Nick Saban play Tagovailoa this week against FCS Citadel?
Why would Tide Saban, the man who seemingly makes every right move, take such a huge risk Saturday with zero reward? It’s absolutely reckless to do so — with so much there for the taking — for all of 20 snaps (one quarter = 20 snaps).
I don’t care if Tua himself walks into Saban’s office and demands to play, passionately protesting that he’s 100 percent healthy and needs the reps to stay sharp. The response is straightforward: No chance in hell, young man.
Everyone is hurt now. It’s a long season and guys get banged up and play with pain every single week. Not everyone is the key to Alabama’s season, especially with the status of No. 2 quarterback Jalen Hurts in limbo (more on that later).
Not every player makes the Alabama offense the indefensible. Not every player makes everyone around him look and play better.
All it takes is one snap to change everything – one snap for a player who clearly has had problems with stability in his knee for the last month. He’s wearing a brace, people. How much more proof do we need?
Quarterbacks don’t wear knee braces unless there’s a stability issue or the potential for one. Dual-threat quarterbacks absolutely don’t.
Alabama announced during last weekend’s game against Mississippi State that Tagovailoa had a right quadriceps injury, and that’s why he didn’t play in the fourth quarter.
Watch the replay. The helmet of Mississippi State cornerback Cameron Danztler hits Tagovailoa on and just above the right knee. If you think Tagovailoa has a right quad injury, I’ve got some fantastic beach property in Siberia to sell you.
Two series before the “quad injury,” Tagovailoa was sacked and pulled down around the legs. He got up, and was clearly in pain while walking gingerly on his right leg (I won’t say knee because, heaven knows, someone in Crimson will scream quad, hamstring, calf or ankle).
The next play he threw his second interception of the season, and looked as though he had problems pushing off to make the throw. Even CBS analyst Gary Danielson, a former NFL quarterback and a guy who would know about the mechanics of the position and the injury, said as much.
After the interception, Tagovailoa jogged to the sideline with a hitch. That clearly wasn’t a “quadriceps” injury. That was a quarterback whose knee is hurt.
Here’s the rub: How long before Tagovailoa’s hurt knee becomes injured? If it’s a stability issue, rest (and/or surgery) is the only thing that will heal it.
So sit Tua and allow him to recover a week before the annual Iron Bowl against Auburn and its aggressive front seven. Third-string quarterback Mac Jones could turn and hand off every play, and the Tide would still name the score.
Shoot, maybe Jones can get 20 or so throws in, too, because you never know when something might happen. Something that was never expected.
Something that could cost Alabama the SEC and College Football Playoff championships.
2. The backup plan
We know Tagovailoa isn’t right. A dangerous news flash no one at Alabama is telling you: Backup Jalen Hurts isn’t right, either.
Alabama initially said Hurts sustained a “sprained ankle” in the win over Tennessee last month. The “sprained ankle” then required “minor surgery” to repair damage.
Then we saw the LSU pregame video of Hurts with quarterbacks coach Dan Enos, where Hurts is seen lightly running – in what can only be described as barely shuffling his feet – north and south. No directional cuts, no sudden movements.
This is not the rehab of a healthy ankle.
One SEC trainer told me if Hurts had “minor surgery,” it’s likely a high ankle sprain, or a variation of it. The surgery, he said, would “allow the joint to stabilize so the injured ligaments could heal faster.”
On Nov. 5, Jalen’s older brother Averion Hurts, tweeted, “There is no such thing as a minor surgery. Lil bro can’t even move around like he want to.”
Jalen, who stays off social media for almost all things football and has tweeted only 10 times since the start of the season – responded to his brother’s tweet with, “God’s Timing Brotha.”
Tagovailoa is hurt. Hurts is injured.
Why in the world would Saban play Tagovailoa for one lousy snap against Citadel?
Play Mac Jones and be done with it.
3. Managing the position, The Epilogue
For weeks the question has been tossed around with little tangible response: Who can beat Alabama?
Now we know: quarterback injuries. Plural.
We all thought when the season began that Saban’s management of the quarterbacks would be critical to the Tide’s success. Little did we know it would be more about pain management than Xs and Os.
These two quarterbacks are not getting better. One is hurt, one is injured and both are an awkward move, or a quick spin away from a rush, or an unintentional hit, from something much worse developing. It’s the nature of playing this game.
It’s just that once you are hurt or injured – and haven’t had a full offseason to recover — the odds of it happening again significantly increase.
Don’t be shocked if both Tagovailoa and Hurts play in the postseason (including the SEC Championship Game) because one or both can’t play because of injury.
4. The scheduling debate
The question is simple: Why would the SEC play only eight conference games when three of the other Power 5 conferences are playing nine — and compound that issue with its refusal to eliminate nonconference games against FCS schools?
The SEC’s answer is next level simple: Why change when you don’t have to?
So as we hit another annual mid-November tradition of the league’s heavyweights playing lightweights (see: Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Florida, Georgia), I’m here to explain why it happens. And why it will never change unless one of these FCS games costs an SEC team a shot at qualifying for the College Football Playoff.
The SEC factor
The bloviating: Coaches claim no other conference has a degree of difficulty like the SEC.
The truth: The SEC, top to bottom, is a more significant lift than the other Power 5 conferences. That, however, doesn’t change the reality that three other Power 5 conferences must play a ninth conference games against teams that know their personnel and schemes better than a random FCS (or Group of 5) team.
The money factor
The bloviating: The SEC is a generous soul, wanting only to strengthen its friends at the FCS level by doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars for them to come and take their ass-kicking. The FCS schools, therefore, benefit more than the SEC schools.
The truth: I’m all for strengthening the lower division, but why can’t it be done with a percentage of the CFP television revenue? It’s not the SEC’s job to keep FCS programs afloat. It’s the SEC’s job to provide quality games for families that spend thousands of dollars on fall weekends to attend games.
The coaching factor
The bloviating: Playing in the SEC is so hard, the teams need a breather and coaches need the win. An FCS win can, at times, be the difference between qualifying for the postseason and gaining 15 valuable extra practices, or packing it up early.
The truth: If you’re just sliding by with six wins and reaching the postseason, you’re not going to be coaching long in the SEC, anyway.
5. The Weekly Five
Five games against the spread
- Arkansas (+19.5) at Mississippi State
- Missouri at Tennessee (+5.5)
- Middle Tennessee (+14) at Kentucky
- Ole Miss (+2.5) at Vanderbilt
- UAB (+15) at Texas A&M
Last week: 2-2-1
6. Big Orange turnaround
It wasn’t so long ago that someone was telling you Tennessee might not win an SEC game until the 2019 season.
Yeah, I’m an idiot.
Look at the Vols now: Not only could Tennessee win its final two games of the season against Missouri and at Vanderbilt, the Vols could conceivably win eight games this season.
Eight games. That’s remarkable considering where this program was less than two months ago.
“Saturday was the most complete game we’ve played all season,” Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt said.
Beating Kentucky gave Tennessee its second win this season against a ranked team (Auburn), and set up the possibility of Tennessee doing what it always used to do under former coach Phil Fulmer: own November.
Only this time, winning out would be huge for future growth – if for no other reason than the extra 15 practices during bowl season. Back in September, Tennessee began the Florida game with this dubious stretch in its first seven possessions: fumble, interception, downs, field goal, safety, fumble, fumble.
Against Kentucky, Vols QB Jarrett Guarantano set the school record for consecutive passes without an interception, continuing an impressive stretch of games over six weeks where he hasn’t thrown an interception since the Florida game.
Since being replaced in the second half of the Florida debacle, Guarantano has completed 66 percent of his passes for 9 TDs and 0 INTs in his past 146 attempts.
Tennessee is 3-3 since the Florida loss, and blew a 12-point lead on South Carolina or it already would be bowl eligible – and heading toward a winning record in the SEC.
That turnaround alone should lead to Pruitt earning some votes for Coach of the Year.
It’s only going to get better for Guarantano, who’s playing with more confidence every week and gets two struggling pass defenses – Missouri (13th in the SEC) and Vanderbilt (ninth) – to finish the regular season.
7. The race to bowl eligibility
If only the big, bad NCAA had allowed Ole Miss to participate in this year’s postseason, the round-robin of games over the next two weeks between teams trying to get bowl eligible would add some heft to an increasingly boring league schedule (thanks, Alabama and Georgia).
As it is, Missouri, Tennessee and Vanderbilt began the round-robin of games last weekend with the Tigers’ 33-28 win over Vandy. Missouri clinched its spot in the postseason.
Vanderbilt, after losing to Missouri, must beat Ole Miss and Tennessee at home to get bowl eligible. Tennessee needs a win over Missouri or at Vandy to reach the postseason.
There’s a scenario where the SEC could have 12 bowl eligible teams, and it’s not that far-fetched.
- Vanderbilt wins out
- Tennessee beats Missouri.
- South Carolina wins once (Chattanooga, at Clemson, Akron).
That scenario would leave the entire SEC East bowl eligible, and Ole Miss (NCAA sanctions) and Arkansas staying home for the postseason.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: I can’t believe Feleipe Franks would be so disrespectful to the fans that pay to see him play. Who does he think he is telling us to be quiet? Maybe if he worried less about booing and more about not turning the darn ball over, maybe he would be a better quarterback! I don’t see him lasting with the Gators. Do you?
Janice: Franks’ antics underscore an overlooked reality: The constant criticism hasn’t crushed him like it has many others across the nation in his situation year after year.
Any intermediate throw is an adventure, and any deep throw is a 50-50 ball. He’s not Tua Tagovailoa – but he’s not Treon Harris, either. Until Florida coach Dan Mullen recruits or develops (see Emory Jones) someone who can make those throws, Franks is your quarterback, for better or worse.
But remember, he’s still a young player. Still learning the game, and still learning the nuances of the position (on and off the field). He’s clearly a fiery guy, and most fans love those fiery guys if they can make throws that can win games.
Until Franks can consistently (or even occasionally) make those intermediate throws, he’s going to hear it from fans. It’s just the reality of the position.
Bright side for you and many other – how do I say spoiled without saying spoiled? – Florida fans: Maybe your booing is motivating him.
9. Numbers game
10. Unless something unusual happens, Arkansas is staring at a 2018 season that produces the first double-digit loss season in school history. The 2013 team, Bret Beilema’s first team, set the school record for losses in a season with 9. This Hogs team, unless it wins on the road against Mississippi State this week or Missouri next week, will set the record with 10 losses.
Quote to note
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn on Georgia’s fake field goal with three minutes to play, and up 27-10: “They coach their team and we coach ours. I don’t have any comment on that.”